Sunday, August 02, 2009

Between the covers - College Street

Adults are biased towards stories that have a beginning, a middle and an end. In that order. Children don’t really care, they just want to know “what happens next”. From this perspective, there should be more children on College Street. Although the maps will tell you College Street runs from Bowbazar to Mahatma Gandhi Road (Harrison Road as was), this is a part of Calcutta that has no discernible beginning nor an end. Every time you think you’ve reached one end of it, three more book-stalls appear under yet another tarpaulin-rigged awning. Side lanes, porticos, lobbies of peeling old houses, in this part of town they breed books like buildings elsewhere grow mold. On a late Saturday morning when the colleges give over early and the book-loving Bengali babu is starting his weekend, this para buzzes with activity like an ant’s nest that’s just sighted an aardvark. Our car inched through the little lane that runs from Harrison Road to the gate of Presidency College. We stopped for strollers, honked at carters, dodged tiny buzzing three-wheeled carry-alls loaded with (what else?) books, then finally gave up and walked the last hundred yards to the door of the Indian Coffee House.

Our story had its beginning in a conversation a week before our visit. An uncle of mine had dismissed the College Street boi para (roughly, “neighbourhood of books”) as a flea-market for crammers’ texts and second-hand potboilers. “Can you find anything in any language that is RARE, let alone interesting?” Out of nowhere, we fixed on Jadunath Sarkar, doyen of Bengal’s historians, as the touchstone. Could we find anything by him on College Street? So it came to pass that 11 o’clock on a cloudy humid Saturday saw us stepping gingerly through puddles, wiping our faces repeatedly under the combined onslaught of humidity and a faint drizzle, glancing with unconcealed disgust at stall after stall that advertised “CBSE-ICSE-ISC text” or “Medical – JEE – CAT”. Was THIS what College Street had been reduced to? Where were the bonanzas that our parents’ generation gloated over, the pamphlet autographed by Toru Dutt or the 1898 edition of the Materia Medica?

The Coffee House lane (Bankim Chatterjee Street) is entirely devoted to textbooks. (What a waste - even during our student days some decades ago, textbooks never figured on our list of priorities.) Yet it makes historical sense. Hindu College in 1817, Sanskrit College, the Calcutta Medical College in 1835, Calcutta University and later Presidency College – these were all started on College Street or just off it in the Potoldanga area. Small wonder that the College Street boi para took root, almost 200 years ago, from the textbook trade. For more esoteric books and for the latest rage, the gentry ordered in from the booksellers in the Chowringhee area. It was only at the turn of the (previous) century that College Street’s booksellers increased the ambit of their trade. And the stories of lost treasures glimpsed in dusty piles on the pavement took root, grew, gave rise to myths and tall tales.

These tales were most often told in the Coffee House, the adopted home of generations of self-proclaimed Bengali intelligentsia. Housed in the Albert Hall (yes, of course there had to be one in the “second city of the Raj”! This one was built in 1876), this was the place to enjoy the best adda, the slowest service and the most tolerant waiters in the world. Poets, economists, politicians, charlatans, they all spent hours and days over carefully nursed cups of coffee and shared cigarettes under the slow revolving fans strung on beams between the upper floor balconies. Every Bengali of note, from Rabindranath Tagore to Amartya Sen, has been a patron. One of the most enduringly popular Bangla songs is Manna Dey’s anthem to nostalgia, Coffee House-er shei adda. Yet like most things Bengalis hold dear, it has been on the brink of oblivion for years. It took a petition from the faculty of Calcutta University and the Presidency College to keep it from being shut down in 1958. Eventually, in 1995, Mudar Patherya led an initiative for essential renovation and again in 2007, Bengal Shelter cleaned and renovated it. Today it is almost chic in its ambience. Of course there are old-timers who miss the smoke-blackened walls and the chipped Coffee Board saucers. But they still serve the most soul-satisfying greasy “mutton Afghani”. I can vouch for this because, of course, we ended our College Street expedition there.

But again the time-line jinks. The book search, yes. We pushed through the crowds on the sidewalk in our search for old books, yet all we found within that tunnel of blue polythene rain-sheets was text-books. And children’s books. And self-help books. We crossed to the other side of the road and found a different world. Piles upon piles of pulp fiction, literary criticism, photography, yearbooks. Obviously this side, along the wall of Presidency College, is more fun. Subol Moitra from Medinipur peeped shyly from his book-walled alcove and edified us about the complicated system of rental and sub-rental that governed the economy of these six by four “locations”. But where oh where, among this rubble of Harold Robbins and Fashion Photography, were we to find anything by the great Jadunath Sarkar? Back to the other side we went, picking our way between reddish-chocolate mini-buses, bright yellow taxis and rickshaws with schoolchildren peeking out from behind the inevitable blue polythene sheet.

From an article by Amit Roy I found that six bookshops opened between 54 College Street and 70 College Street in the 1870s. One of these was Gurudas Chatterjee’s Bengal Medical Library, which is now the venerable institution of Chatterjee & Sons, right opposite the gate of Presidency College. But alas, the harried gentleman behind the counter was positive that they had nothing by Jadunath Sarkar. He could try and get it for us if we left an order, but that was not within the rules of the game. On we went, past an open shop-front that revealed no counter within, just piles of books in the semi-dark, like the Xiqian terracotta army waiting to be brought back to life. Craning my neck to check the shop-signs farther down, I saw “Dasgupta & Co. (P) Ltd.” Why had I not thought of this earlier? For many years Arabinda Dasgupta has been my go-to man when I want a book that’s not available over the counter, but we had never met in person, we had always been voices on the phone. We ventured in and asked for him. Within minutes we were sipping coffee at a small table in a room that seemed to be built with books. If one looked closely one could see an occasional patch of wall or a piece of furniture, but the foreground, background and middle ground consisted entirely of books and nothing else. The bonus lay in overhearing the impassioned conversations on the telephone. “Drugs and Cosmetics, have you sent that to Bombay yet? You should have it by Tuesday morning, call me if it hasn’t reached you.” “Where did you put that Swift on Grammar? Somebody from Raj Bhavan will be here in an hour to collect it.” “Hanif on Accountancy? Yes, we have a couple of copies, but it’ll take some time to get it to you in London.” The total experience, the combination of focussed business and casual erudition, was somewhere between a library and a stock exchange.

Coffee done with, we got down to the serious business of Finding Sir Jadunath. “But of course, I’m sure I saw something by him.” And Mr. Dasgupta shot off to hunt among the shelves, returning for a moment to hand me, as a sort of appetizer or amuse bouche, a collection of essays by F. Max Mueller (I point to India). Within minutes he returned triumphant, bearing a book in a slightly battered yellow cover – Introducing India, edited by K.N. Bagchi and W.G. Griffiths (yes, THAT Griffiths), first published in 1947 and reprinted in 1990 by Dr. Ashin DasGupta, Administrator, Asiatic Society, 1 Park Street, Calcutta. Seeing our brows furrowed, he opened it and pointed to an article on Indian history by, yes yes YES, Jadunath Sarkar! Our quest was over!

But not our expedition. We were led on a tour of the three floors of the shop. Up a spiral staircase of wrought-iron, through old doors under raftered ceilings, and in every room, books and more books. If there is a heaven on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this! Books the way they can be savoured best, with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Encyclopaedia of Body Building lying atop a history of football on the Calcutta maidan and next to an anthology of travelogues from Central Asia, with In search of an equation sharing floor space with an illustrated history of Central Indian tribes. A balcony shaded by a gnarled old neem tree, with a view of College Street on one side, and on the other a wire-mesh window behind which a dignified old gent tapped away at a word-processor but with a trusty typewriter beside him as a back-up. It took an effort of will to leave, but deadlines beckoned. We took our leave and hied ourselves to the Coffee House to celebrate, where Javed Khan, in cummerbund and turban, posed for us after he brought us (as expected) the best mutton afghani and the worst cold coffee possible.

College Street had not done with us yet. As we descended the uneven stairs, we noticed a series of posters on the wall – “Mohamichhil (Great Procession) on –th July”. But that’s today! We’ll be stuck here for hours! Our well-fed saunter changed to a sprint. Sure enough, traffic was halted outside, a posse of policemen in white uniforms were massed along the tram-tracks and the head of a procession complete with banners was visible 50 metres to the south, opposite the University gate. Fortunately our car was parked farther north, our ungainly canter was just fast enough to get to it before the procession started moving and we were able to speed away before the road was closed off. This was one time we didn’t stop to find out “what happened next”. But true to form, College Street had started another story before we had quite finished the one before.

(Stodgy, yes, but I am reliably informed that some version of this has appeared in an on-flight magazine)


Rimi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rimi said...

Sigh. Dasgupta is a fabulous place to go to when everyone else has thrown down their hats (or Indiana, if one is looking for new specimens of foreign publications, often academic). But the dominance of textbooks is painful. I can't walk down the footpath without being jostled and cajoled to try the JEE-CAT "jora set".

Narayn Gongopadhyay, in his Desh column "Sunondor Journal" once admitted that his idea of heaven-on-earth was bringing the golden days of yore back to College Street for just one day, when textbooks, 'notebooks' and suggestions would disappear, and brand new inexpensive books of poetry, plays, essays and novels from all over India and beyond would take their place.

Not to be, of course. But one can dream.

Falstaff said...

"Adults are biased towards stories that have a beginning, a middle and an end. In that order."

Sigh. Yet more evidence that I'm not an adult.

Tabula Rasa said...

stodgy, yes! this is too sheddo-bhath to be a true jap piece :-)

km said...

This made me feel like jumping on the next plane to Calcutta. (And stodgy? Come now, don't be so modest.)

Anonymous said...

Who are WE ?
I mean the other members of your expedition team...

tami said...

This is a lovely read, and nothing close to being stodgy!
Makes me want to come to Calcutta again!

Man in Mufti said...

There. Its not stodgy, see.

So now do something to make them all catch the next plane. :-).

But wait.
Maybe first a few more people have to go out before calling any more in.

Or maybe its the more the merriam. :-p

Sue said...

I think I need chicken sandwiches and coffee. Priyanka, want to join me on Saturday?

Poorna Banerjee said...

You should have ASKED me. I could have got it for you. there's a little store which stores bengali rare books. Costs the earth (i.e. about 150-300 bucks) but the books are in good condition.
Btw, you could have asked for the Fall of the Mughal Empire by Jadunath Sarkar. Orient Blackswan Publication. EASIER to find.

Smriti Srivastava said...

Interesting post this one.

I came across this post when our college faculty member sent it to me saying it might be useful for our assignment. It sure was.

We are students of Asian College of Journalism, Chennai and are creating a wiki on STORES FOR USED BOOKS in India. We have asked our friends from various parts of the country to contribute to the wiki and the project is underway.

We have been meaning to contact you but due to pending assignments, this process kept getting delayed. I, on the Behalf of students of ACJ, request you to contribute this article or a new one to the wiki, if you would like to do so.

Kindly contact us on :

the wiki's URL is

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

you made my day! I am in this Kolkata_nostalgia phase.. was searching for some old bengali song tune and landed in your blog! And lo! pics from College street.. my favorite place in Kolkata.. vistited this place almost every other week when I was studying at Scottish Church. as I said.. those pics made my day!