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Some Thoughts on the Reading Culture of Bengal―Anjum Katyal

Report / Asian Literature Project "YOMU" (India)

The last week of January in Calcutta boasts one of the most unusual book events in the world. This is when the Kolkata Boi Mela, or the Calcutta Book Fair, as it is widely known, opens its gates to the readers and book lovers of the city. For decades this has been hailed as Asia's biggest book fair; it may well be the largest non-trade book fair in the entire world. More than two million people are said to have visited the book fair over the years, and this is a modest estimate.

These people are ordinary citizens, the reading public, who throng to this annual feast of books by publishers from all across the country. The atmosphere is electric. Think street market-cum-fairground-cum-intellectual and cultural hub. Art students and young painters exhibit their works, and offer on-the-spot sketches and portraits. Small independent publishers and little magazines show their latest publications, often spread on tarpaulin on the ground if they can't afford a stall. Music plays from the loudspeakers, enhancing the festive atmosphere. Well known authors draw crowds of fans as they sign books or give talks, and over the weekend a literary festival offers an interesting programme of panel discussions, conversations and cultural events.

Whole families, from grandparents to little children, often make a day's outing of it, enjoying the cool winter weather in this sprawling, colourful, outdoor venue. Queues snake around the entrances to the more popular publishers' pavilions. Food stalls do a brisk business as buyers and browsers take a break from navigating the rows of publishers and booksellers who set up shop for the ten days of the fair. You see people of all age groups and backgrounds with bags of books in their hands, often having saved precious rupees to spend on coveted books, as everyone pulls out the stops for these ten days, bringing in stocks not usually seen in the regular bookstores.

This tradition of the Boi Mela—which even merits its own eponymous bus stop—is symbolic of this city's reading culture; one might even say, a product of it. Visitors encompass the ordinary man, woman and child from a modest, middle-class background as well as the literary who's who of the country. Writers, intellectuals and artists are celebrities here. It is inclusive—from avant-garde little magazines and tiny independent publishers to the large, multinational houses, everyone is equally at home.

It is quite fitting that this huge annual celebration of books and reading should happen in Kolkata, capital of West Bengal. Because Calcutta, as it was then called, was the premier city of the British Raj. This was where the modern winds of change from the west were first felt, and the city has a long history of cosmopolitanism and engagement with new ideas, such as an emphasis on secular and public education, including schools for the girl child and colleges for women. Missionaries encouraged the poor and those of low caste to learn how to read and write, thereby spreading literacy beyond the domain of the upper castes and classes. The Bengal Renaissance, as it is called, which began in the 19th century, ushered in a ferment of scholarship, creative works, journalistic writings, and philosophical and social treatises, expressing egalitarian and progressive ideas, much influenced by Europe and America. Social change was accelerated through increased urbanization, and the growth of a solid middle class led to a rapid spread in literacy. Newspapers and journals in languages prevalent in the city—English, Bengali, Hindi, and Urdu, to name the main ones—were widely published and readily found readers. The local printing and binding industry grew, enabling affordable publications, and public libraries helped readers access books they could otherwise not have afforded. The University of Calcutta, one of the oldest in the country, has an enviable reputation for scholarship, and the unique honour of being associated with five Nobel laureates—Ronald Ross, Rabindranath Tagore, C. V. Raman, Amartya Sen and Abhijit Banerjee.

Education—pora shona, as the Bengalis call it—was highly prized as a direct route to success, and this conviction has not changed. Inevitably, education and books go hand in hand, with reading being aspirational in this society.

However, it is important to remember that a much older oral culture existed in the region, which provided a rich textual tradition that included poetry, lyrics and drama. The largely rural audience was also largely unlettered and unable to read or write, but they were far from ignorant of sophisticated and nuanced textual performances. Kobigaan or Kobilorai, for example, were complex and evolved literary performance forms in which poets 'battled' each other in verse, each trying to outdo the other. Jatra was a form of travelling theatre in the round which presented text-heavy dramas woven out of historical and mythological themes, with many contemporary references. These are just two of the popular, itinerant, text-based forms of popular rural entertainment which indicate how even at the grassroot level there was a widespread interest in stories, ideas and words.

What are the unique signs of this reading culture in Bengal today? We have mentioned one of most visible ones, the annual Kolkata Book Fair, which is over 45 years old. There are several others.

For example, the College Street booksellers. College Street houses several leading colleges as well as the venerable Calcutta University, and is a hub of student activity. A significant stretch of this historic road, known as Boi Para in Bengali, is lined cheek-by-jowl, on the pavement on either side, with booksellers. They are an irresistible magnet for book lovers who are drawn to the possibility of a real find lurking amidst the eclectic piles of second-hand books on every subject under the sun. This is reputed to be one of the largest second-hand book markets in India. And the customers are not just the students of the neighbouring colleges, but people of all ages and professions, including regulars who haunt the stalls in the hope of stumbling across a rare first edition or reprint of a hard-to-find book.

Then there is the unique Bengali phenomenon of the yearly Pujo shankho or Puja publication. These eagerly awaited and coveted 'annuals' are devoured by whole families, and passed from hand to hand. Packed with essays, stories, poems, artists' illustrations and more, they appear around the time of the great annual autumn festival of Durga Puja. Any Bengali writer worth his (or her) salt will busy him (or her)self with writing something freshly commissioned for these Pujo shankhos or editions. This is such a well-established tradition that it is almost sacrilege for them not to oblige. These special issues, printed in huge numbers and thick with advertisements as proof of their popularity, fly off the shelves as soon as they are released.

Bengal also has its Little Magazines, a subculture, indeed, a movement, which began well before independence. The Little Magazine is typically an independent political, literary or cultural publication, usually a labour of love by a small group of passionate aficionados who come together for a while to pool resources, time and effort in the service of their cause. Cheaply produced and priced at a pittance, they encourage new writing and are part of an ecosystem of reading, writing, critique and enquiry that helps maintain the vibrant reading culture of Bengal.

The ubiquitous Bengali adda is a local institution that has no equivalent anywhere in the world, and to my mind it is inextricable from books and reading. The adda is, broadly speaking, a gathering of people who meet with no agenda except true conversation—discursive, argumentative, opinionated, creative, performative. Little money is needed beyond the cost of a few cups of tea, cigarettes and cheap snacks to keep energy levels high, although alcohol-fuelled addas are also quite common. Often these addas take place in tea stalls or eateries. The famous Coffee House on College Street, for instance, was known for electrifying addas that are remembered as legendary tour de forces and have acquired the status of urban myths, even making it into popular songs and poems. Addas also happen on neighbourhood stoops, in people's homes, and indeed whenever more than two people have some time to spare or opinions to air. They are a verbal expression of the same intellectual curiosity and love of ideas that feeds the reading habit.

What emerges clearly from this survey of 'signs' of Bengal's reading culture is that it cuts across class, and is not restricted to the privileged or the elite. There is no ivory tower in which books and literature are sequestered far from the reach of the common man—or woman. There is a common joke that you can't throw a stone in Bengal without hitting a poet. Like all generalizations, it is based on a truth. Bengal's love of books and reading, in common with its love of the other arts, is still very much a reality, despite the doomsday voices that speak of the dwindling numbers of young people who read. Perhaps this will be one of the last bastions of a reading culture in a world that seems to be losing interest in books. It certainly looks that way.

Anjum Katyal
Anjum Katyal has been involved with arts publishing for decades as an editor, writer, translator and critic. She is the author of several books on theatre. Her published works include Habib Tanvir: Towards an Inclusive Theatre, Sacred to Profane: Writings on Worship and Performance and others. She has been Director of Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival for eight years and is currently Curator, NEW festival of arts and ideas, Santiniketan. She is also a published poet.