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Dallas based author shares her Kolkata Book Fair memories

7 February, 2018 12:30:00
Home / Dallas based author shares her Kolkata Book Fair memories
Dallas based author shares her Kolkata Book Fair memories

USA based author Lopa Banerjee shares books and memories, she once picked up at Kolkata Book Fair, and misses the sea of humanity on a book trail

Year 2006. In a mildly comforting, breezy late January afternoon, I was wading through a sea of unknown faces and bodies, trying to keep a tab on the myriad stalls selling zillions of books of all languages, subjects and colors under the planet. I was one of those anonymous faces, loitering on the fairgrounds of the Kolkata International Book Fair, like I did almost every year in the boisterous spirit of the archetypal Bengalis. I was tasting the freshly brewed coffee and fish fries on one end of the fairground, while on the other end, the lure of the huge pavilion of Spain, the central theme of the book fair of that year was beckoning me like a bewitching night spirit.

I was taking it all within my inner core-- the all-day-round activities of browsing the fairgrounds and picking up the most precious literary jewels, listening to the poetry readings, book readings, the unforgettable synchronicity of music in the air, the smell of dust lingering in our footsteps, the tempting call of the indigenous book stalls of Kolkata, the huge, sprawling precincts of the book fair and the cacophony that was glued to its texture like its second skin. Just like the previous year I had been to the fair, and the year before that, and the year before that, as a passionate onlooker entangled with its essentially inviting fabric, a witness to the various enticing happenings taking place in the expansive territories of the book fair, year after year after year. Getting the first Rabindra Rachanabali (selected literary works of Rabindranath Tagore) of my life at the Viswa Bharati stall that me, a high schooler stepped into, along with my mother, who turned into a nervous wreck as we dispersed into different directions, compelled by the chaos of the mammoth crowd, with no compass to reunite us, other than sheer luck. Witnessing the provocative cover of Taslima’s controversial ‘Nirbachito Kalam’ for the first time in the Dey’s publishing stall with starry eyes in the 1990’s, picking up the book and feeling the fire and wrath of its contents amid the staggering crowd pushing each other from all directions. The unbridled joy of discovering the Selected Short Stories of O Henry with a glossy paperback at an unbelievable discounted price inside a tiny, unassuming stall in the fair. Arguing with an equally passionate friend about whose lyrics and music were more appealing and topical at the turn of the new millennium, the Bengali oldies or the ‘Jeebonmukhi’ genre of Suman Chatterjee or Nachiketa Chakraborty, while the coffee in my hands spilled over the hardcover of my new purchase from the Ananda publishers stall—Sunil Ganguly’s poetry collection dedicated to Neera, that became my silent muse in many a restless night long after. The landmark structures of foreign countries, Britain, Spain, France, countries where my visit was a distant dream back then, came alive only for a few days of the fair, and my hungry eyes scanned those structures intently, while foreign language books and books from regional publishers kept vying for my attention. Books in Bengali, Hindi and other vernacular languages with a heady fragrance, every inch as important as the pricey foreign language ones.It was the 32nd year of the Kolkata International Book Fair held for the last time at Kolkata Maidan, one of the city of joy’s largest urban parks which was the chaotic, unruly home to as many as thirteen to fourteen hundred thousand visitors from all parts of the country, from all parts of the globe, delegates, authors, performers, artists, readers, dignitaries et al. Following the insatiable fire that ravaged the book fair in 1997, there was yet another setback. The Court had issued an order in the previous year against the holding the book fair in the Maidan premises, following a petition on grounds of environmental degradation. Nobody knew if another book fair would take place in the city the following year, and if yes, where at all. Conjectures were aplenty.

Newly married, decked up in a new sari, vigorously pushing my way amid the crowd, I was desperate to soak in all its offerings. It was the last Kolkata book fair for me before setting my feet into the foreign shores, and I knew in my heart of hearts that even if the fair restarts in another premise of the city from the next year, and if I happen to revisit the new fairground some time in the distant future, some alterations might happen, but some emotions would linger there, unchanged. My hands, bearing the weight of the bulky packets of newly acquired books from the fair, the Miss Marple Series of Agatha Christie, ‘Of Human Bondage’ by Somerset Maugham, The Feluda series of Satyajit Ray and thin volumes of Bengali poetry, were not that of the eager, headstrong virgin girl anymore. My hands had clasped other hands, those of my mother, my friends, classmates, colleagues and acquaintances of those days, and moved from one stall to another in search of the dream world of books, prose, poetry, drama and dissent. Those same hands, again, had freed themselves from the clutches of temporary friends, short-lived love interests with whom many book memories were formed and dissolved into thin air, witnessing the world around in a flux. Those hands carried a world of distilled wonder in those books that I had carried in a new home, to a new husband, continents apart, a world that was at once volatile and tame, luscious in poetry and minimalist in prose. And the book fair at the Kolkata Maidan grounds, with its dust and soot, its earthen pots of tea and its potpourri of experiences inhabit that world still, decades later, whenever I open those pregnant pages.

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A decade later, I have turned into a full-time writer, part-time blogger and editor in a different part of the world. Books, literary journals, anthologies and magazines inhabit my physical world more tangibly now, with my name appearing in them from time to time. In all these years, I have attended a few small and big writing workshops and author readings, been to the AWP writers’ conference and the largest book fair of North America, listened to book readings of celebrated, award-winning authors and poet laureates of various states of US, including Jhumpa Lahiri, Patricia Smith, Joy Harjo, Patricia McCormick, Ted Kooser, Scott Russell Sanders. I have even gone ahead and interviewed a couple of them during those crowd-pulling events, sans the dust and soot of the Kolkata book fair, the memories of which continued to tear me apart, enter my being like a glaring light filtered through lace curtains.

“Why don’t you come to attend the Kolkata book fair in February and give book readings here, now that you write books yourself?” My friends tell me when I visit the city now, and stay there briefly, and also invite them to small, homely book launches of my own, in an attempt to gain a bit of visibility.

“Some time soon, may be, when fate will bring me here during that time.” I reply to them. The city has had so many additions in all these years that overwhelm me—the new flyovers, new malls and cafes, new art galleries and bookstores, and even a few bookish acquaintances, all of them invading my mindscape whenever I come back and recreate a montage of Kolkata in my consciousness. In the recent years, the virtual world of social media literally blasts my news feed with tempting pictures and videos of the Kolkata book fair and literature festival happening on the Milan Mela grounds, the new venue for the annual event since 2008. I so wish I can be there, read a few pages of my own humble literary endeavours, buy an ocean of books, be there at the book launches of my new author friends, soak in the poetry and music and dissent and be a part of the incredible paraphernalia. I so wish to cross paths with long lost friends and vainly loved ones in the book fair premises and pick up splinters of my old self, browsing the pages of a yet unwritten book. Someday I will, Tilottama!

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