What is so seductive about the book fair in Calcutta? The passions it excited in artistic and intellectual minds — and business brains — when the court directed that its venue should be moved from the Calcutta Maidan was a good indicator of its mysteriously sizzling quality. This year, the mayor of Calcutta, Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharyya, seems eager that the Calcutta Municipal Corporation should be seen as joint organizer with the Publishers’ and Booksellers’ Guild. The mayor has already made that announcement, although chief bosses of the guild have said they know nothing about joint organization. The situation is slightly ridiculous, with neither side being particularly forthcoming. The guild has always held on fiercely to its position as sole organizer, spoilt rotten by the concessions it has received for the book fair through the benign patronage of the chief minister. The organization is not known to have paid the corporation or any other institution anything noticeable for fairs it has held year after year on grounds not its own. This time too, it will receive similar concessions for holding the fair in Park Circus Maidan with all the municipal services for the running of a fair thrown in. It has never been clear why a fair which requires an entry fee from visitors, and which sells wares to the public in order to benefit private businesses, should receive so much patronage from the government.
But the government itself seems to have always wanted a piece of the cake. It tried out a rival book fair earlier, which ultimately merged into the main fair. This time it is the city corporation that seems to be looking for a back-door entry — perhaps with the approval of Alimuddin Street? If those who run the state are so keen to improve its cultural — book-reading — profile, subsidies and concessions to a non-trade fair are hardly the way to do it. It would make sense if the corporation provided subsidies to set up a complex of modern bookstores, especially for vernacular publishers, or decided to buy a few thousand copies of every local publication. If the organizers of the book fair paid the right rates for the fairground and its services, that would give the corporation seed-money to start projects aimed at encouraging the making, selling and reading of books. A squabble with the guild to get on board is silly. The book fair organizers would hardly like to share the joys of the good thing they have got going.