Calcuttans have been fighting a sanguine battle over whether the book fair should be held on the Maidan. The row evokes strong emotions on both sides. On the one side, book-lovers, amongst whom Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee counts himself, think that there is something beautifully Bengali about the book fair, as with Santiniketan’s Poush Mela. The picture of young women going to the fair and returning laden with books is as romantic to them as one of young women going to the village well and returning with pots balanced on their heads is to less literate Indians. On the other side, the sight of the Maidan being ravaged by uncouth booksellers digging holes, spreading shop-soiled books that they want to get rid of on rickety tables in jerrybuilt stalls, outrages the Bengali who orders his books from Blackwell’s and would rather use the Maidan for cricket and racing.
In the time-honoured Bengali tradition, the two sides talked at each other instead of to each other. Each wanted an extreme solution, and would settle for nothing less. So, typically, they ended up in the Calcutta high court, and typically it intervened in a matter that had little to do with law. If law were involved, it would be relevant only to decide who, if anyone, had the right to dispose of the Maidan, and whether he had followed whatever rules he was subject to. This matter was illuminated in The Telegraph; apparently, the army was the relevant authority, and it was unwilling to host any more book fairs. However, there was still the Park Circus maidan, which belonged to the Calcutta Municipal Corporation. It was not charging the usual rent, and there could be doubt on whether it had given a discount correctly or not; this was the full extent of possible controversy as I saw it.
But the high court had other ideas; it simply stopped the booksellers and their benefactors — the government, the corporation, the communist party — in their tracks. Just what it sought to achieve thereby, apart from favouring one side, is not clear to me. And if it was only a matter of taking sides, one hardly needs the high court to do it; any old Bengali can do it with passion.
But then, Calcutta has the habit of taking its quarrels to the courts. Some years ago, Calcutta was plagued by street processions of disaffected trade unionists. Whereas Shiv Sainiks, when they get worked up about anything, go out, smash taxis and ravage shops, Calcuttans form a procession, shout slogans, and fling their arms about. It is not their intention to disrupt traffic; but if motorists insist on using the roads precisely when the affected processionists have to pour out their passions in public, it is hardly the latter’s fault.
That was not the view taken by an honourable judge of the Calcutta high court when a procession delayed his proceeding to the court. I cannot remember whom he hauled up, but he was quite effective. Nowadays, when I go to Calcutta, I miss the sight of miscellaneous workers enjoying themselves on the roads. It used to be as if people who did not know the ABC of dancing had invented what they thought was Bharatnatyam. It is a tragedy that, with the exodus of industry and commerce from Calcutta, the tribe of strikers is dying out. Whilst those who came to Calcutta for board meetings might not have appreciated the screaming workers outside the door, I am sure that many tourists came just to see those workers; if the latter die out, Calcutta will lose many a visitor.
This is a problem that other countries have faced, and some have worked out quite ingenious solutions. In New Zealand, for example, Maori tribes died out long ago. But without them, New Zealand is indistinguishable from, say, Wales. English may be spoken differently there, but then, every speaker of English has a right to murder it in his own way. Hardly any tourist is likely to travel halfway round the world just to hear the New Zealanders speak English. So New Zealand has turned some places into Maori villages, with antique huts and so on. When tourists are to visit them, they gather Maori-looking bartenders and bus-drivers, take clothes off them and drape them in cowhide, give them a spear and get them to make warlike noises. To me it looked quite authentic. And if you cannot go to New Zealand, you only have to go to Gujarat at Navratri and see 10,000 young men and women do garba on a Maidan to get my point.
I would recommend this solution to Buddhadeb; he must, for Calcutta’s prosperity, get some of his followers to dress up every Sunday morning and march to the Maidan shouting revolutionary slogans. It does not have to be so drab as it used to be. He can dress them up like, say, Santhal tribesmen, and pay Indian Ocean, that wonderful half-Bengali band, to compose music for them. If he does it cleverly, West Bengal can make much more money out of tourism than it ever will out of a chemical factory.
But let me come back to the point: is a fair the best way to sell books? I can think of a better way: a book street. One of the most enchanting places I have visited is the old fort of Damascus, which was built by the Knights Templar a thousand years ago. Inside the fort, there is no traffic; it is an entirely pedestrian area. Each street in this fort has shops selling only one product. There is a street for jewellery, another for wedding dresses, and so on. It is like walking into a fairyland.
It would be nice if Calcutta, or some part of it, came to be organized like that, with streets devoted to books (and now, CDs and DVDs). I am told that College Street was one. But nowadays when I go there, it looks little different from the rest of Calcutta; the few books one finds there are mostly textbooks and popular books. A book street is what Buddhadeb should work on; he will be remembered more fondly for it than for a car factory.
And fairs — have they any life left in them? I think so. Calcutta is not a linear city, with streets purposefully marching off in one or other direction. It is an engagingly confused city with streets that often go nowhere in particular. Calcutta has many neighbourhoods off main roads. They should be turned into pedestrian areas on Sundays, and residents should be encouraged to spread tables outside their homes and offer all their considerable junk for sale. To attract custom they may make and sell delicacies. They may revive the old Bengali art of making toddy. They may put up posters of film stars. They may start practising, in a small way, the Gujarati art of buying and selling; and who knows, in a few years they will become the best shopkeepers in India. It would only be just if they were to inherit the title of a nation of shopkeepers which the British vacated some time ago.