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 sweetest Indian love story

The English Teacher by RK Narayan reminds me of Erich Segal’s Love Story and the Bobby Goldsboro classic, Honey. One may even be reminded of David Copperfield and Dora. Narayan has been compared to Charles Dickens. But the relationship between the couple at the centre of this story is more profoundly moving.

I have not come across a more romantic English novel by an Indian author.

Set in Narayan's fictional town of Malgudi, the plot is simple.  A man teaching English in a college gets married, has a daughter and a few years later his wife dies of typhoid. The rest of the story, told by the man himself, is about his raising his daughter and holding on to his wife’s memories.

What makes it remarkable is the love that pours out of every page.

The man describes the beauty of his wife and the happiness they had known with an ardour and a lack of inhibition that's extraordinary for a book by an Indian author published in 1945.

 Narayan's own story

It's said to be Narayan's own story: his wife died of typhoid, leaving behind a little daughter, a few years after their marriage.

Indeed, Narayan dedicated the book to his wife, Rajam.

Narayan captures the ardour of the young couple. Krishna, the English teacher, virtually worships his wife, Susila, who is beautiful, charming, a perfect homemaker, and enjoys the attention of the man she loves. Outwardly though she defers to him, she has him completely under her thumb.

When he is sitting at his table, trying to write a poem, she comes up and says: “Let me see if you can write about me.”

She is simply adorable.

Here they are out on a walk. Krishna, the narrator, writes:

“I was highly elated. The fresh sun, morning light, the breeze, and my wife’s presence, who looked so lovely – even an unearthly loveliness – her tall form, dusky complexion, and the small diamond ear-rings – Jasmine, Jasmine…”I will call you Jasmine, hereafter,” I said. “I’ve long waited to tell you that…”

“Remember, we are in a public road, and don’t start any of your pranks here,” she warned, throwing at me a laughing glance. Her eyes always laughed – there was a perpetual smile in her eyes.”

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