Every writer starts out as a reader.
Given how reading is a religion in itself for many, visiting a bookstore is akin to a pilgrimage for most authors. This Book Lovers Day, My Kolkata spoke to several authors from the city about their favourite bookstore, and why going to one will always remain sacred.
Here’s what they had to say...
L-R: Parimal Bhattacharya, Rachna Books in Gangtok
For Parimal Bhattacharya, who writes in both English and Bengali, Gangtok-based Rachna Books presents the perfect escape from the bustle of the city. “They regularly organise programmes with authors and have a very curious readership. The space has a beautiful mix of attributes, with a great cafe downstairs and a B and B upstairs. I’m planning to stay there if I write another book on the hills,” he said, expressing affection for the owner, Raman Shrestha, who is known as the ‘Bookman’.
Bhattacharya also expressed his admiration for how the award-winning store manages to retain its independent feel in a town thronged by tourists. He held a session at the bookstore for his novel, No Path in Darjeeling Is Straight.
Prothoma Rai Chaudhuri
Mohor at her book launch at Oxford Bookstore in 2021
Prothoma Rai Chaudhuri, who writes under the pseudonym Shrutidhora P Mohor, considers Oxford Bookstore (Kolkata) the holy grail. Mohor stressed that for her, no sprawling chain can usurp the magic of the inviting shop on Park Street. “The newly opened bookstores always feel very corporate because they’re trying to do other things, while legacy stores like Oxford remain loyal to books. At Oxford, I even find the genre labels very attractive, and sometimes just stand in the middle of the store, staring at them,” she laughed. A particularly special memory for Mohor was launching one of her novels, The Trespasser, at the bookstorein 2021. “Since I teach at St. Xavier’s College, I sometimes walk to the bookstore just to pass the time.” She ruefully added that for south Kolkatans, Oxford remains one of the select few bookstores still standing, after Crossword (or Story on Elgin Road) closed.
Kunal Basu with his book, ‘Filmi Stories’, at Bahrisons Booksellers Kolkata
Mohor isn’t the only one to notice this trend, and Kunal Basu echoed her sentiment in a global context. “In school, my favourite bookstore was Jigyasa, located near Rashbehari Avenue. The very name beckoned us to question and it had a wonderful collection of literary fiction. Unfortunately, it has closed down, much like most of my favourite bookstores around the world, from London to New York.” There is a certain sadness, as he pondered on how they have been replaced by large bookshops in malls which heavily rely on merchandising, without capturing the essence of a bookstore. He finds solace in the ones that remain. “I still frequent Blackwell's Bookshop, which is in my neighbourhood in Oxford, and the oldest bookshop in England. My book, Racists, was launched there too, which is one of my fondest memories. I also enjoy visiting the Strand Book Store in New York, where I have discovered many gems that I normally wouldn’t have found on the internet.”
‘I still spend all my time at bookstores,’ says Anindya ChatterjeeAranya
Filmmaker Anindya Chatterjee also equates books with nostalgia, and firmly stands by the Katha O Kahini store on College Street, which he grew up frequenting during his days as a student of Scottish Church College. “I would take a tram from college, only to stand there and read all day. They had a beautiful collection of poetry books, and that is where I first found my love for poetry too. The bookstore doesn’t exist anymore, but it’s still alive in my memory.” A bookstore that he still frequents today is Seagull in Bhowanipore and Chatterjee remembered being blown away by its sheer size when he first visited it. “I’m attached to new bookstores now because of song and album releases. Be it film work, or just reading, I still spend all my time there.” Chatterjee perfectly encapsulates every Kolkattan’s love for books, and its culmination at the annual book fair with his song, Boimelar Gaan.
On the topic of Boi Mela, Bengali writer and journalist Pracheta Gupta said that the fair personifies the love the city has for books. Much like Chatterjee, he too fondly remembers visiting College Street from Scottish Church College. “I can’t speak for a particular shop. For me, College Street is one huge store that I still enjoy exploring on foot. As a student, I picked up so many second-hand books for heavy discounts that weren’t just popular, but instrumental for my intellectual development.”
Gupta still makes it a point to College Street, not just to buy books, but to explore them
Gupta added that for him, the joy of books extends far beyond buying them, and he equally cherishes holding, and feeling them. “You simply cannot replicate that while scrolling through books on a computer. Moreover, here I can accidentally discover a book on a subject that is beyond my imagination, and yet charms me with its existence. This is why my favourite shops are ones along the footpath, without a name. Every big writer bought books from them at one point.”