The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Star seller with a yen for books

kinben panch takay. Porben chollish minute. Hanshben ek ghonta (Buy for Rs 5. Read for 40 minutes. Laugh for an hour). Alok Dutta is a familiar face at the Calcutta Book Fair. In fact, he has been to every one of them since 1975, selling little magazines with his rhymes. It is the combined attraction of his marketing magic and the quality of the writings in his magazine that has earned him the sobriquet Sahityer Pheriwala (Hawker of literature).

“It was elocutionist Partha Ghosh who gave me that name. He, his wife Gouridi and the late singer Pijushkanti Sarkar were very fond of me, so much so that they organised a cultural programme at Moulali Yuba Kendra in my honour in 1996,” recalls Dutta.

He is, after all, more than just a hawker. He is a dramatist and essayist too. “I edit the magazine Swayam Nijukti, which I sell at the fair,” he says. In this, he claims he is the new-age Dadathakur. Sarat Pandit used to do just the same. Only while he travelled from Murshidabad to Calcutta to sell his magazines, Dutta travels to the districts whenever and wherever there is a fair with a literary connection.

Dutta’s affair with the alphabet started in school (Taltala High) where he was a star elocutionist. “But I was better known as a sportsman then, football, cricket, table tennis and especially boxing being my areas of activity.” But days of returning with a bloody nose after fights in inter-club tourneys forced his family members to put their feet down. “So I shifted to my other passion — painting.” He was also taking the stage for theatres put up by para clubs. “Dulu kaka (theatre director Aditya Pal) wanted me to join a professional group, Anushilan. But so rigorous was their rehearsal schedule that I ran away after a few days.”

Though he bid adieu to theatre, his brush with painting was only beginning. “I practised on the sly to join art college even while studying for my Sanskrit degree at Vidyasagar College.”

It was the paintbrush that gave Dutta his publishing break. “Dadas” in the locality were bringing out little magazines Mahua and Sphulinga. They approached him to do the illustrations.

His association with the magazine Kanthaswar took Dutta to the Banga Sanskriti Sammelan grounds in the early 70s. “I have been using my vocal prowess for the cause of the book since then,” he laughs.

Questions on the evolution of the Book Fair saddens Hansida (as he is known for his comic pieces). “The quantity has increased, not the quality.” But he is not complaining about sales volume. “I have a steady clientele as well as curious first-timers among my buyers. In fact, I have never failed in any venture I have undertaken,” the part-time actor in TV serials signs off.

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