Earlier this month, when the Publishers & Booksellers Guild, which organises the International Kolkata Book Fair (KBF), announced that the annual event would be postponed due to the covid-19 pandemic, the decision probably registered as a blip on the never-ending cycle of bad news. The call to not hold it in the usual period of end-January to early February was taken after prolonged deliberations, says Sudhangshu Sekhar Dey, honorary general secretary of the guild. “We have been weighing the pros and cons of organising the 2021 fair since June last year,” he adds.
The 45-year-old fair—the beloved boi mela to Bengalis worldwide—draws 2-2.2 million visitors on an average every year, with 100,000-150,000 visitors on its busiest days. Brisk business takes place, too, with sales usually clocking up ₹20-22 crore at the end of each edition. Although some of the more modest book fairs in the districts have gone ahead with protocols of physical distancing and crowd management in place, such measures don’t work for an event on the scale of the KBF.
Apart from being one of the largest fairs of its kind in Asia, it has had an international character since it started in 1976, with a theme country designated for each of the editions. This year Bangladesh was to be in focus. “Publishers were ready to fly in, but visa restrictions and suspension of international flights forced us to reconsider our plans,” Dey says.
There was a salutary lesson in the fiasco during Durga Puja a few months ago, when a public interest litigation (PIL) filed at the Calcutta high court led to strict imposition of restrictions on the puja committees. After initially barring visitors from going inside the pandals, the court, following an appeal by the organising committees, allowed a limited number of people in.
“It’s impossible for us to follow similar measures, given the volume of visitors we get,” says Dey. There is the additional fear of having to field new PILs—a dreaded entity for the KBF, which encountered several such legal googlies in the lead up to 2006, when it was ousted from its original venue, the Maidan, for causing environmental and civic hazards.
On the face of it, postponing the book fair seems like a minor inconvenience in a year when hundreds around the country are dying of the deadly coronavirus every day. But for booksellers and publishers, especially small and local businesses, the decision augurs staggering loss of income and opportunities. “The book fair brings instant liquidity to our business,” says Esha Chatterjee, marketing head of Patra-Bharati, a veteran Bengali publishing firm, who is also CEO of BEE Books, its English-language counterpart, both based in Kolkata. “It provides the bulk of the cash support for the rest of the year.”
The fair is the venue for launching new titles, organising author interactions, and making the best of the opportunity to reach out to hundreds of thousands of visitors. “Last year we published a new book by the late (Bengali writer) Nabaneeta Dev Sen at the fair,” Chatterjee adds. “It sold 1,500 copies in days—that’s a big number for Bengali publishing.”
The view from industry leaders is not different either. “The book fairs in India are hugely important for all publishers ,” says Nandan Jha, senior vice-president of product and sales at Penguin Random House India. “These consumer fairs are open to lakhs of visitors and book lovers every day looking for books they cannot find in the book stores—or just in the hope of encountering exciting new reads and attractive discounts.”
Cynics may wonder about the appeal of such events in the age of online retail and easier discoverability of titles on the internet. Even in 2020, in spite of three fallow months of dwindling sales during the lockdown, the English-language publishing industry managed to keep books in the public eye by promoting them on digital platforms, a recent Press Trust of India report said. But these sceptics probably haven’t been to the Kolkata book fair in its heyday, or grown up in the pre-internet era, when finding a reliable book store in India, where you could get hold of a foreign title you fancied without burning a hole through your pocket, was a formidable challenge. And they certainly don’t know the trials faced by small, independent language publishers, when it comes to getting the word out about their books.
“I would save my pocket money or any cash people would gift me through the year for the fair,” says Devalina Mookerjee, who works with the Jadavpur University (JU) Press, Kolkata, as a development editor. Her interest in publishing, she believes, stems from her yearly excursions to the fair since her childhood. “After all these years, when we advertise on social media for volunteers to manage the JU Press stall at the book fair, we get an overwhelming response,” she adds. Last year, a student flew all the way in from Japan to be part of the experience.
Attending the KBF is indeed an experience, which may begin with a love for books but branch out into a myriad other directions. Those delights may include eating savoury snacks from pop-up stalls, getting your portrait painted by young artists and students of the fine arts, buying hand-painted calendars and greeting cards, running into old friends and making new ones, finding your one true love while browsing the shelves of obscure publishers, losing a sense of time while sampling stacks of “little magazines”, nosing around the rickety “communist book stalls” set up by workers of the party to find rare editions of classic Russian folk tales and, of course, returning home with stacks of books to last you till the time the next KBF.
Kolkata is hard to imagine without its book fair this year—but then, the world has made us live through a worse predicament of late.