It is the last week of January, time for the annual pilgrimage of book-lovers to the Boimela. All roads lead not to the Maidan but to the Milan Mela grounds. This is the venue for the 36th Kolkata book fair, or Boimela, where 800 national and international booksellers and publishers put their treasure-troves on display.
The chief guest is Italian journalist and bestselling author Beppe Severgnini. His book La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind was translated into Bengali for the occasion. It explores Italy's culture and people, in a humorous way. Another Italian cultural ambassador here is Ileana Citaristi. She presented an Odissi dance recital on Rabindranath Tagore.
The Boimela organisers have waived the entry fee this year, so bookworms are thronging the Mela ground, hopping from stall to stall as they browse. "One day is not enough to visit all the stalls," says software professional Debanshu Mitra. "Therefore, I shall come for another two days." He says he will sneak into the fair on his way home from office. Many bookworms make a daily visit to the venue during the 12-day fair. The fair ends on February 5.
Children with their parents come to leaf through books. "I like reading 'Rupkathar golpo', or children fairy tales," says nine-year-old Rimli Das, at one of the vernacular bookstalls. Her mother Anurupa, a schoolteacher, says: "It's very important to inculcate the reading habit at an early age and kids are encouraged to read when they see so many people buying books."
"This year the Guild has allotted stalls by lottery to avoid allegations of non-transparency," says Sudhanshu Dey, joint secretary of the Publishers & Booksellers Guild, the parent organisation of the
Fair. However, individual booksellers say the Guild is monopolistic in its approach. "The Guild allots indoor galleries to the English publishers," says G Biswas of Supernova Publishers, "and charges Rs 30,000 for every 100 sq ft of space in the indoor gallery."
Biswas says this charge covers only the space; the stallholder also has to invest in racks, counters, carpentry and security. "I had to invest Rs 40,000, besides paying almost Rs 1 lakh as the stall rent," he says. "Things are much more professional and transparent at the Delhi World Book Fair."
The Guild explains that indoor galleries are allocated to English publishers because they are expensive. The cost of English publications is higher than that of vernacular books. The Guild in turn pays Rs 27.5 lakh as ground rent to the West Bengal Trade Promotion Organisation.
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Quite a few booksellers resent the guild. "The Guild does not have egalitarian norms of stall allotment, and can could flout its own parameters for its member publishers," says a publisher who prefers anonymity. "It allots its own members stalls at central and prime locations, while regional booksellers are pushed to the corners."
Debananda Dam of Jnan Bichitra Prakashani, Tripura, however, says this year's fair is well organised. "There are several positive changes," he says. "They have set up public toilets and drinking water facilities at numerous spots, and the space between stalls is wider for crowd movement."
Cleanliness is still a concern. "The food court inside the fair ground is adding to the problem, as people throw plastic bags on the ground," says Dam. Still, he believes that Kolkata's Boimela beats Delhi's World Book Fair because, he explains, the Boimela is a fair in the true sense. "The ambience here in Kolkata is much different than Delhi," he says. "People are warm and more than just mere customers. With many of them we develop a rapport that makes them visit our stall year after year."
This book-bonding may be what makes the Boimela the busiest book fair in the world in terms of sheer visitor volume.
Kolkata is serious about reading, and Kolkatans are proud of their intellectual tradition. Yet there is a growing gap between consumers of serious works and what the organisers of the Kolkata Literary Meet this year (KLM or Kalam, "pen", in Bengali) call "contemporary easy reads".
This is why Kalam is, according to its organisers, "an attempt to acquaint even the most reluctant reader with the all-inclusive world of writing". At Kalam, authors, columnists, musicians and politicians will interact with readers.
Writers like Chetan Bhagat, Anuja Chauhan and Amish Tripathi will discuss popular writing and chick-lit, while discussions on the relevance of Tagore on his 150th birth anniversary will take place between academic Sugata Bose and writers Amit ChaudhurI and Sunil Gangopadhyay.
The relevance of Charles Dickens, whose 200th birth anniversary is this year, will be discussed by Canadian playwright Craig Taylor and Amit Chaudhuri. Other discussions will be on topics like "Trial by Media" and "The Importance of Being Honest".
Other famous participants at Kalam will include: writers Tahmima Anam, Vikram Seth, Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, Mahasweta Devi, John Keay and Samaresh Majumdar, film director Rituparno Ghosh, politicians Imran Khan, Dinesh Trivedi and Omar Abdullah, and magazine editor Vinod Mehta.