I put up a Facebook status recently talking about the happiness of seeing my young student sit amidst a beautiful mess of about a dozen books, trying to figure out which one to read first. The book haul was the result of every Bong child’s annual pilgrimage to the International Kolkata Book Fair, one of the largest, most widely attended bibliophiles’ carnival in the world. Needless to say, the post received a fair amount of attention, with people later cooing to me in person about how adorable the scene sounded, how quaint, how tinged with a hint of romance.
And there, in that last sentiment, lies my question.
In a world increasingly out of step with the time and patience required for the very act of reading, has the Kolkata Book Fair been relegated to a place of nostalgia, rather than an event of current relevance?
How ready are we, the Generation whichever-letter-we’re-on, brought up on a diet of 140-character tweets and glowing screens in the privacy of our homes to read stuff off, to head into the open, physical ground of a physical fair, with actual good old smelly-touchy-feely books around us?
Look, I’m not saying glowing screens are bad. I LOVE my Kindle with a slightly fanatic attachment; I’m similarly stuck to my laptop with an invisible umbilical cord that ties me to 90% of my work and social connections; I tend to carry my ancient camera around with me just so I can get shots for my Instagram. This is not the angry rant of a Luddite, or the standoffish rejection of a hipster, or even the disconsolate murmuring of a youngish Literature student addicted to a romanticised past. (Emphasis on the ish.)
It’s a genuine concern.
I’m not even the most relevant generation in this equation. Heck, at least I remember a childhood completely devoid of computers and the Internet before 6th grade. The one that came after me can barely handle a non-touch screen phone. So this lot, the ones that can save the classics for free at the touch of a button on a screen, the ones that can carry literally hundreds of volumes around with less weight than that of the thinnest of paperbacks, why should they bother? Why go all the way out to a different part of the city, exposed to the elements, amidst huge crowds who can’t remember how to use dustbins, just for something you already have? I know I wouldn’t.
But I think the answer to that question lies in something entirely different, entirely beyond just, well, books.
See, people will always love reading, and books, and the joy these give. At least, there will always be people that do. We like to pretend that with every generation there is a decline, that somehow the number of books and the number of readers go down, that the quality of literature is in a state of ever-persistent decay, and all that jazz. That’s what the Victorians said about the Modernists. That’s what the Modernists said about the Post-Modernists. I think that’s some crazy paranoid cowardly BS. I think we just like thinking we’re smarter than whoever’s coming after us.
With every new wave of technology, there are always new fears about some sort of an apocalyptic showdown between the old and the new. And it’s true- with the coming of something new, something old always dies out. But reality isn’t quite that dramatic. There’s simply a gentle pruning, a quiet withering of what we don’t need anymore. And there will never be a time when we don’t need books– when we don’t need the knowledge and comfort and escape they have to offer us, whether on old yellow pages or new glowing screens.
We need to remember that books, and reading, and in-depth discussions of literature never were everybody’s cup of tea.
Historically, if you look at wars and so on, I’m pretty sure more people were actually interested in killing people than they were in books. Human beings have an amazingly resilient nature: they tend to remain consistently dumb. It’s not very different now.
History will also tell us that human beings adapt. Paradoxically, that is what has kept us going for so long so unchangingly. And so that’s what we’ve done: with the coming of the new age of light-bright screens, the ones who’ve loved reading and books have simply adapted our love to fit the paradigms of this age. Hence my Kindle; hence your reading this right now on your glowy-screen-thing.
So the question of whether the Book Fair will continue to be relevant in a digital age has quite little to do with books themselves. People will continue to read books; it’s the digital part we have to be worried about. Maybe if the entire fair was just rows of Kindles arranged on shelves, people would be willing to come?
And here comes the second and probably the most important component of the Boimela: the human component.
One can buy books anywhere. I could buy them off a vendor on the street for 20 bucks. (Literally.) I could lie back and order one on Amazon or Flipkart. I could stroll into Oxford Bookstore, pretending to be aantel (ahem. You can take the Bengali out of Bengal…) and pick up your everyday Dostoevsky or Beckett or Camus (I haven’t actually read any of these august individuals yet).
What I can’t do is stand in the middle of a fair ground, poring over hundreds of colourful, pristine, tangible products of incomparable freshness and beauty, accompanied by hundreds of book lovers- all doing exactly the same thing.
I can’t recreate the feel of a carnival in my bedroom, sitting alone at a desk clicking away on a computer. I can’t feel the intoxicating energy of an entire crowd chattering, discussing books and comparing novels under a cold winter sky. I can’t sense the joy of a young child on a family outing, pulling their parents towards the store they most want to go to. I can’t breathe in the apparently-unimportant-but-actually-paramount aroma of hot delicacies at food stalls around which stand uncles in sweaters and monkey caps, sipping piping hot chai.
People don’t go to the Book Fair just to buy books. They go for the same reason people by the millions feel the urge to leave their homes on a festival to go forth into a crowded, very public, very exposed city: they go to seek human connections in a way that can never be captured in the setting of a home or a shop.
There are those who complain that this shouldn’t be, that the book fair must be a staid and respectable homage to big, important things like Books and Literature with capital Bs. To them I say, you have missed half of the point of a boi mela.
Asking whether the Book Fair is relevant in a digital age is the same as asking if music festivals are relevant in the time of iTunes.
Obviously, listening to music at home on a computer can never be the same as being out there and listening to it live, amidst people having fun and celebrating the love of music. iTunes and Spotify will remain, but Glastonbury will always be Glastonbury. The answer to our thorny question is just as clear.
The Book Fair is a celebration, of books to be sure, but also of an entire culture: a culture so quintessentially Kolkatan that it can never really be lost. It is as much a Kolkatan/ Bengali festival as Durga Puja- I don’t see anyone complaining that with the advent of the digital age, Durga Puja has become irrelevant. Literature, and the love of it, is essential to the identity of this city. And you can take the Bengali out of Bengal, but…
So I say that the new generation of Kolkata, the one we’re going to leave our Fair to one day, feels as strongly about the fair as we do even in this digital age.
They will simply engage with it on multiple levels: physically as well as in digital reality, as you and I are doing right now on this blog. The Fair is not a remnant of a past age to be fantasised about with nostalgia, but a celebration of something that is very much of the present and the new, and will continue to be so in our city’s future.
Read the International Kolkata Book Fair’s official blog, with regular posts about books, book lovers and more at: http://goo.gl/b2whSm
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Tweet with the hashtag #boimela to spread the bookish love.
See you at the Milon Mela grounds.