Tuesday, January 20, 2015

 







Wrote something after a long time, thanks entirely to The Griff (Thank you, Peter).
And he published it in Forbes. Yay!

http://bit.ly/1GhQyzM


Kolkata Book Fair:
The city's love affair with literature



Sadly enough, the most abiding memory is of the dust. And it’s not just me. Actor, photographer and honorary Kolkatan Ashish Vidyarthi, asked for his first impressions of the Kolkata Book Fair, responded: “Dust!” Books, crowds, queues, books, food, odours, PA speakers, heat, music, fish… but unto dust thou shalt return. Books may be centrestage at the Kolkata Book Fair, but the dust is more than background noise. Keep an eye on it: It comes back with a vengeance in Act IV.

Book Fair. Boi Mela. Or in the more orotund Bengali of the apparatchiks: Grontho Mela. Forget, for a moment, about the numbers (we’ll look at those later too); try to ignore the Bengali emo-hype about its being part of the culture (or kaalchaar).

The Kolkata Book Fair (KBF) is a phenomenon. Large. Crowded. Noisy. Intellectual. (Oh, very intellectual!) Musical. Gastronomic. Artistic. Controversial. Chaotic. Resilient. In its own way, it encapsulates the character of its city and its most visible tribe: The literary Bengali. Each year since 1976—bar one—it takes over the city for 12 days. Well, usually 12 days. The year it rained, it ran for 15. After the fire in 1997, it put itself back together in three, and ran for a total of 20 days. Did I mention “resilient”?

Sure, the Frankfurt Book Fair displays more books, and arguably wheels more deals than any other. London has one too, and there’s BookExpo America, and so many others. But these are regulated. Staid. Predictable. And very different from the Kolkata Book Fair in one major aspect. These are trade fairs, meant for negotiations and transactions among those who run the commerce of reading. KBF is for the reader, the retail buyer, for those who revel in the proximity of books.

When the young Turks of the Kolkata publishing fraternity mooted the idea in 1975, the reactions of the grey eminences were typically Bengali: “Will you now sell books like handicrafts?! Or vegetables?!” It took great tact and finesse for the new Publishers and Booksellers’ Guild (established September 1975) to soothe their ruffled sensibilities. Quite surprisingly for the day and age, the first Kolkata Book Fair materialised within a year of ideation, with 34 publishers setting up 56 stalls in the heart of the city, on a patch of land between the Victoria Memorial and the Academy of Fine Arts.

That first year, the Book Fair started on March 9. Not the best season in Kolkata, with the mercury mounting and the threat of nor’westers. It was not till the fourth year of the Fair that the Guild resolved to hold it at the same time every year: Starting on the last Wednesday in January and running till the second Sunday of February, a total of 12 days, a schedule that has been maintained, as mentioned earlier, for the most part of 38 years.

Different generations have different memories of their first visit. Samrat Sengupta, corporate exec and quizzer, remembers that on his first visit in the 90s, he regarded the food stalls with the disapproval of the very young, and asked his parents “Why do these people come to eat at a book fair?” Satyaki Bhattacharya, green energy expert now exiled in Delhi, recalls the magic smell of new books, the sight of a little girl sitting on the grass furtively smelling her new comics; the smell of lost childhood. For Sugato Guha, creative director and lyrcist who wrote the theme song for the Book Fair in the noughties, it was a second home: His father, Ramen Guha, was one of the founder organisers, and Sugato had the run of the fairground even while it was being set up. This was in the early 80s, when the Fair was still held outside Victoria Memorial. 

I remember an even earlier phase, when the Fair was less crowded, more leisurely, before the huge queues outside the popular stalls (Ananda Publishers, Standard Literature, Vostok) and the all-pervasive smell of frying fish. My grandfather first took me to the Fair. I can no longer confirm the year from him, but I suspect that first visit was in its very first year. (By the time I entered college, it seemed the Book Fair had been held since the reign of Nebuchadnezzar.) I remember a child’s delight and wonder that there could be. So. Many. Books. All in one place! There was space, there was time to browse and to examine one’s newly-acquired hoard in the mellow winter sun.

But like Topsy, the Kolkata Book Fair just grow’d. And grow’d. By the late 80s, it was evident that the crowds were too large and the demand for stalls too high for the Fair to stay next to Victoria Memorial. 

It moved to a corner of the Maidan, the huge green common that is Kolkata’s lung. The new site was even more central. It was at the corner of Park Street—then Kolkata’s most happening thoroughfare—and Outram Road, that ran through the Maidan. But it flattered to deceive. Tridib Chatterjee, in his brief monograph on the Book Fair, mentions how terrible the new site was; the neglected corner was uneven, weed-grown and used as an ad hoc public convenience. It lay next to a large pond or young lake that, a hundred years before, had been known as the General Tank, but had become a mass of water-chestnut and other weeds, breeding mosquitoes, trapping garbage. But it offered 23 acres of space, convenient public transport and loads of parking. It took an effort to clean, level, and drain the scrubland, but it was well worth it. 

The Maidan was and is an organic part of Kolkata’s winter. When the sun set through the haze on a January evening, the hubbub of the Fair would seem muted for a while. As dusk vanished and the lights came on, the hum would grow again to drown out the noise of traffic on Chowringhee and Park Street, until the bell rang at eight o’clock to signal the closing for the day. For the next 15 years, that corner was the home of the Book Fair.

Guha recalls how Satyajit Ray, giant both in form and in achievement, would come in early before the crowds massed, to stalk through the lanes between the stalls and browse with an unlit pipe hanging from the corner of his mouth. Trina Mukherjee, now a journalist in Mumbai, remembers the shiny toys and the soap bubbles from the hawkers at the gates, and of course the sonorous PA system with its lost-and-found announcements. By then, street theatre, poetry readings, an artists’ corner (christened Montmartre) and musical performances had become part of the menu. Buddhadeb Guha would regale audiences with his toppa singing and risqué jokes. Sunil Gangopadhyay and Shakti Chattopadhyay, enfants terrible even when they were acknowledged giants of the literary scene, would sip tea while reading poetry to a rapt audience. For a certain generation, Chattopadhyay’s voice, rough at the edges like his poetry, is part of their memories of the Fair. In the 90s and noughties, the harmoniums and Rabindra Sangeet shared the evening with guitars and folk rock.

The crusty old gentlemen, who decried the commercialisation of books back in the 70s, would be red-faced now, if any are still extant. The Book Fair is, in its own way, a celebration of Mammon. It offers the bargains of the year. Anywhere in Kolkata, a common greeting during the Fair fortnight is “What did you find at the Fair this year?” Aanton Mukherjee, brand executive, smiles at the thought of children being dragged away morosely from their stall of choice by their parents because better bargains were available elsewhere. Guha still has two books of original artwork by Ralph McGuirre, bought for the princely sum of Rs 35 each. Mukherjee’s treasure is a beautifully illustrated book of Chinese fables, bought for a pittance and preserved for nearly three decades. From the munificence of grandparents through the penury of youth, my heist from the Book Fair each year was a gleeful victory over a malign universe; even today the spoils lurk in the corners of my bookshelves.

The other common memory from the 70s and 80s is the Russian stalls. It would appear that the highest-selling author at the Fair then (after Rabindranath, of course!) was Arkady Gaidar with When Daddy was a Little Boy! The Vostok and 20th Century stalls, with their amazingly cheap offerings (including textbooks and books on science) are fondly remembered by every school and college student of the time. Of course we have all ended up buying books we didn’t like, but it was worth it for the heady feeling of getting on a bus with a bagful of books bought with a college student’s meagre resources. 


And there are the ‘little magazines’. Every Bengali intellectual has a book inside him, sometimes two, and until they get around to winning the Booker or the Sahitya Akademi award, they publish their work themselves. One corner of the Fair would be reserved for these little magazines. Not without reason: Most of the giants of Bengali literature have contributed to them in their youth. And some of them may have prowled the lanes of the Book Fair with their shoulder bags, sometimes giving away copies of their magazines to promising readers. I confess I used to walk a little faster to escape their attentions, but age has brought tolerance.

Where there are books, there must be booklifters. In Kolkata, they were censured, but almost indulgently so. One offender caught in the act explained that he had a terminally ill brother whose only solace was reading. A touching story, except that the salesman knew him and pointed out that he was an only child. (He was let off after doing 20 squats for atonement.) Two guilty schoolgirls, sweating and red-faced, got a look over half-moon spectacles, a dressing-down from the stall-owner… and a gift of a book each!

The Maidan idyll, alas, didn’t last. Remember the dust? In 2006, a public interest litigation (PIL) challenged the Fair’s being held on the Maidan. The day before the 2007 edition, the Kolkata High Court ruled that the Fair caused environmental damage, including damage to the Victoria Memorial from the dust and fumes. At short notice, KBF was rescheduled and moved 16 kilometres away to the grounds of the Salt Lake Stadium.

Where it was promptly flooded out by unseasonal rain.

Again, the Fair pulled itself back together at short notice, and ran for 15 days instead of 12. But the organisers’ travails were not over. 

In 2008, further PILs followed, and for the only time in 30-odd years, Kolkata went without its annual literary tryst. It was a huge gap in the cultural calendar. 

The Fair was no longer only about books; it celebrated music, art, theatre, all the things that make life pleasant. From the 80s, it has had a focus country each year (France, Great Britain, Spain, Australia, Cuba, Chile have all featured), and over the years, Richard Dawkins, Gunter Grass, Mulk Raj Anand, Paul Theroux and Alexander McCall Smith have been chief guests. (When Jacques Derrida was chief guest in 1997, the year of the fire, Annada Shankar Ray had quipped that he had taken deconstructionism too far.) 

For the last three years, a literary festival has been held, first on the fringes and then, from last year, as part of the Fair itself. There is a children’s pavilion, there are seminars, book readings, plays; a smorgasbord of literary delectation. And everywhere there is food, glorious Kolkata street food: Phuchkas, rolls, ‘Mughlai’ parathas, chaat, all the food we were taught to avoid and which we have longed for all our lives.  

Since 2009, the venue has been the new Trade Fair Complex on the eastern edge of the city. Sales touched Rs 18 crore on the Maidan and have remained at that level at the new venue. But only 14 acres are available instead of the earlier 23, and the footfalls that are Kolkata’s pride have dropped from an all-time high of 2.5 million visitors over 12 days to about 1.8 million last year. 

Sad, until one realises that the Frankfurt Book Fair, acclaimed as the world’s largest, has, ahem, 300,000! Frankfurt may be the largest in terms of commerce, but this fair in Kolkata is the world’s largest celebration of books. 

Gunter Grass, an outspoken critic of Kolkata, said that the Book Fair is a metaphor of life: A beautiful creation that, like the city itself, will fade, while the books will endure.




Sunday, August 25, 2013

 

Surfacing



Past 7 in the morning and already so hot that the laptop responds sluggishly. The world is full of horrible news – chemical attacks in Syria, the Bombay rape, Chennai Express becoming the highest-grossing Hindi movie ever. And if that is trivialisation, I really couldn’t be arsed.

I’ve been stupid. Things have piled up until a 100 crore scheme is only as important as trimming my nails. Prioritisation is the route to sanity. But tasks raise their little bobbing heads and chitter in my subconscious, fuelling fear, nibbling at the day, their noise adding up to a half-heard refrain, “No time! No time!”

To make it worse, Terry Pratchett’s Alzheimer’s is showing in Dodger, possibly the worst thing he has ever written. Not to worry, Terry. We’ll be reading you for old times’ sake, because Night Watch is one of the best things to never win an award.

And finally, screw Twitter and Facebook. THIS is my space, and if you don’t feel like dropping in for a chat, there's a cheaper edition of C Bhagat's Revolution waiting for you at your nearest traffic light.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

 

What goes around


Douglas Adams propounded a unique theory for heavier-than-air flight. Climb to a high place and throw yourself off. And oh, try to miss the ground. Classic in its simplicity, except for the obvious drawback – nobody seems to have made it work. Somewhere in another dimension, perhaps doodling on a napkin in The Restaurant at End of the Universe, Douglas Noel Adams may be working on an upgrade.
But the theory is out there. Which leads to another possible scenario. Somewhere in the Mid-Western United States, a devoted reader and fan of Douglas Adams’ work decides to try out his theory of flight. With the expected result. Thereafter, this thwarted aviation researcher – or rather more likely, his next-of-kin – sue Douglas Adams’ estate and Pan Books for a zillion dollars because his theory caused grievous injuries and / or death of a reader. How would you rule in such a case, dear reader?
What, you think it’s far-fetched? Try this: the Mayor of San Diego is accused of sexual harassment. His attorney places the blame squarely on the City of San Diego. Because – wait for this! – the City never trained its officials on what constitutes sexual harassment and how to avoid it. In other words, the attorney claims that normal educated people need to be trained in how NOT to be lecherous and insensitive. This is not just (in my humble opinion) a specious defence. This is a symptom. There is a spectre haunting the liberal world today, the spectre of transferred responsibility. The spectre of “it’s-not-MY-fault”. The easy way out – blaming the system, the television, the corporation, just so long as it’s somebody else.
The USA, of course, revels in incredibly frivolous litigation. A couple sued WalMart because their grocery bag split and caused “cracked and damaged toenails”. No, really! It’s not just the USA. A lady in Israel sued a weather station because they predicted sunny weather, she went out in a light dress without an umbrella, it rained, she caught a cold. And a truly sad story – a student in Texas (but of course!) died because she got drunk, drove her Honda into Galveston Bay and drowned because she couldn’t unfasten her seat-belt. So of course her parents are suing Honda because their seat-belts cannot be unfastened by drunk drivers who also happen to be underwater. It’s sad that a young girl died, but at some point, we have to accept that if you break the law, you take the consequences. Not just the law of the land, but the laws of rationality.
There’s an extension of this attitude in India as well. The attitude of “why doesn’t the government fix it”. The assumption that the common citizen is entitled, but not responsible. A contradiction of every social construct from Aristotle to John Crawls. It can't work. If we want the system to work for us, we have to work for the system. If I want my daughter to be safe on the roads after dark, it's also my duty to check why my nephew is taking his bike out after midnight. If I want the conservancy to keep my city clean, it's my job to take my trash over to the local dump instead of leaving it outside my gate. I can't expect rewards without effort. There's no entitlement without responsibility.
And if we expect such entitlement, we're stupid. As stupid as the man who says he broke the law because his employer didn't teach him how to stay within it.


Monday, June 10, 2013

 

The gift of laughter



Some people are born colour-blind. Some are born without a funny-bone. On balance, the latter group is more to be pitied
Growing up, I disliked the boys who were held up to me as examples. (No, I lie - I loathed them, I hated them with a deep and abiding malice.) “He’s so serious about his work”, I’d be told. “And an intolerably self-important little twit”, I’d think to myself. That could be one of the reasons why today I mistrust “serious”. What does it profit a man if he gains the world and loses his last belly-laugh? “Serious” is over-rated. Schopenhauer? Pshaw! I’m a Marxist – of the Groucho persuasion.
  “He was born with the gift of laughter, and a sense that the world is mad.” That's the first line of Rafael Sabatini's "Scaramouche", written nearly a hundred years ago. One could scarcely find a better maxim to live one's life by. I hold that just as there is no issue good or bad but thinking makes it so, there is no truth to grief or mirth, it's all a point of view. Granted, it may not be politic to crack Irish jokes when there's a bereavement in the family (especially if it's your boss' family). You won't get the guffaws that indicate your delivery of the punch-line was perfect. On the other hand, it can't hurt to raise a smile or two.
Humour, if leavened with sensitivity and compassion, lightens the burden of sorrow. The Monty Python group read a hilarious speech at their comrade's funeral. I can think of no better tribute to a man who brought happiness to people
Sadly (pun intended) enough, we as a nation tend to mistrust laughter. We persist in the belief that a sombre demeanour is a sign of great intellect or efficiency, whereas if the truth were told, it's far more likely to have been caused by colitis or tight underwear. To be fair, humorists have a tough time anywhere. Around the world, a man who lightens your mood is oft taken lightly. Remember P.G. Wodehouse's utterly hilarious lament at being dubbed a "burbling pixie"?
Humorists should rather be placed on a pedestal, for they create something that defies analysis. IF I am permitted another Wodehouse reference, it was said that criticising him was like taking a spade to a souffle. Why devalue this rare gift?
In India, this wariness about laughter cannot be a cultural relic. From Gopal BhNaar to Mullah Naseeruddin, Tenali Raman to Birbal (why, even Narad), our jesters have been respected as men wise enough to understand the world and present home-truths with a laugh. In more recent times, Osho (with his famous treatise on the f-word) and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar among others have had huge followings even though (or because?) they have encouraged their followers to laugh.
Why, then, are we so insecure whenever somebody publicly pokes fun at our idols? Obviously, laughter is anarchic. Especially in a democracy, where a telling satire can finish a political career more surely than assassination.

Perhaps that is the crux - we fear being laughed at because there is no remedy for losing one's dignity. But there is a defence. Prevention is better than cure. Pre-empt your satirists. If we learn to laugh at ourselves, our critics can at best laugh with us, not at us. And we might be happier.


Tuesday, May 28, 2013

 

A moment of Marvell?


Ten years ago I fell in love.

It was a very sweet infatuation, with all the naivete and wonder of puppy love, or perhaps the wilful delusion of an Indian summer. For a few brief days I swooned over the object of my attentions, my passion all the sweeter because I knew our time together would be short. Then we parted, but for years afterwards I was firmly committed to her. None other could match her charms, no other name evoked the same wistful smile. This, despite considerable temptation; strange as it may seem, there were others who sought to seduce my stolid middle-aged affections. Some were subtle, some brazen, some endearing in their simplicity.

But none compared to Paris.

When I think back on it, my inexperience was a major reason for my being so utterly besotted. It was my first visit to Europe. My first encounter with the charm of history not just preserved, but kept alive. The first time I strolled down cobbled streets at dawn, or savoured wine and a cigar in a sidewalk cafe as the lights came on in the scented streets. My first experience of a city lit up for beauty alone, or carefully tended flowerbeds lining busy roads. Of a real van Gogh, a real poster by Toulose-Lautrec.  It was as if a country bumpkin entered the big city, and the first woman he met was Madame du Barry. No wonder I was lost.

The passion lasted some years. There was a yearning to return. It faded. And I broke the faith.

I rejected the advances of Hong Kong, but I was led astray by the brassy charm of Istanbul, lost in the strange intimacy of Prague, grabbed bodily by the direct approach of Manhattan. Time passed, new booklets were added to my passport. Memories blurred, ran into each other. The lights of Aleppo morphed into the glimmer of Rio from the Pao de Acucar. But nothing could erase the memory of a patch of green by the Champs Elysee, with spring’s first lilacs in bloom.

Last week I visited her again. And the magic was gone.

Perhaps it was because the first time I had visited had been in February, with the streets comparatively deserted, whereas this May I had to share her with a million other admirers. Perhaps it was because I was coming off three months of hard grind, mentally drained and physically exhausted. Perhaps it was age. Or perhaps it was just experience. 

In the ten intervening years, I have seen too many cities, savoured too many meals, shared stories with too many friendly strangers. Paris is no longer a realm of wonder. This is not bragging; it is a lament. I have lost the capacity for wonder. I have lost the innocence of the first-time traveller. After such knowledge, what forgiveness?

For two days I walked the streets of Paris, trying in vain to recapture that first fine rapture. But the Ile de la Citie seemed smaller and duller, the alleys on the Left Bank no longer beckoned. The sidewalk cafes were full of tourists, teenagers and cigarette butts. The Centre Pompidou seemed incongruous rather than witty. Even le quarter Marais seemed a little grumpy, as if sulking at the weather on a weekday afternoon. 
Then I retreated to my room with a paper sack full of bread and sundry viands, opened a bottle of port and gazed morosely out of the window. The sky darkened into the late late night of northern summer. Lights came on in the house across the street. A snatch of accordion music drifted up from the corner. 

I knew the young chap in the apartment opposite would go to sleep early because he left for work at 6 in the morning. That the accordion player was not rubicund and beret-clad, but a fresh-faced single mother who played gigs on the weekends. I knew that later in the evening the boys would congregate at the side door of the “Irish” pub, ten paces round the corner, for a smoke and a bit of a chat. That a little before 7 in the morning the garbage truck would edge cautiously down the street, taking special care not to make a noise around No. 26 or else Monsieur Everet would shout at them from his first-floor window. I realised I knew the pulse of the neighbourhood. Even it was for a very few days, I fitted in. I may no longer have the wonder of the Trocadero under the evening sun, but I could down a pint with an oddity, a Frenchman who preferred Guinness to Bordeaux.  And with the epiphany, “peace came dropping slow”.

No, I could no longer feel the keen thrill of novelty. But I had in its place the comfort of familiarity, the pleasures of the everyday. The cement that binds any lasting relationship.

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