It feels good to hear that the feuding organizers of the Calcutta Book Fair have buried the hatchet and the event is going to take place as scheduled. For decades now, this carnival of books, spanning over a week, has become the crowning glory of the fairs and festivals that take place in the city during the winter months. Thus, any uncertainty surrounding it must be disquieting for Calcuttans. The one thing the recent squabble brought to light was the change that had come over the form and spirit of the book fair.
What started as a quiet, dusty meeting ground of discerning book lovers and men of letters more than a quarter of a century ago, is now a mega event hosting big sponsors and international agencies. After the state government discontinued its lacklustre Granthamela and teamed up with the Publishers’ and Booksellers’ Guild, the Calcutta Book Fair has become bigger, noisier and even politicized. Expectedly, vested interests have grown over the years and this time, things came to a head. Charges of corruption and electoral malpractice were made against members of the steering committee and some even threatened to go to court. Desperate guild members sought the help of the chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the fair’s most prominent patron who had overseen its phoenix-like rise from the ashes after the devastating fire in 1997.
All that is now past and the 28th Calcutta Book Fair is round the corner. But even if we leave aside the current imbroglio, we should not forget the mutations the fair has undergone. To repeat, what started as a meeting ground for people united by a passion for books, is now a huge festival that attracts millions. This transformation of a space into an event has dimensions that are often paradoxical in nature. For a city where one in every three persons is an illiterate, Calcutta has the distinction of hosting the world’s largest bookfair in terms of public attendance.
But the paradoxes do not end there. The familiar sight of long snaking queues outside ticket counters and the sea of humanity inside the fair ground — mostly comprising middle-class Bengalis from the city and suburbs — is highly deceptive. In fact, it turns out to be a mirage if one superimposes it on the year-round desolation in College Street, the publishing and book-selling hub of the city. Although the Bengali-speaking population is the fifth largest in the world, with a growing literate middle-class in West Bengal (the National Readership Survey shows a steady increase of newspaper readers), the Bengali publishing industry here is in a moribund state.
The annual book fairs try to infuse some life into it, but to what effect? If one takes a look at the publishers’ advertisements in the book fair issue of a popular Bengali magazine, one gets a ringside view of it. Novels overwhelmingly dominate the scene, and one is struck by the paucity of genres and range of topics. Even then, most of the books are badly edited (even in this age of cheaply available technology) and the print run rarely exceeds a thousand copies. Although it is tempting to link some of these phenomena with broad global trends, it is difficult to ignore the fact that we have very few professional publishers in the city and, more important, a pathetically small market for Bengali books. In fact, had there not been the educational books and literary classics, many at College Street would have long shut shop.
As we recount these facts, a sense of déjà vu is inescapable because it has become a ritual during the book fair to lament the erosion of Bengalis’ famed reading habits. But the question is: has the scene ever been radically different? It is a fact that even a few years ago, our novelists enjoyed wide readership among the urban and suburban middle-class, and the advent of television soap has almost rung its death knell. The declining membership in the public lending libraries tell this story loud and clear. But to blame the television as the mother of all ills is rather simplistic.
Television can seriously eat into leisure hours, true, but it can also stimulate the appetite for information and open up areas of special interest. In the West, the expansion of the audio-visual media has coincided with the paperback revolution. In our country too, in the last decade or so, English language publishing has seen remarkable growth, thanks to an ever-growing readership base.
In fact, Calcutta can now boast of quite a few spacious and well-appointed English language bookshops where buyers can browse and shop at leisure. Unfortunately, College Street is still caught in a time warp where most shops selling Bengali books have the ambience of grocers’ stalls.
But surely, Calcutta Book Fair is not about Bengali publishing alone. Over the years, the presence of English language publications, many of them oriented towards the ever-growing educational market, have grown. Every year the fair organizers choose a country as the focal theme and invite publishers and writers from that country.
This year it is Cuba. For book lovers, these are opportunities that open up windows on the world. Such enthusiasm is, however, often touched with another powerful construct: urban Bengalis’ legendary cosmopolitanism. An urge to reach out and keep up with the times turns feverish with the visit of a famous personality, be it a Jacques Derrida or a Richard Dawkins. The specialized fields of work of these men suddenly becomes everybody’s cup of tea.
Parallels can be found in other art forms like cinema and theatre. In fact, the hysteria generated by a national theatre festival or an international film festival often belies the home truths. A most interesting example of such behaviour took place a few years ago, when a touring exhibition of Rodin’s works stopped at Calcutta. Although middle-class Bengalis are never known for any passion for Western sculpture, the exhibition began to draw such large crowds from the city and suburbs that public buses made an impromptu stop named after the great sculptor. “Rodin! Rodin!” — the conductors would shout, as buses pulled up in front of the Birla Academy and disgorged the deluge of “art lovers”.
There is a quaint Bengali word that perfectly describes this kind of faddish enthusiasm: hujug. While cultural historians might trace its roots to the famed babu culture of the late 19th century, practising socialists would surely like to see it as a form of a revolution, of bringing elitist forms of culture to the masses. Although books are expressions of the individual self and one can only engage with them in the solitude of one’s private space, there is nothing wrong in a noisy display of love for books if it is genuine and soulful. But if the soul is missing, if the march for books only benefits the leg muscles and not the cerebral cortex, if the visit to the book fair becomes once-a-year tryst with books, then the whole thing turns out to be a giant exercise in self-delusion.