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Thursday, January 26, 2006

Calcutta, the Muffler and the Book Fair

After 4 years, I had this opportunity to come back to Kolkata. Things have changed a lot. Kolkata exhibits a lot more of the conspicuous consumerism that one would associate with Delhi and Mumbai. The city appears to have dumbed down with young and old hanging out near glitzy shopping malls instead of the Rabindra Sadan. And yes, the prices have caught up- the so very Bengali sweets are almost as expensive as in Mumbai or Delhi. But two things remain the same:

The first one is that the national dress of Kolkata and Bengalis per se- the muffler, is still going strong. Agreed, this is January, but still, outdoor temperature at noon must be close to 40degrees Celsius. However, you will still find half of the population walking around with mufflers around their neck covering their ears and the top of their head.

The second is the Kolkata Book Fair. There is nothing like it in the entire world- the size and the crowd. Book fairs at Mumbai are pygmies compared to the one at Kolkata; and the one at Delhi lacks the energy and mass of the Kolkata crowd. It’s amazing how millions in this city still adore books; how teenagers of party-hopping age buy books on Che Guevara and “Bangladesh will become the next Afghanistan”. Around the corner, one can find “Iron Man Publishers” with books only on body-building; and just over there, there is a stall only selling Bengali books on sex. And where else can one see people waiting in queue for one hour to get inside a book stall. The longest queues are for stalls for Bengali literature- just goes to show how regional language literature is still so popular in Kolkata; another reason could be that English language literature in India are now priced so that they can only be bought by upper middle class people. Another unique feature is how females turn up for the book fair; ladies buying books on “Fidel Castro” is a common sight.

In this age, where a book lover can keep himself occupied only by shelling out in excess of Rs400/book in a store like Crossword (which looks more like a furniture store with restaurant waiters dresses in black), Kolkata book fair continues to provide respite. After all, one can buy a swank hard-bound “The Communist Manifesto” at a Barnes and Noble in New York; but there is different charm in buying a cheap soiled version of the same book in the Kolkata Book Fair.


Anonymous said...

winter (whatever passes off for winter in Cal) is the best time to be in Cal - it is cool and there is alawys something happening, the handicrafts fair, the book fair... I am making do with the Strand sale here in Bombay right now :)

Anonymous said...

Two positive changes in the last year or so: (1) if you live in Salt Lake, you can actually go to a movie without having to almost manage a project and (2) if you work in sector V, you have a choice of places to eat! If you have suffered canteen food for long years, you will know what I'm talking about.

One thing that hasn't changed: taxis still refuse to go to Salt Lake after 8:30pm or so.