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Books India

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.

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Books

Poetry reading web site

Anyone in the mood to hear poetry readings should explore Poetry Archive. It contains recordings of poets reading their own poems. It’s a virtual who’s who of modern English and American poetry, ranging from Allen Ginsberg to Roger McGough. I even heard a scratchy recording of Tennyson reading The Charge of the Light Brigade.

Sujata_bhatt886_bhattlarge Immigrants anywhere might appreciate Margaret Atwood’s The Immigrants. As an Indian, and a Hindu, I could easily relate to Sujata Bhatta (left) reading her poem, A Different History:

Great Pan is not dead;
he simply emigrated
to India.
Here, the gods roam freely,
disguised as snakes or monkeys;
every tree is sacred
and it is a sin
to be rude to a book.
It is a sin to shove a book aside
with your foot,
a sin to slam books down
hard on a table,
a sin to toss one carelessly
across a room.
You must learn how to turn the pages gently
without disturbing Sarasvati,
without offending the tree
from whose wood the paper was made.

The poem ends with the Indians’ love for the English language.

Betjeman_566_betjemanlarge There are also poems anyone could enjoy. For example, John Betjeman reading A Subaltern’s Love Song. He reads it with relish in his beautiful voice with a posh accent, and both he and his audience enjoy the humorous love poem. He jokes before the reading and there is laughter at the end. It begins:

Miss J.Hunter Dunn, Miss J.Hunter Dunn,
Furnish’d and burnish’d by Aldershot sun,
What strenuous singles we played after tea,
We in the tournament – you against me.

Love-thirty, love-forty, oh! weakness of joy,
The speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy,
With carefullest carelessness, gaily you won,
I am weak from your loveliness, Joan Hunter Dunn

The young man gracefully loses the tennis match and they drive to dance at the golf club. The dance has already begun when they reach the club, but instead of hurrying inside, they sit in the car and love takes its course.

And the scent of her wrap, and the words never said,
And the ominous, ominous dancing ahead.
We sat in the car park till twenty to one
And now I’m engaged to Miss Joan Hunter Dunn. 

I love this poem, it is one of my favourites. It reminds me of my wife and our wedding though it was a traditional Hindu ceremony preceded by no sitting in the car — still, it was, as we call it, a love marriage. We were classmates who went to the library and the movies. Oh well, those were the days.