Home >Lounge >Features >A new chapter for Kolkata’s neighbourhood of books

I could never have imagined that of all the images of the devastation produced by cyclone Amphan, the one that would resonate around the world would be one of books drowning.

It was a photograph of College Street, Kolkata’s legendary boi para, or neighbourhood of books, Asia’s largest book market, home to dozens of secondhand book stores and publishers, big and small. It showed waterlogged streets, shuttered stores, fallen trees and ripped, sodden books scattered in the murky water.

“I would have reached out after seeing those books floating in the water even if it was a place I didn’t know," says Malavika Banerjee, director of the Kolkata Literary Meet. But College Street and the area around it hold a special place in Kolkata’s heart. The book stores, Calcutta university, Presidency College (now University), the Indian Coffee House with its rickety fans and turbaned waiters, the rainbow-coloured drinks at Paramount and the hot radhaballavi kachoris and dal at Putiram—these are all part of the city’s cultural DNA. Banerjee remembers going there when she was 6 or 7 and buying A Child’s Garden Of Verses. Her brother, a few years older, more ambitiously picked up To Kill A Mockingbird.

Banerjee thought of using some Kolkata Literary Meet money and crowdfunding to help College Street get back on its feet. Then she found Indrani Roy Mitra, joint managing director of the 87-year-old College Street publisher Mitra & Ghosh, already had a fund-raiser on crowdfunding site Milaap. She joined hands with her to amplify the effort, using her lit meet Rolodex. The likes of Congress politician and author Shashi Tharoor tweeted out the appeal.

“The response was phenomenal," says Roy Mitra. “I had no experience doing anything like this." She says she reacts out of emotion—during the lockdown, she started a community kitchen. For someone raised in the business of books, the sight of those orphaned books was heartbreaking. Their house still treasures a chair where Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhyay, the renowned author of books like Pather Panchali, used to sit.

Roy Mitra was devastated to see people shovelling up piles of books from the slush. Their own godown suffered losses too but, she says: “We have insurance, we can manage. Some book traders told me they lost goods worth 20,000. They make that much in a whole year." The fund, she says, is not for bigger publishers like her. It’s for the smaller booksellers, buffeted by the double whammy of the covid-19 lockdown and Amphan. Many booksellers live in smaller towns outside Kolkata and come to work on local trains. When the trains stopped, they just locked the stores and now find their livelihoods destroyed. Some stalls were on wheels. The booksellers did not even know where the cyclone had tossed them.

The Milaap fund-raiser is not the only one. The Publishers and Booksellers Guild, which estimates losses of more than 5 crore, has launched its own relief fund. As a registered organization with hundreds of booksellers and publishers, the guild, which also organizes the Kolkata Book Fair, wants to identify those in the greatest need. It has put in 5 lakh from its own funds. A students group at Presidency University has pledged to rebuild 100 stalls. A group from Burdwan is buying back damaged books, says Esha Chatterjee, publisher with BEE Books. A Welsh poet contacted Chatterjee wanting to organize a fund-raiser. Every bit helps, says Banerjee. “There is no such thing as too much philanthropy."

This outpouring of concern is about a love of books, but also nostalgia for a Kolkata that liked to think of itself as India’s cultural capital. “You cannot have been young in Kolkata and not know College Street," says Banerjee. As journalist Ishaan Tharoor wrote, “Writers and revolutionaries have come of age amid its chaos." It is part of Kolkata’s sense of itself as modern, a city of the world, a street that is also a public square of ideas. But therein lies the rub. Nostalgia can be a tool but can it be a tool for looking ahead?

“You can raise 15 lakh and be safe for a year. But there can be an Amphan again," says Chatterjee. Her own publishing house is reeling. Their godown was waterlogged for 48 hours. Reams of paper sourced from abroad were ruined. “My mind feels like those books floating in the water—aimless, clueless, helpless," she wrote in a Facebook post right after the cyclone. “I don’t know when I will print a new book again," she says as she deals with insurance paperwork.

But at least she has insurance. Most small booksellers had nothing. “More than money, I think they need assistance—getting trade licences done, getting insurance," she says. “Save boi para" can tug at heartstrings but how do you assess needs without proper paperwork, income-tax returns? “How do you restock a secondhand book store anyway? It’s like a museum of things that has just gone."

Roy Mitra says they are working around that issue by disbursing money at a flat rate. “How much can an 8x10ft stall hold anyway? Maybe books worth 20,000-25,000." But she agrees that Amphan has exposed a book business that was already on shaky legs. “My father, who is 87 and like a banyan tree of the area, got such helpless calls. These small businesses really need a thread that binds them together."

And here’s the ugly truth that gets hidden under nostalgia’s sepia chrome. College Street made Time magazine’s Best of Asia list in 2007 for its “juxtaposition of the exalted world of books and the teeming Indian cityscape". But the College Street of memory where you browsed in an Aladdin’s cave of books and stumbled on a copy of the first-ever Bengali cookbook or a rare first edition of a French structuralist has long been buried under piles of IIT and CAT guides. It is congested, cramped, dirty. And the coffee at the legendary Coffee House is mediocre. The reality does not measure up to its reputation as a public place of intellectual ferment where Intelligence branch officials would sit quietly, keeping tabs on Naxalites and getting a dose of Jacques Derrida and Antonio Gramsci along the way.

Banerjee says the long-term challenge is to not “merely restore" the area to what it was but to see if it is possible to “reimagine" it for the future. “As (author) Amitav Ghosh said, a storm is not only malign, it can also be a force of regeneration. Can College Street become a real literary hub on the coat-tails of this support alongside all those JEE, CAT and NEET guides?" She claims there is corporate interest in pitching in, beautifying the area, highlighting the heritage, building permanent stalls. But it will have to be done without losing the vibrancy of street chaos to the antiseptic order of a mall.

However, College Street needs to help itself too. “Bengali publishers must come together collaboratively to modernize, go digital, go for e-commerce," says Chatterjee. Her father Tridib Chatterjee, president of the guild and proprietor of Patra Bharati publications, wrote recently, “When the National Digital Library, funded by the Central government, proposed to convert our books into digital editions almost free of cost, no one—except a few young publishers—showed any interest."

For now, though, College Street is counting its blessings and the kindness of strangers as books dry on the street. “So many students have come out to help. Maybe universities can offer paid internships to them to help rebuild College Street," says Esha Chatterjee. Roy Mitra says she had hoped to raise 1-3 lakh. Now the goal is 25 lakh and they are almost halfway there. “I am not surprised that people stood up for books," says Banerjee.

Soon after Amphan, writer and policy adviser Ashok Malik tweeted about a friend who was more distraught about the damage to his book collection than to his house. “The books are priority, as they must always be in Kolkata," tweeted Malik. “God bless my once and forever city." The book-loving Kolkatan might be a bit of a romantic cliché but sometimes, says Banerjee, “it is good to believe in your own clichés."

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.

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