Calcutta hosts world’s biggest book fair

I am surprised the BBC didn’t mention the Scottish writer Alexander McCall Smith is in Calcutta (Kolkata) for the Kolkata Book Fair. Maybe the BBC presenter and the Indian correspondent Subir Bhowmik ran out of time discussing the size and scale and the city’s passion for books that has made it the world’s largest retail book fair. Yes, that’s what the BBC said, the Kolkata Book Fair is the world’s largest retail book fair. Attended by millions of people.

The queue to enter the fair could be kilometres long, said the BBC correspondent. That’s why it was moved away from the Maidan. Environmentalists worried the vast crowd was polluting the Maidan, the green belt in the heart of the city.

Book sales in Calcutta are not likely to be hit even by the global downturn, said Subir Bhowmik. Bengalis – that’s people like him and me – can’t do without books and travel, he said.

He has been attending the fair since it started in 1976. I was there too. That’s where I could pick up the Larousse encyclopedias and the Thames and Hudson art books on the cheap. They used to be sold at discounts by booksellers from New Delhi, where apparently there were few buyers for those books.

Here in Singapore I like Borders and Kinokuniya, the Japanese bookshop which is even better and has a larger collection than Borders.

But I enjoyed nothing better than visiting Rupa’s, the old bookshop on College Street. It used to be thick with Penguins – PG Wodehouse, AJP Taylor, John Updike, Gerald Durrell, Alistair Cooke, Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis, Michael Innes, Raymond Chandler, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, every author neatly arranged.

And it was at Oxford Bookshop on Park Street that I first saw the USA Today.

I also remember the bookshops in New Market, which used to keep neatly pressed copies of The Times and other British newspapers for delivery to the clubs in Calcutta.

Alexander McCall Smith tribute to RK Narayan

Alexander McCall Smith has been praising Indian writers such as RK Narayan, Vikram Seth and Vikram Chandra. The Hindu reports he said:

“The works of R.K. Narayan have steered my writing to a certain direction… The Man-Eater of Malgudi was the first of Narayan’s books that I read, and the effect was profound.”

Allen Ginsberg and Calcutta

But of all the writers who have visited Calcutta, the one who made the deepest impression was the poet, Allen Ginsberg.

He made friends with famous Bengali writers, poets and journalists when he visited the city in the early 60s. They did things I better not write about in Singapore. But here’s a report.

Calcutta is non-conformist, anti-establishment, said the BBC correspondent Subir Bhowmik. But the younger generation is more career-oriented, he added. Still, there’s hope…

Barack Obama is the biggest sensation this year. The Times of India reports:

Audacity of Hope and Dreams From My Father are out of stock in most bookstores. Distributors have placed huge orders for these two books, expecting a rush for them during the Kolkata Book Fair.

The Sunday Philosophy Club

SundayphilThis is the second book I have read by Alexander McCall Smith. I loved his bestseller, The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. In a way, this is even better.

Isobel Dalhousie is as far removed from Precious Ramotswe, the owner of The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, as Edinburgh from Botswana. Precious is Botswana’s only female detective. Isobel, on the other hand, is an intellectual who edits a philosophy journal in Edinburgh. A single woman of independent means, she doesn’t have to work for a living. But she is as curious and observant as Precious. And when she sees a young man fall to his death from the balcony during an opera, she doesn’t stand around helplessly. She has to investigate.

The wonder is the young man’s friends and colleagues cooperate with her instead of telling her off for asking them odd questions like a policeman. Are the people of Edinburgh that polite? Ian Rankin portrays a seedier, more dangerous Edinburgh in his Inspector Rebus mysteries. But in the well-heeled circles Isobel moves, even the nastier characters are smooth as silk.

There are no flying bullets, no flashing daggers. There are so few characters to investigate she still has time to check out her beloved niece’s boyfriend whom she suspects to be cheating on her niece.

Except for a bit of suspense towards the end where she gets the fright of her life, thriller lovers will find little to thrill them here. But if you love a good detective story, it’s an absolute gem.

It delivers a one-two punch. As soon as we discover how the young man fell to his death at the opera, there comes the even more surprising ending.

The Sunday Philosophy Club may be a slim little paperback with very little action, but the ending is an absolute corker.

Incidentally, there’s quite a bit of the author himself in this book. He plays the bassoon just like the nice young man Isobel wants her niece to marry — even though she is half in love with him herself. McCall Smith is an amateur bassoonist in the Really Terrible Orchestra, which apparently lives up to its name. He makes gentle fun of the orchestra here.

The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

No_1_ladies_detective_agency I just finished reading Alexander McCall Smith’s The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and I can see why it’s proved so popular. It is different from the typical mystery or detective story. Precious Ramotswe is the first woman detective in Botswana. When her father dies, she uses her inheritance to set up her own little agency with just a secretary and herself as the sole private eye. The cases she investigates mostly involve missing people, from a man suspected by his wife to have eloped with another woman but who turns out to have been eaten by a crocodile to a boy abducted by a witchdoctor. Precious finds the boy and returns him unharmed to his parents. But she is not always successful. In one case, she is fooled by a schoolgirl.

There are no murders, no shootouts. The book follows her various cases and along the way tells her life story. The exotic locale combined with the complete ordinariness of the lives described gives the book a piquant charm. Precious and her friends are like people anywhere. I could empathise with her father who worked in the South African mines and returned home a rich man by his village standards and passed on his wealth to his daughter. Precious is ambitious and proves a successful businesswoman but she makes mistakes too. She fell in love with a musician in her youth and married him, despite her father’s misgivings, but he soon abandoned her after beating her up badly. The baby she had by him died soon after birth. But she has got over her personal tragedies by the time she sets up her agency. Precious the detective is a shrewd but good woman who is happy with her life.

There is a love interest too. Mr JLB Matekoni, the successful mechanic in whose car repair shop Precious drops in whenever she wants some company, proves more than a good friend. The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency may be a story about a woman detective in Africa but it combines the wit and the humdrum peaceful social life found in a Jane Austen novel. The result is charming.