Sunday, 7 February 2010



One of my fondest memories of the Kolkata Book Fair will be that of meeting Tintin. I was a kid, and it was unbelievable to shake hands with HergĂ©’s creation, reporter Tintin, who stood in front of a book stall at the fair sometime in the early 1980s. I didn’t realise then that it was a fine piece of acting by some talented actor. The memories came back while checking the news about the recent 34th International Kolkata Book Fair and the 19th New Delhi World Book Fair. So I ventured to find out the views on and memories of book fairs from others who are deep into books.

‘With so many book stores in the city, why would you need a book fair?’ I naively ask Kolkata-based poet Subodh Sarkar. “It’s only at the book fair that we writers and poets get to interact with our readers directly. That’s not possible in some book shop,” he says. For him, the Kolkata Book Fair, which is “growing in vigour”, is the “most important” event in the city’s calendar.

And it’s not just the Indian writers. Some of the best known writers from other countries keep themselves happily busy fielding questions and reading books for their fans. Recalls Kajari Mitra, manager, British Library in Pune. “Last year when I went to the Kolkata Book Fair, I was excited to find one of my favourite writers Alexander McCall Smith as the guest. That’s the thrill of the fair,” she says. “I am also attracted by the discounts that the book stalls offer at the Kolkata Book Fair,” confesses Mitra with a hearty laughter. But on a serious note, she talks about how a library can benefit from a book fair. “I remember getting the best of the books and things like puzzles from the Delhi Book Fair when we were setting up the children’s library,” she says. “You won’t get such a connected range of things in a book shop easily,” Mitra adds.

Agrees Lipika Bhushan, marketing manager, HarperCollins Publishers India. “Besides the ‘touch-feel-read’ experience, it’s only at the book fair that a reader gets to see a much wider range of books than the one on display at any bookstore,” she says. “Where else, but at a book fair, will you find all the titles of Dame Agatha Christie or of Paulo Coelho?”

I wanted to know what’s more important to a publisher — sales or visibility? According to Bhushan, a book fair is “about branding”. Talking from the World Book Fair in Delhi, she says, such an event is the ideal place to launch new books. “With young people looking for books by new writers, the book fair cannot be missed. Also, it’s a fact that over the years, we’ve seen an increase of 20 to 30 per cent of sales in the books of Indian writers in English at the book fairs. This year at the World Book Fair, so far, we have registered an incredible 100 per cent improvement in the sales figures,” she adds.

It reminds me how often I wished, as a kid, that I had all the money and space to buy all the books they displayed at the fair. I tell that to poet-critic-editor Ashok Vajpeyi who also heads the Lait Kala Akademi. He laughs indulgently. For him too, book fairs are always wonderful experiences. “No matter what technology might bring up, books and book fairs will stay,” Vajpeyi says.

Having travelled to several book fairs across the world, he finds the Kolkata Book Fair topping the list. “I’ve been to the Frankfurt Book Fair. It’s more like a trade fair where no books are sold except on the last day when I got to buy quite a lot. But that’s it,” he recalls. “The Delhi Book Fair too isn’t that great because Delhi is not a ‘book reading city’ as such,” Vajpeyi contends. “The Patna Book Fair is noteworthy as it’s the largest book fair for Hindi literature. But Kolkata is at the heart of the book fairs. Ten years back, I was at the Kolkata Book Fair for the release of Bengali translation of my poems. The auditorium at the fair was packed with young people. And I was informed that there were at least three lakh people at the fair at that point of time,” he says. “That’s stupendous”.

Given Kolkata’s love affair with all things ‘cerebral’, I don’t find that surprising at all. The book fair is a part of the city’s culture that brings together one and all. Everyone wants to join that open-air festival with artists drawing and painting; little magazine enthusiasts reciting poems; people sitting on the grass and reading books; kids pleading with parents to buy them the latest thrillers; panel discussions by ‘who’s who’ of art and literature; people queueing up to get inside the publishers’ stalls where well-known writers take time to chat and sign copies of their latest books; the loudspeakers blaring some announcement; food stalls trying to entice with the dishes that are otherwise unpalatable but for the books all around. It’s crowded, a bit chaotic and dusty, but it’s fascinating. You’ll surely miss the charm of the Kolkata Book Fair in any other organised fair. Just as I miss it now.