Wednesday, February 08, 2023

Idyll, idle

 Somewhere to the west, behind me, a single-line railway cuts across town from north to south. Late last evening, and again just now after the sun has passed its zenith, the cracked two-tone moan of a diesel loco rose behind the bungalows of the Civil Surgeons and the Additional District Judges. Diffused by distance and the trees that surround this space, it is a far lost lament circling towards the sun. In starkly contrasting mood, a young neem tree in front of me sways and shimmers happily in the afternoon sun and breeze. Roseate parakeets swoop and squawk between the scattered trees. 

I look up into the branches of the guava tree, and a black-hooded oriole chatters right above me. A wood-dove erupts from a mango tree on my right, flies a pointless circle round the garden, then vanishes into the foliage fifty yards away to my left. How pleasant it is that birdsong here is louder than the traffic. How pleasant that even on a working day, my phone has not rung once in the last hour, so I can use it to take photographs and record my musings. How very pleasant to sit here in a green-gold mental haze, with “no deeds to do, no promises to keep”. I sigh in pleasure, and settle myself even more comfortably into my chair in the shade of the old guava tree.

 In the middle distance a furry dog shakes itself luxuriously, then jumps up on a verandah ledge and drapes itself lengthwise for a siesta. A flight of pigeons clatters up, then resumes its circling. From some green hideaway, a coppersmith barbet briefly tolls its triple note, a sound that I had hitherto associated only with the long hot afternoons of pre-monsoon summer. Now, in the chill of a retreating northern winter, it seems strange as a familiar tongue in a foreign clime. But still it lulls me further into this pleasant trance, just being, observing, floating on the slow current of the drifting day. Somewhere inside me the querulous voice of my weekday self rises in familiar rhythms, only to be summarily swamped by the surge of idleness. Which is also the voice of reason, for on this day, in this fairy-tale moment, there is nothing that I have to do, nowhere that I have to go, nobody I have to meet. A rare backwater on the stream of my unexciting life, where the absence of obligation offers placid enjoyment.  “I’m dappled and drowsy and ready to sleep / Let the morning time drop all its petals on me …”

 P------t, proper in his dark blue sweater and trousers, looking faintly disoriented as is his wont, approaches with small measured steps. He bears a tray with a cup of tea and a small bottle of mineral water, which he sets down on the chair next to mine. He is about to enquire what else I need, but I smile and thank him and wave him away. This moment, this mood, is not to be spoiled by speech. The sun is slipping farther. The birds are still loud, still insistent. The parakeets are the noisiest, spoilt children shrieking and screeching as they zigzag between the trees. A pariah kite mews and cheeps as it glides down into a nearby tree, giving away the location of its nest. A smell of earth and wood-smoke rises behind the bungalows. Chulhas being lit in preparation for tea, as working people find their way home? There is a hint of sharpness on the breeze now as evening sidles in, an edge even in these last days of a fading winter.

Mynahs, grackles, finches, rollers, all tune up their parts against the backdrop of the parakeets. A faster train approaches from the north, a higher longer note indicating an electric loco, and Dopplers its way to the south. More auto-rickshaws moan their electric threnody as office-goers ride homewards. The long light laps against the Circuit House, washes the trees a warmer shade, pours shadows over the grass, softens the edges of my vision's frame. The shadows of paired kites pass over the sunlit grass, as their circles descend with the fading of the day.

 Five squirrels leap and circle and chatter in front of a cottage. The dog has finished its siesta and descended from the ledge, stretching luxuriously before shaking itself and trotting off on its evening rounds.

 And now, as the birdsong subsides, as only the parakeets remain, to perch on the top branches with loud chatter, the usual evening sense of sadness settles like mist upon the vista. A nightjar strikes up in a far corner. I sip my tea. A gentle giant, bespectacled, comes over to ask me to move to the eastern lawn. That one is better maintained. The western side is comparatively unkempt. I find it more attractive, but the undergrowth might provide cover for snakes. Surely it's still too cold for them to emerge? But why take chances .... I hoist my day-bag and cup and step forth for sunnier climes. The open lawn on the other side of the House will bask in the setting sun for nearly another hour, long after these trees have furled the western grounds in soft shadow and frogs have taken over duties of the orchestra pit from the birds.


One gap remained, one sight unseen. Fourteen years ago I spent a month in this faux-colonial edifice, in the room almost under the stairs. Morning and evening I would walk or sit on the lawn, and every time I would see a family of four Indian grey hornbills. Large ungainly birds, they would perch on the higher branches, or hop about upon the thicker ones like a kindergartener who needs the loo. Their flight was slow and clumsy, alternately flapping heavily and gliding between one tree and another. They never perched on buildings or poles.

On this visit, I looked for them but caught only a brief glimpse of one in silhouette, that too on a tree outside the huge grounds of the Circuit House. Sitting in the gathering gloaming on the eastern lawn, I read up on grey hornbills. Their life-span is thirty years or more, so the same family could well be around. But nary a sight of them have I had so far.

But wait! That repeated call from the depths of the banyan tree? Like a large pariah kite trying to imitate a car horn? Surely ...

And in a moment of joy, first one and then a second hornbill bursts forth from the behind the trailing roots of the banyan and flies away to the east. A sighting. And a farewell.

Patiala has fulfilled a promise.


Monday, January 02, 2023


 Barrraaaa … ter-raaatt!” Sardar Karnail Singh bellowed across the paddock. And twenty sad OTs, Officer Trainees, held on to the reins in quiet desperation as their lives were speeded up an unwelcome notch. We had all been told to lightly spur our horses upon Karnail Singh’s command, so they would move from a sedate trot into a canter, the burra trot. We all took to heart the part about “lightly”, and barely brushed our heels against our horses’ flanks. In hopes that they would miss the memo and stick to the rather comfortable slower pace. No such luck. The horses were far better trained than their riders, and after several seasons of Karnail Singh’s dulcet tones echoing round their ears, they understood his orders thoroughly. Wherefore the horses broke into a canter. And several OTs, I am sure, broke into a sweat.

For a brief spell, I was actually exhilarated by the sensation. Fingers knotted in the reins, knees clamped tight around the horse, I fondly imagined that I cut a fine figure. Or at the very least, a less sorry figure than U---- S---, who on the very first day of riding class had fallen off a stationary horse and broken his collar-bone. And as usually happens in such circumstances, I became careless. My grip on the reins must have slackened. The first I got to know of this was when my steed suddenly harrumphed and broke into a full gallop. A gallop! With a rider who had mounted on his own for the first time, only four days prior! What the … well, here again, I must confess, the fault was largely mine.

There were a few horses in the stables that were earmarked for the special category of plump, despairing, dewy-eyed lady officers who almost broke into tears when they entered the paddock. These were the placid, even-tempered steeds, usually no more than 11 to 12 hands high, who seemed to maintain the same speed regardless of whether they walked, trotted or cantered. Then there were what one might term the horses of the general pool. We gentlemen officers were supposed to try our luck with these. And there were three horses that were in a class of their own. Nobody, or almost nobody, wanted anything to do with these. One was the strangely named Budstar, a white army remount who was born to lead. She had impeccable manners and the general air of a tolerant regimental colonel. The problem was, she stood more than 16 hands at the withers, and the ground seemed very very far away for a poor city boy stranded astride her. (I can vouch for this, because eight years later I was misguided enough to mount up on her for what was meant to be a gentle walk around the suburbs of Dehra Doon but ended as a wild never-ending gallop across ploughed fields, including some cauliflower crops that caused chaos in the squadron.) A second unpopular horse was the aptly-named Touch-Me-Not. This gelding combined all the loveable qualities of Thomas Silverstein of Leavenworth and Freddy Krueger of Elm Street. On the first day itself he had lashed out with a two-legged kick that narrowly failed to decapitate our friend Tali Temjen Toy. But apparently even the most contrary horse can find a rider. Rajesh Singh grew up riding horses around the Police Lines in Patna. He was confident enough, and actually a good enough horseman, to adopt Touch-Me-Not as his regular mount. And our resident vet from the Indian Foreign Service, Ramesh Kumar - tall, gangly and experienced - quite liked surveying the horizon from the exalted height of Budstar.

Which left the third horse that nobody wanted to ride. Dara. A handsome muscular deceptive son of Belial with a coat like gleaming milk chocolate and a twinkle in his eye that sometimes changed into the glint of scheming evil. Guess who set his heart on riding this good-looking rogue? Oh well. I was much younger then, but I was also much much more foolish, out of all proportion to my youth.

So it came to pass that I found myself astride several hundred kilos of rocking horseflesh, accelerating rapidly but not quite smoothly past the line of the other horses. I barely registered a look of horrified surprise on the face of a fellow officer as we appeared at his elbow and then vanished ahead of him. In those few seconds that seemed to last forever, I squeezed my knees tighter and tighter until my entire lower half seemed clenched in rigor. I pulled on the reins until I was sure my fingers would be cut off. All to no avail. Dara thundered on. And I realised that my situation was about to become more dire.

The riding paddock at Charleville is set in a hollow at the bottom of a hill. The gate from the road is on the only open side. The other three sides are the natural enclosure formed by the hill slopes, but … BUT! … buttressed in local granite to a height of twenty feet. And Dara, mad bad Dara, completed the gallop down one side of the paddock, left the line of the other horses far behind, turned around the shortest side … and headed straight for the stone wall at a rate of knots! I was doomed. I knew it. Inside my stalled brain I could hear a distant yammering. And still I kept up my futile pull on the reins, and still I squeezed my knees tight until my circulation gave up the fight. The stone wall seemed to jump closer. It came into focus despite the bounce and rattle of Dara’s galloping, until I saw the cracks and dimples made by the chisels, the little clumps of grass between the edges, the line eight feet up where my head would probably be smashed open ….

Until at the last moment Dara heeled over onto his right, like a motorcycle banking into a tight turn, and the wall fell away on my left. My mind went blank with the realisation that I was not going to die a strange and horrible death between a horse and a hard place. The relief lasted only for a split second. I realised two things simultaneously. First, that while I would probably not die, I might be crippled. Because Dara was now galloping along the outer wall, and so close as to crush my left leg or at least my left knee against the stone. Second, that the distant yammering was not just within my head. Sardar Karnail Singh, now in my field of vision, was bellowing across the paddock “Aise, sahib … AISE !!”.  as he sawed his hands alternately in front of him. Adrenaline lit up my brain. I realised that Dara had literally got the bit between his teeth, and the only way to get it back against the tender part of his mouth and re-establish control was to pull the reins left and right alternately. Which I did. Immediately. With more strength in my numb fingers and forearms and aching shoulders than I would have thought possible.

It worked. The thunder faded. The rocking subsided. Dara slowed, first to a canter, then to a trot. He ran off the circular sandy track beaten by the hooves and finally stopped on a patch of wild grass and weeds. Harrumphed, snorted long and loud, as if laughing at my discomfiture. I swear he looked back at me, over his shoulder, and all but winked in glee before he returned to cropping the grass. I was too dazed to even pull his head up. From somewhere far away I could hear a friend calling “Good show!”. Karnail Singh, with uncharacteristic kindness, shouted “Saab, utar jaaiye”, that I could dismount if I wanted to.

But I did not dismount immediately. Instead, I pulled Dara’s head up, slapped him on the neck, tapped my heels into him, and walked him slowly back to the corner where the syces waited. Only then did I dismount, in style – first pulling off the riding hat, then my little fingerless leather gloves, then making a great show of patting and stroking and reprimanding Dara, before I finally swung off and dropped to the ground. My apparent savoir faire was the subject of my friends’ grudging admiration later. Even Karnail Singh held off from his usual refrain of “Sahab, kya kar rahe ho, ghodey ko kharaab kar dogey!” What are you doing, you’ll ruin the horse.

Only I knew the real reason for my apparent nonchalance. My legs had been trembling so violently that I knew they would not have supported me if I had tried to get off the horse immediately.

Friday, December 23, 2022

Shades of dusk

As the light fades across the western sky, I sit immersed in silence that is yet not quite silent. Home at an unusual hour, before the December day has dimmed entirely. I revel in the shadows and the peace. The silence is accentuated by a faint thrumming from the kitchen, the tiny scratching of claws in a cage, a bird indignant over some small avian disagreement. Through the long windows the light laps at the feet of my living room furniture, washes over curtains and cushions, dresses the corners in long strokes of shadow, touches the everyday with the brush of fleeting mystery. In what passes for winter in my tropical town, smog has risen half-way up the sky and veiled the sun well above the horizon. So much for flaming sunsets. 

“Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets 
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes 
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows?…” 
“While some people take the party with them wherever they go, Prufrock brings the loneliness.” But is that such a bad thing? Perhaps Prufrock only shows us the emptiness that sings within. Perhaps the party is a masque to cover up the quiet and the dark that wait and wait for the doors in our minds to open. Then again, must I be lonely when I am alone? In quality, in the richness of flavour, there is a difference between loneliness and solitude. The former brings pain, anomie. Solitude is the luxury of the free mind. 

As the light fades further, the noise of traffic homeward bound frays the edges of the velvet silence. Small lights prick holes in the rising dark. My recliner seems to stretch out of its own volition. The smell of incense wraps me in memories – long evenings long ago, with the tinkling bell of my grandmother’s devotions, or my yawning room in Delhi back when I waited for my life to turn the corner. On cue, the neighbouring muezzin sings his melancholy notes. A kite floats past my balcony, late to her waiting nestlings. A pair of flying foxes, great Indian fruit bats, flap homeward to the fig tree in the ashram to the north. Now the French windows frame the last of the dusk, the room fades into softer dark, my subconscious seeks the strains of massed violins, my memory resurrects my great-aunt who loved me more than anybody else and her strong smooth fingers that stroked my head until I slept. 

From the dark vale that undulates softly between the light from my laptop screen and the salmon shades of evening, I seem to rise beyond the detritus of the working day and float into a great domed hall of silent solitude. 

In these moments, I am free.

Thursday, December 22, 2022

The simple pleasures

He retired from the Indian Navy many years ago. He says we last met in 2011, though I seem to recall meeting him later in my (then) office on the other side of the river. Be that as it may, he took the trouble to drive over from Fort William and spend some time just catching up. Such a delightful conversation, ranging from the basic principles of Shinto to the effect that the scent of cortisone secretion has on animals, and covering in between the translated version of Buddhadev Bose's Raat Bhore Brishti and the difference in the stroke timing in swimming for sprints and long distance. Like books, some few people are also to be savoured at leisure. Or, as the Man (whose short stories also came up in the conversation) put it, "Apnake toh cultivate kortey hocche moshai!"

Sunday, June 06, 2021

If a tree falls in the forest (Badosa, Bogdan - such names!)


When I checked in the morning, I found that Badosa had won. Ba. Do. Sa. The names provided one reason to stay tuned to this minor match in the French Open. This girl from Italy, the other from Romania. Bogdan. Bog. Dan.

They belie the clunkiness of their names. Both are lean, athletic, high-cheekboned. Muscular, even, with toned biceps that put to shame my own amorphous arms. Why did I watch the match almost all the way through? Perhaps because, as I near the end of my first career, I empathise ever more with the honest trier. Neither has the game to win a Grand Slam. They will earn some money on the journeyman’s circuit, grinding it out, occasionally hitting a great shot or playing a great point, doing 15 min sets of shuttle runs every morning until their knees ache and their lungs burn. They will never see greatness. After a few years, they will retire from the circuit and look for other lives. The most obvious option would be tennis coaching, or at least something to do with sports and fitness. They could even try modelling. But who knows? Bogdan might be learning to play the cello. Badosa may have a degree in films and communication. Their lives are not limited to the red clay arena. Or perhaps they are. Who knows?

The match went against form for a while. Badosa is ranked 34 to Bogdan’s 102 (best – 59), she has reached the 4th round at Roland Garros where Bogdan’s best is the second round, she has earned twice as much money this year. And she is 5 years younger than her opponent, who is 30. She also has one more singles title than Bogdan. Who has none. Badosa obviously has the better game. More power, accuracy. Better shot selection, too.

But all that forsook her in the first set, where Bogdan played percentage tennis, with a more solid backhand. In fact her backhand is her stronger side. Not one of her forehands had explosive power or line-searing accuracy. A couple of Badosa’s shots showed class, but she made too many unforced errors. She went down 6-2.

The second set see-sawed, went to a tie-break. The cameras zoomed in on the women. Bogdan, all cheekbones and eyelashes, was impassive. Only her bright grey eyes showed some emotion, and once she shouted at herself. Badosa provided more drama. Chic black wrap-around skirt occasionally flapping in the wind, the slim steel danglers in her ears shimmering when she tilted her head, eyes determinedly averted from her opponent when they sat court-side between games. She muttered, grimaced, raised her arms skywards. And clawed back into the match, taking the tie-break 7-4. One set all.

The third set was off-piste. They held serve, then broke each other again and again. Each time Bogdan took advantage of Badosa’s erraticism and ground her way to a game point on her own serve, the Italian (born in the USA, she was born in the USA) produced a good point, sometimes a great shot, and muscled back into the set. But again, Bogdan ground close enough to seal some of the break points. Somewhere inside, I was rooting for Bogdan because she is older, she has less time left, she is the lower-ranked underdog. But I could see the writing on the wall. Bogdan was tiring. She didn’t run around her backhand to finish off loose returns. Was she unsure of her forehand? She did not go for the kill even when a flank was wide open. Still playing the percentages, but they were no longer in her favour. Because Badosa was back in her zone. Hitting deep, hard, wide. A couple of times she left Bogdan standing.

It showed in the way she walked back to her chair. Lithe, confident, almost feral. Like a cheetah on the stalk, knowing that it will take just a last burst of speed to take the prey. And it happened. Bogdan, subtly tired and just a little unsure after the break-backs, tried too many drop-shots. Too slow. Too high. All in the backhand net corner. Badosa ran them down, killed them. Then Bogdan put a couple into the net herself. After 4 all, after 2 breaks apiece, after 4 deuces, Badosa held serve. And stalked to her deuce court to receive. 

I knew what was coming. I switched off the TV.  The match vanished. The players faded.

I could not bear to see either of them lose. I am too invested in the pain of the journeyman. 

Friday, January 06, 2017


In the first week of a new year, Om Puri is dead. At the age of 66. I wonder what Naseeruddin Shah will have to say about him. Did they even remain friends after the ’80s?

Two nights ago, a call from my one-time best friend. His mother is dead, he has flown in from another city and he is almost at the crematorium. For 3 years now, I had been thinking that I should visit his parents. Many afternoons and evenings in my teens, much love and many rebukes and many meals and books in that house. I never made it. Now she is gone, and his father remains.
And he did not think of me when he got the news, even though I am the oldest friend he has in this city.

My father occasionally speaks of death. His own death, too. He is increasingly aware of the finite nature of life. I want to spend more time with him. And I wonder what would happen to my daughter if I were to go next.

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!

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.