One of the things that Bengalis take pride in is the annual Book Fair in Kolkata. What began as the Kolikata Book Fair in 1976 became the International Book Fair in 1984 and added a new festival to the list of “Baro Mashe Tero Parbon”. Since then, one of the biggest attractions of winter in Kolkata has been the boi mela. For the last two years, the venue of this fair has been the Central Park in Salt Lake. Before that, it was hosted at the Milan Mela Ground for nine years since 2009. But since its inception till 2008, the largest non-trade book fair in the world was held at Maidan in Central Kolkata (though, in 1991, it was moved to the Park Street end of the ground from its other end). And, while the book fair still retains its glory, there are some magical things that Bangalis miss about the one that was held at the Maidan grounds.
Things 90’s Kids Miss about the Kolkata Book Fair at Maidan
Every Bangali who was a kid in the 90s has some fond memories of the old version of the Kolkata book fair at Maidan. Since this massive festival shifted from Maidan, a lot of things have changed. And, we miss much of these insignificant beauties.
1. Ticket queue at the metro station
In those days, the entry into the Kolkata pustak mela was not free. While it was possible to buy the ticket at the gate of the mela right before entering, visitors who knew that they would be frequenting the book fair multiple times always purchased combo tickets available at the metro rail station. The book lovers never wanted to waste time standing in queues, every time they visited the book fair. This one-time purchase was a godsend for them.
The primary reason for changing the venue of the bookfair from Maidan to Milan Mela ground was all the dust and pollution. Strangely, that dhulo is something we miss about the book fair. The daily dose of dust used to increase as the hours rolled on, and the slightly translucent smoggy envelop all around was a symbol of the magnitude of this festival celebrating books and intellect, held in winter, and the enormity of participation in it. It was almost poetic!
3. Cute little stalls by unknown owners
At Maidan, all the stalls were temporary, with their skeleton made with bamboo sticks. Every now and then, in some obscure part of boimela, among the big stalls of famous publishers, we used to come across a quaint stall owned by an unknown publisher or distributor. Most of them attracted young readers with their colourful displays. Some stalls, shaped like a little English hut or a studded with cartoon cutouts, looked inviting from the outside, too. They exhibited their collections of storybooks by never-heard-of writers, encyclopedias, sketchbooks, stationaries, etc.
4. Popcorn and burir chul stalls
At every step in the Kolkata book fair at Maidan, there used to be a popcorn and cotton candy stall. The golden fountain of fluff from the popcorn machine, and the pink clouds of cotton used to be among the prime attractions of any fair, to be honest. But then again, everything at the boimela used to be extra special.
5. Spirograph sellers
In between stalls, we often came across men who sat on the groups with their collection of spirograph sets. Remember the toys that had cogs of different sizes, with holes following the golden spiral pattern? You had to put the pencil in one of the holes and start drawing, while the cog ran along the teeth of the outer ring, to create roulette curves. Of course, most kids just called them “design tools”. Almost every child left boimela with a pack of spirograph set in hand.
6. Men with telescope
Very often, in the farthest corners of the fair near the gates, where the crowd was less, we could often see men standing with a telescope to give you a closer view of the planets and stars. They made sure to show you the “laal laal” body, and every child felt proud after spotting the red planet, aka Mars. They also helped us take a closer look at the spots on the Moon!
7. Open space
The entire mela rea is just not the same anymore. Earlier, there used to be ample space on the dried up grassy patches of Maidan where groups of friends could sit together. Since it was never difficult to find space close to the stalls, people could just halt every now and then in the middle of their book buying and reading sessions to sit down, rest, and have an adda. Yes, there are dedicated areas to sit and relax in the new venues, but it’s just not the same as it used to be.
8. Guitar-strumming college boys and girls
This was the most common scene in book fairs at a time when playing book fair theme song was still not a thing. From Rabindra Sangeet to Mohiner Ghoraguli, young boys and girls, dressed in a Boho style, were seen sitting in hurdles on the mela ground and singing. Passers-by often called these groups of people in the late teens and early tweens aanten, but they just had addas, and they sang, without a worry in the world.
9. Time inside the stalls
Things need to keep moving in the stalls to keep the entire flow of checking out books and buying them smooth and fast. In addition, the stalls have also become much smaller. As people rush through the stores, people who have been to the Kolkata book fair at Maidan can’t help but think of the days when they could stay in the stalls for hours, flipping through the pages. Many still proudly remember how they have finished reading entire books during their book fair visit. Of course, some even found a way to sneak books out. The boi chors of the 90s are still proud of themselves.
10. Metro rides before and after the fair visit
Maidan is close to the metro railway station, and hence most visitors availed the underground train facility to travel to and from the book fair. The rides to the fair used to be full of excitement and speculations. What books to buy? Which stalls to enter? Through which gate to enter in order for easy access to the desired stalls? What to eat? After an entire day of struggling, the stations and trains again used to be filled to the brim with people – all happy people, with books in large packets, and even big shoppers brought by them from home.
The life of the Kolkata book fair at Maidan is somehow missing now.
The new Kolkata book fair is cleaner and more organised than before. But some things aren’t the same. There aren’t enough people now, probably because of the location. Let’s not forget the Bangali Ptolemy, KC Paul, who used to sit in the fair and claim that the sun revolved around the sun; unfortunately, even though he made it to the Milan Mela Grounds, he is not seen in the current Central Park location of the Kolkata book fair.
The old charm is somehow lost. It isn’t just one thing. It isn’t just about the books. It’s a number of small things that brought everyone immense joy. These together gave life to the Kolkata book fair at Maidan, as remembered by the 90’s kids. Thankfully, a few things are still there. The foot warriors with their stocks of Little Magazines. The lines in front of Oxford and Ananda Publishers. And above all, the visitors – from the wide-eyed children to the elderly bibliophiles – with their spontaneous Bangaliyana and their inherent love for books.