(This column was written on an empty stomach. I think it kind of shows.)

My guide to the Kolkata Book Fair is a man with salt-and-pepper hair whose literary taste seems to run from gory Bengali ghost stories to Javier Marias with a short detour Oshowards, judging by his book parcels.

Half the crowd is heading to the Spanish pavilion—Spain is the guest of honour at the 2006 Fair—while the other half is heading with just as much enthusiasm for the prawn pakoras at Benfish and the mishti at Balaram’s. I’m stuck between both streams, behind the man with the eclectic taste and the loud voice, who’s asking his friend, “So where do you want to go now? Bangla pulao?—” he indicates the stronghold of Bengali publishing, where the queues for Desh and Ananda publishers are already snaking round the block. “Or that labrar ghonto?” He points to the literary equivalent of a messy dish of odds and ends—the long trestle tables where small publishers, mostly Bengali, have spread out their offerings of poetry, biography, children’s stories and deeply lurid potboilers.

This is the first time in years that I’ve been in Kolkata during the book fair, and it has a strange effect on me. The World Book Fair in Delhi may not, strictly speaking, live up to its optimistic title, but it has grown over the years in both scale and ambition. This year’s visitors to the Delhi fair—running almost in parallel to the one in Kolkata—include several agents, editors and publishers from organisations as disparate as Bertelsmann and the Rough Guides. The Rights Corner, established for the first time at the Delhi Book Fair, is exactly the sort of trade initiative that’s needed. The Delhi Book Fair may not be the Frankfurt of the East, but it has become a reasonably serious trade fair.

From the ordinary reader’s point of view, though, the Delhi Book Fair isn’t a great browsing experience. Most of the stalls at Pragati Maidan stock textbooks, medical and other reference works, technical tomes: this is a trader’s fair, not a reader’s fair. The big general publishing houses rarely showcase unusual fiction or bring in significant imports—what the Delhi Book Fair offers readers is discounts and a day’s outing with the family. The growing size of the fair has, oddly enough, undermined the reader’s experience even further—it can take hours to reach the four or five stalls scattered across seven pavilions that really interest you.

Over the years, both Kolkata and Delhi have invited a string of authors, from Amitav Ghosh, Gunter Grass and Taslima Nasreen to V S Naipaul and Upamanyu Chatterjee, but the accent is on selling books, not on creating a literary festival around the fair. And in Delhi, the real buzz is always about the publishing scene: who’s sniffing around translation rights, who’s thinking of expanding their India operations, which foreign publishers are eyeing the Indian market for the first time.

If the Delhi Book Fair is an evolving trade platform, the Kolkata Book Fair retains a local mela feel in the best possible way. As crowds line up for the Australian pavilion, built in the shape of Ayers Rock, a group of boys leaning against the Miro murals at the Spanish pavilion pull out guitars and drums in an impromptu jam session. Patachitra artists and portrait artists do brisk business; the quality of the phuchka is as loudly and knowledgeably discussed as the quality of the publications on film at one stall. At the three or four rare books stalls dotted across the fair, buyers and sellers are happy to discuss the finer points of editions and engravings, to argue over whether Dean Mohammad or Ibn Batuta was the more significant travel writer.

The flow between the Bengali-language publishing houses and the English-language stalls is seamless; this crowd has just as much appetite for Ghanada and Prafulla Ray as it does for Murakami and Stendhal. I’m told that there were far more people on Republic Day and on Sunday, but as I try to find my way out through the maze, it feels as though the grounds couldn’t possibly get more crowded, or throw up more clouds of dust. In the haze of the afternoon, the smell of kathi kabab rolls and fried fish competes with the cries of the young boys hawking “softy” ice cream.

I see mashimas in tangails, young Germans and Italians in shorts; the policeman at a busy, muddy intersection is absorbed in a Paris Review collection of essays. It’s a nostalgia trip, this small, busy book fair with the hand-calligraphed poems by Gregory Roberts and Jibananda decorating its stalls, to a time when a book bazaar was just a slightly larger adda for readers.


(Published in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, January 29, 2006)