Kolkata’s season of books
With three festivals coming up, we revisit the history of the legendary Kolkata Book Fair
About 250 authors, including 2016 Man Booker prize winner Paul Beatty; dozens of reading and interactive sessions at multiple heritage venues; and two children’s literary events making their debuts—Kolkata is gearing up for its season of books and literature, with a slight spillover to February, and a January-end book fair touted to be the largest in Asia.
Beatty, along with Kiran Desai, the 2006 Man Booker prize winner, will lead the roster of 100-odd authors scheduled to attend the Kolkata Literary Meet, to be held from 25-29 January at the imposing Victoria Memorial. It will be preceded by the four-day Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival (AKLF), starting 15 January at St Paul’s Cathedral, among other venues. Authors such as Nayantara Sahgal, Kiran Nagarkar, Jerry Pinto and Ananya Vajpeyi are expected to attend. Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor, with his new book, An Era Of Darkness: The British Empire In India, will be a common draw at both events.
The last of the literary showpieces, the three-day Kolkata Literary Festival (KLF), organized simultaneously with the International Kolkata Book Fair at the Milan Mela grounds, will begin on 2 February. The KLF will piggyback on the International Kolkata Book Fair, to be held from 25 January-5 February—last year, 2.5 million people had visited the fair and bought books worth Rs25 crore, according to Tridib Kumar Chatterjee, honorary general secretary of the Publishers and Booksellers Guild. These figures reinforce the International Kolkata Book Fair’s stature as India’s largest in terms of book retail, and among the highest in the world in terms of visitor numbers.
His assertion flies in the face of a recent survey by online book vendor Amazon India. Its “Annual Reading Trends Report for 2016", released recently, does not list Kolkata among the top three book-buying Indian cities; Delhi takes the top position.
While Chatterjee flaunts the sales figures from the International Kolkata Book Fair, AKLF director Anjum Katyal is more circumspect, maintaining that readers in Kolkata often share books and utilize the facilities of its many public libraries. “It is also true that Kolkata is yet to fully grow into the online buying habit. I also know that many readers buy from second-hand book stores. It takes nothing away from their passion and enthusiasm for literature," says Malavika Banerjee of the Kolkata Literary Meet.
Indeed, for a city generally perceived to be slow to change, the early history of the International Kolkata Book Fair exemplifies Kolkata’s attitude towards books and literature. In 1974, when the book fair was being conceptualized by some young publishers sitting at the College Street Coffee House, on the lines of the Frankfurt Book Fair, many seniors in the business opposed it. “They felt that books were not commodities that could be sold in fairs," says the fair’s website. The young publishers persisted, and the first edition took off in 1976.
Photographs published in newspapers of readers weeping profusely against the backdrop of a fire that raged through the fair ground in 1997 symbolize both love and loss. The next year, when philosopher Jacques Derrida inaugurated the fair, everything fell back into place.
“It says something about the city that three high-profile book festivals, held almost simultaneously, can be sustainable over the years, along with the International Kolkata Book Fair. It’s a celebration of the printed word," says Katyal of AKLF, which started in 2010.
From this year, the AKLF and Kolkata Literary Meet will also organize separate children’s literature festivals around the main festival. Evening concerts and performances will round off the day’s events.
This year, with the effects of demonetization yet to blow over and buyers still facing a cash crunch, the organizers are contemplating a “community banking" initiative where small groups of publishers and retailers will pool in resources to help customers with payments. “I don’t think anything can stop people from reading," Chatterjee says.