Bookshop with a view

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By (Contributed by Sreyashi Dastidar, Anasuya Basu, Romila Saha and Malini Banerjee)
  • Published 6.07.08

In the quaint Radhanath Mullick Lane, off College Street and just a few bends away from Putiram, a bookshop has just been born. Formally, it is called Charchapad — also the name of its imprint. But informally and generically, it prefers to be called a “boi-thek” (den of books).

The day the boi-thek opened its door to lovers of Bengali books, July 2, it earned itself the epithet of “little Barnes and Noble” from a Bengali gentleman living abroad. “We can’t, however, take back books after readers have read them over a fortnight or so,” says Charchapad’s editor, writer Raghab Bandyopadhyay, underlining the huge differences in funds and resources from the giant American bookstore chain.

Not to be deterred by its modest means, the den has decided to be choosy about the kind of books it keeps — “not the bestseller novels by the likes of Sunil Gangopadhyay and Suchitra Bhattacharya, but serious books by authors who respect and care for the Bengali language”. Won’t that grievously limit Charchapad’s clientele? Bandyopadhyay admits that it might, but at the same time, sounds hopeful about the rise of a generation of Bengalis who are eager to rediscover writers like Bhudeb Mukhopadhyay, Ritendranath Tagore and Jagadish Gupta. And this is exactly where Charchapad is trying to step in, by bringing back in print writers who had long gone out of it.

This is not to say that Charchapad is averse to new writers. In fact, it plans to provide a platform for all genres of ‘good’ new writing (including translation), except poetry (that’s a hornet’s nest, says Bandyopadhyay). Starting off with Unnayan Bitarka and Shoteek Jadunagar, Charchapad also wants to bring to the fore the talented but unheralded writers who do not enjoy the backing of big publishers.

In deciding what to publish, or keep on his shelves, Bandyopadhyay is relying a great deal on readers who, he hopes, will come bearing suggestions for books not yet done in Bengali publishing history. Charchapad may not be able to pay its writers like kings, but it is determined to break away from the unprofessionalism of Bengali publishing and give all its writers, big or small, a uniform 10 per cent royalty and a statement of accounts.

For readers and browsers, there are a few other attractions — Kamalkumar Majumdar’s paintings on the boi-thek’s walls, and the promise of Kalika’s mutton chops and tea every other evening.


English encore

A Bengali novel published in 1962 and into its 100th edition has been resurrected. This time in English and the magic has cast its spell yet again. The English translation of Sankar’s Chowringhee has not just crossed the 12,000 mark in sales but has also been picked by a noted panel for the Vodafone Crossword Book Award for 2007 in the Indian Language Translation in English category.

Shahjahan hotel and its inmates Marco Polo, Sata Bose and Karabi Guha are etched in the memory of those on the wrong side of 40. The film of the same name, starring Uttam Kumar, Supriya Chowdhury and Subhendu Chattopadhyay, also did its bit to popularise the novel.

The goings-on behind the façade of a five-star hotel in the fifties are also finding takers among the 20- and 30-year- olds. “There must be a certain element of universalism in the novel. It captured the imagination of the urban elite,” says the author.

Sankar himself is intrigued by Chowringhee’s success in translation “when much better novels like Pather Panchali have failed in English”.

It took Vikram Seth’s recommendation, who read the novel in Hindi, to spur Penguin into translating Chowringhee. Arunava Sinha’s translation in 1992 was fished out. “There is nothing dated about Chowringhee. It is so much about people that the story carries well ahead of its background and period,” says the translator, who is now on the verge of finishing Sankar’s other celebrated work, Jana Aranya.

The author himself is overwhelmed at Chowringhee’s success. “Publishers from France and Italy are approaching for copyright,” says Sankar, who was unable to attend the award ceremony in Mumbai on Friday.


Freedom of flight

As he sits across a table telling his “tale”, Gautam Lewis looks like any other youngster who likes to work out. But he is much more than an average Joe. Despite being afflicted with polio, the 21-year-old from New Zealand is a qualified pilot. He uses hand controls during landing and take-off when other pilots would use both hands and feet.

Lewis had not always had his antipodean twang. As a child of four, he was given away to the Missionaries of Charity after contracting polio at the age of 18 months. “I was so traumatised when I was told that no one would be coming to take me away that I stopped talking for six months,” he recalls being told.

It was a chance meeting with Patricia Lewis, who had come to India after completing her studies, that forged a bond that was to take him to New Zealand, as the 25-year-old’s ward. Patricia later adopted him.

Lewis has since returned to India and discovered that he originally bore the surname “De”, and that he was “probably illegitimate”. His first visit was in November 2007 when he travelled to Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh to spread awareness about polio, but that was not “the same as coming to Calcutta”, he says.

This time, Lewis has been travelling to the suburbs of Calcutta to spread awareness about polio. False beliefs are difficult to eradicate, he has found. “People believe that taking the polio vaccine makes male babies impotent,” he says.

Pilot and polio crusader are not the only hats Lewis has worn. While in college in South Hampton, England, he started a nightclub. He later worked with Alan McGee, the manager of British band Oasis, with whom he managed bands like The Libertines, The Hives, D4 and The Kills.

Among the people he had to work with was Pete Doherty of The Libertines, notorious for his drug abuse and as the ex-boyfriend of supermodel Kate Moss. “He called me once on a Sunday, asking me to find him a cleaner.”

In 2005, Lewis quit the music industry to begin training as a pilot. He got his licence on September 18, 2007, and is now qualified to fly light aircraft.

Lewis, who also dabbles in photography, is preparing for an exhibition titled “Freedom in the Air” in London and other cities. Remembering himself flying a kite as a child on the roof of a house, he says: “I had always felt that in the sky, you could get over your disability.”

His dream is a project he calls “freedom wings”, in which he takes challenged children flying.


No sweat!

They call themselves the National No Paseena Commission. “Kapor dhute dhute meyeder gham jhore jachchhe. Eta otyachar (washing clothes makes women sweat. This is torture),” protests a profusely sweating woman outside Sirpa Housing Welfare Association on Prince Anwar Shah Road. “Otyachar otyachar,” the other women echo behind her.

It is not just sweat (paseena) they are saying no to. “We are a voluntary association of like-minded people working for women’s rights. Sixty-five per cent of women find laundry the most tiresome of household chores and 72 per cent say that they sweat while doing laundry and that it exhausts them afterwards. One out of three women develops back problems by the time she is 35 because of household chores,” says spokesperson Anita Balani.

The organisations anti-paseena solution is simple. “Don’t use cheap products because it ultimately has an adverse effect on the woman in your household,” says Anita. She’s quick to point out that she is not endorsing any product. “We are just saying that whoever is buying the detergents should be extra careful.”

The awareness campaign also involves short street plays.