Friday, February 16, 2007

Pilgrim's Progress: Calcutta Book Fair 2007

The second most popular tourist city in France is not Nice, Cannes or Bordeaux. It is Lourdes - where an estimated five million Christians go every year on a pilgrimage to sight the Virgin Mary. Mecca gets about four million pilgrims each year for Haj. Another five million pilgrims trek some 15 kms every year for a darshan of Mata Vaishnodevi.
On its last day every year, Calcutta Book Fair gets about a million visitors. Over its full tenure, my guess is that there would be about two million pilgrims who visit the Book Fair annually - which is not in league with the most popular religious hot-spots but then, it is the biggest misfortune of mankind that knowledge is not as popular as religion.

I first visited the Calcutta Book Fair in its very first year of existence - 1976 - as a toddler, mostly in my father's arms. I am told, it was a small bunch of publishers who put up a few stalls and offered a 10% discount on their books. My parents - having nothing to do on a Sunday evening - decided to go there on a whim and the entire family was hooked.
However, I became the certified bibliomaniac of the family at a very early age and after the first few years, I bullied everyone into taking me to the Book Fair. The Book Fair grew faster than I did - and soon, it became the sprawling expanse of book, food and trivia stalls that it now is.

I visited the Fair for every single year from 1976 to 2003, religiously saving money and collating a must-buy list for the entire year in anticipation of the pilgrimage. In 2003, I visited the Fair a few days after I got married – wriggling out of several pressing social obligations (of which I will never hear the end of!).
From 2004-06, I missed out on the Fair for a variety of reasons and the intense depression I felt during that time of the years was quite inexplicable. I mean, I bought all the books I wanted and it is not that the Calcutta Book Fair had any book that I would not find anywhere. But still…

I guess the biggest draw of the Fair for me was the thrill of being part of a huge brotherhood of bibliophiles. Admittedly, a considerable section of the Fair-goers came for the more seductive charms of BenFish but the overwhelming majority would be there for the lure of the printed word. And this, in extension, is the psyche of Calcutta – erudition and passion going hand in hand.

Beyond a point, the Book Fair ceased to be a market for books. It became an arena for the arts. The portrait painter. The calligrapher. The group of college students, who came to sell collections of poems they had written. The activist who wanted to propagate the cause he believed in (including one who thought the sun went around the earth). The multinational publisher who wanted to launch his latest bestseller. The celebrity author who came to sign copies of his latest. Even the telebhaja-seller who wanted to his sell his fried snacks was an artiste. And the Fair was a forum for all of them and more.

When the Fair was razed to the ground in a devastating fire in 1997, it came back up within a day as booksellers and buyers alike flocked to the grounds in an unstated show of solidarity. The stalls were destroyed, most of the salvaged books were singed but there was no dearth of enthusiasm as people happily bought those damaged copies, to support the booksellers who had lost almost everything.

Broadly, I think – a pilgrimage is a journey undertaken to fulfill your dreams. In that sense, a visit to the Calcutta Book Fair is exactly that. Everyone – seller or buyer – comes out of the Fair clutching at least a part of what he wants from life. Be it a bag of money, be it an autograph, be it a rare book or be it a ‘mindful’ of happy memories.

Today, my son visited the 32nd Calcutta Book Fair with his mother and grandmother. It was the first Fair of his lifetime, so my wife managed to perpetuate one family tradition by taking him on the annual pilgrimage.
I do not know whether he will inherit my set of bibliomaniac genes but then, that’s not important either. The important thing is to have a pilgrimage to go on. For some, it is Sundance. For some, it is Woodstock.
And the Calcutta Book Fair is a grand enough start.


Space Bar said...

enjoyed much! where was the book fair this year? believe it had been shifted...

Anonymous said...

I didn't know it started in '76. My earliest recollection of going with my grandmother was in its infancy ('80/'81). Thanks for that bit of trivia.

iz said...

I agree. You can travel miles in just a paragraph.