Though I am a non-Bengali, my relationship with Kolkata book fair or our favorite Boi Mela could be traced back to my childhood. According to my mother, a book lover herself, she took me to the sprawling Maidan since I was a year old. It was the year when the Calcutta Book fair was organized for the first time in the city by some young and enterprising publishers of Kolkata. With me in her arms, she used to queue up with our Bengali neighbor on the dusty stretch before we could hit the huge gates to get in.
I lived in Bagbazar, one of the oldest areas of north Kolkata, for the majority of my childhood days. Our house was kind of marked as we were the only ‘Mero’ in the entire para, the lane. We are natives of Rajasthan, also called Mewar and hence, they call us ‘Mero’, my mom had explained to a surprised me. I used to feel odd but soon realized that they are also nicknamed as Bongs. And as I graduated to teenhood reading Sarat Chandra, and watching Uttam-Suchitra every Saturday evening I continued picking up Bengali culture and tradition, enriching my life with all that was on offer.
The book-loving Bengalis were both excited and proud of the new endeavor, happy to have an entire fair dedicated to just books. People poured into the Brigade Parade Ground, the Maidan as we normally call it, for the winter fair. And then, it became a yearly ritual for me, my mom, the entire city and even for the people from the neighboring districts. In years to come, I graduated from my mother’s lap to my own feet. I would see my mother peering through a tiny square cut out for the entry ticket. It was fifty paisa in those days. The thin strip of paper meant more than just a voucher to walk in. It was a boarding pass to the fascinating universe that promised endless fun and excitement. The smell of freshly printed books would hypnotize me as I would gaze around with wide eyes at the huge pavilions full of books of amazing literary works in various languages.
I learned three languages as I grew up in Calcutta. Hindi was the language spoken at home, I conversed with my local para friends in Bangla and Mrs.Bhattachrya taught us English at my school. Hence, my Bangla accent is pretty good unlike other non-Bengalis who can speak good Bangla, but their accent gives away the fact that this isn’t their mother tongue. However, Bangla isn’t too difficult for a Hindi speaking. Many words are quite similar. Words like Jao, Raat, Din, Badha, Vipatti, Shubha, Jal, Garam, Thanda are all same in both the languages. The word “Tum” in Hindi becomes “Tumi” in Bangla; “Khana” in Hindi becomes” Khabar” in Bangla; “Kaam” in Hindi become “Kaaj” in Bangla etc. In fact, since in Bangla, there is no gender for nouns unlike in Hindi it makes it even easier. And this very fact makes it confusing for Bengalis to pick up proper Hindi. They never seem to come out of the confusion of why bus “Chalti hai” and truck “chalta hai”. Though, nowadays due to Bollywood movies many Bengalis can now speak Hindi fluently. But, in my childhood days listening to them trying to converse in Hindi would result in hilarious evenings.
But, I love Bangla because of the sweetness it carries. There is so much warmth and closeness in the way they talk. Just like their “Rassogollas” the words melt into the mouth of the speaker and pours out honey dipped.
When I was a child, at Boi Mela I would look only for comics, schoolbooks, coloring books, workbooks, encyclopedias, and dictionaries. Passing by the half-opened collapsible gates of the huge Oxford bookstore I would be pulled by my mother towards bookstands that had books of her interest while I would try to tug her back towards the more colorful shelves. Finally, with a Secret Seven or an Amar Chitra Katha, I would cheerfully walk out of the green carpet on uneven wooden planks. But as I grew up, I found a great treasure of information and stories in the bestsellers, guidebooks, bibliography, novels, cookbooks, magazines, autobiographies, books on gardening and what not.
And then when my little feet would get tired, we would walk towards the open green ground to sit and relax, catching up with the winter sun. Observing book lovers was another part of Boi Mela that we enjoyed. Licking my Rollick ice cream and munching a non-branded packet of fresh popcorns, I would watch a lanky intellectual youth with a cloth bag hanging by his side, group of school kids led by a fat lady with thick glasses, a shy girl and a boy walking hand in hand, college girls giggling along, a bearded and tall bibliophile with hands full of books, all roaming around in search of sentences that they can relate to.
This culture of enjoying festivals and events altogether in one place, away from home, with the community is something very distinct from the Marwari culture. Marwari celebrates their festivals like Diwali, Teej, Janmashtami, Gangaur and in their houses or at most with the people from their neighborhood. I still remember how I would tag along with my mother to the Bagbazar Sarbojanin Durgoutsob ground and admire the amazing idol of Maa Durga decorated in white shola and silver “Dhaker Saaj”. It was a huge ground where kids could play and mothers could shop after Anjali, a morning offering to the Goddess. I loved each and every one of those mornings, riding the wooden Nagordolas and buying digestive biscuits from the Jain Shilpa stalls.
The family that shared our boundary wall was Brahmin and they celebrated Saraswati Puja in a grand manner. I was asked to bring books that I had difficulty in following to keep beside the huge statue of the Goddess that stood as high as their ceiling. I also learned! that I should not eat the green berries called “Kul” before offering Puja to the Goddess of education. And like all Marwari who travels to far off places for work and hence, learns to adopt the local culture I enthusiastically embraced most of the rituals.
Themes played a good role in giving the book fair a distinct flavor each year. I would make sure that I visited the theme embassy stalls as they gave a very good idea of the place and culture of a state or a country. I remember that France was the first foreign theme way back in 1997, and again this year this art-loving country is going to be the focal theme of the fair.
Pavilions of other countries attracted me a lot. Glossy imported books along with their art and craft never failed to mesmerize me. Vostok stall was a must on my wish list. Getting a brief glimpse of the place, I would dream of visiting those far-off places, while my mother bought some decorative items to add to our showcase at home.
Profile of a girl with big weary eyes, a child’s face with tears dropping down his cheek, Krishna playing his flute, a sunrise, a sunset, all hanging in a row on threads. Passing an array of painters and artists with their sketches and drawings I would wonder how did they create such magic on paper so swiftly then and there. From mini terracotta statues and jewelry, getting your name engraved on rice grains, amazing works of pottery, T-shirt painting alongside poets reciting their verses and singers strumming guitars, all forms of art found their place in the fair.
Appreciating art is nothing new for Marwari too. But it isn’t exactly a part of their everyday life the way it is for Bengalis. Especially when it comes to music. An aunt from my neighborhood whom we all called “Didibhai” would invite me during my holidays to learn Harmonium with other kids of her house and the neighborhood. Touching the yellowish white and the black keys I would try to learn and imitate the way she sang Sa Re Ga Ma, the keynotes of the Indian Classical Music. And this must have been an experience of many Marwari of Kolkata. Would you believe that there are many Marwari who knows and can sing a couple of Rabindra Sangeet and even Nazrul Giti? But that’s how Bengaliana had penetrated the genes of some of the natives of Rajasthan who came here centuries ago and have made this once capital of British Raj their home.
Bengali’s love for food is evident in the way they turn every event into food frenzy. Therefore, after few hours of stall hopping the bibliophiles would invariably turn into gastro enthusiasts. While people would throng around the stalls of phuchka, chow mien, Mughlai paratha, Jhal Muri, I would merrily enjoy cotton candies that would get stuck all over my face.
This very love of food is what brought my many Bong friends to my house asking my mom to prepare Dahi Bada, Kaju Barfi, roasted Papad and Achars. In return, I would gorge on their Aloor Dom, Cholar Dal, and Misti Doi. Even now the Mother dairy Misti doi stalls are a must visit at the Boi Mela every year.
I simply hated it when the Bookfair was shifted from Maidan to Milan Mela. Maidan has become inseparable from Boi Mela and it was so difficult for me to accept this change that I skipped going to book fair the year it was shifted. But the entire year the guilt kept gnawing at me and finally the next year I strode inside with judging eyes. The format looked neat and streamlined and I enjoyed swimming in the ocean of books once again. However, I still miss the Maidan days and the memories I made there will forever remain etched in my heart.
Picture Courtesy : Koyel Bhattacharyya (Thanks a ton dear :-))