On this unpleasantly overcast day I made my way out to the 33rd annual Kolkata Book Fair. And remembered why the Delhi metro has been a transformative god-send to that city. The Kolkata traffic, grid-locked at times so that I pulled out my book and read in the back seat, made the journey from Park Street to Science City much longer than it should have been. And I’ve been reading in the papers that no extra provisions have been made this year to ease the jams. Until a few years ago this event was held at the central Maidan, and I imagine that would have been great, right in the middle of the city, accessible by Kolkata’s small metro and close to other things that people might want to visit in their leisure time.
The focal country of this year’s fair is Bangladesh. So, unsurprisingly, the majority of books on display were in Bangla, from both Indian and Bangladeshi publishers, as well as a lot of English books, from academic and mainstream publishers. But, I was here in 2010 as well, when the focal country was Mexico, and I don’t recall seeing all that many Spanish books. Today, at one of the stalls, a small shelf of Hindi books were put in the “international literature” section! I think that a dominance of Bangla books is par for the course at the Kolkata Book Fair, and that’s great because that’s the main language of the region, so makes sense. I hope it means that the event is truly accessible to those who would not consider themselves the socio-economic elite, but who are interested in books. But it does make the event a bit inaccessible to non-Bangla-reading tourists. Is it ironic, then, that the only purchase I made today was a pocket English-Urdu dictionary!? Lonely Planet lists the book fair as a highlight of visiting Kolkata in January, but, unless a tourist has a strong interest in Bangla literature, I wouldn’t highly recommend going far out of one’s way to attend. There are a few talks by international and Indian authors put on in the evenings and weekends, though, which would likely have caught my attention more if I hadn’t seen most of them speak last week in Jaipur—Ahdaf Soueif, Jeet Thayil, Amit Chaudhuri, among others.