Monideepa Sahu explores Kolkata’s College Street, known mostly for the rare books and editions that one can find in the bookstalls that define this kilometre-long stretch.
Kolkata’s College Street is a book lover’s paradise on earth. Rows of stalls line over a kilometre-long stretch of road, enticing browsers with piles of books spilling onto the pavements.
Quaint trams, hand-pulled rickshaws, yellow ambassador taxis and cars honk and rattle on the road, combining with hawkers’ cries to raise an exciting buzz. Booksellers here can surprise with their knowledge, and some offer to help browsers locate books new and rare on virtually any subject, even if they themselves do not have it. Young students, backpacker tourists, portly matrons, bespectacled scholars and wise elders; Kolkata’s vibrant Boi Para (neighbourhood of books) draws everyone. Established names to small and niche publishers — all have a presence in College Street, which continues to be the hub of eastern India’s publication industry.
The world’s largest second-hand book bazaar and the largest book market in India, College Street featured in Time Magazine’s “Best of Asia” list in 2007. At first glance, one is overwhelmed, and a bit disappointed by the predominance of textbooks. Where are the rare old books, first editions, books in diverse Indian languages, and unusual books in and out of print from distant lands? There is also the fear of being buried alive in an avalanche of dusty tomes barely held back by sheets of corrugated tin and canvas clinging to frames of bamboo. Braving such minor hazards, adventurous souls can still seek and discover rare pearls in this sea of books. My uncle, a regular visitor to this street, discovered several gems on the course of his voyages of discovery. An exquisitely illustrated antique edition of The Rubayiat of Omar Khayyam discovered in College Street, continues to hold pride of place in his personal library.
The street has many interesting shops, offering unusual collections. Specialists on astrology, archaeology, comics and books, perfect as gifts for any occasion; you’ll find them right here. Das Gupta & Company Pvt Ltd is among the oldest booksellers here.
Arabinda Das Gupta tells us how his great grandfather Girish Chandra Das Gupta founded the shop in 1886. His friend Mahesh Bhattacharya, the famous homeopath, suggested a bookstore as the perfect enterprise for a man from a clan which had produced four ICS officers and a Chief Justice (K C Das Gupta) in the 1880s. In those days, there were only a handful of bookstores on College Street. Later, Amulya Chandra Das Gupta expanded the business by importing books and ordering rare books through publishers’ catalogues.
He also ventured into publishing. Collectors such as Thomas Meadows and Indranath Majumdar, a scholar from Santiniketan, helped locate rare books. In those days, the older generation of small stall owners were also avid collectors of rare books. They would hear of the death of a scholar, and buy his collection.
“We used to have autographed copies of Rabindranath’s works, and a first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, among other rare works in our personal collection,” Arabinda Das Gupta says. “They were sadly destroyed in a fire in 2004. Scholarly bureaucrats, academicians and writers once thronged here for books. Times are changing, but till this day, I have never seen such a concentration of bookshops anywhere in India.”
Books and beyond
This famous street has even more to offer. Towering behind the bookstores on the main road, are some of India’s oldest and most famous educational institutions. Presidency College, Sanskrit College, Scottish Church College, the Bethune College, the Medical College Kolkata, the Indian Institute of Social Welfare and Business Management, Hare School, Hindu School and the University of Calcutta are all located right here. In the sprawling combined campus of Hare School and Presidency College, we watched a lively football match. After a bout of Bengal’s favourite sport, the young players trooped into the nearby coffee house, which has hosted generations of intellectual addas.
The College Square Tank, now known as Vidyasagar Sarovar, is a beauty spot. People enjoy strolling around the placid tank. This is home to many of the city’s oldest yoga and swimming clubs and vyamshalas or Indian style gyms. The austere tomb of David Hare lies in a quiet green nook. David Hare, with the help of social reformer, Ram Mohan Roy, founded one of Calcutta’s oldest schools here in 1818. Since he encouraged the spread of western education among the natives without pressing them to convert to Christianity, he incurred the displeasure of his community. After his death, no cemetery wanted to have him buried within its walls. Hare’s grateful students arranged for their beloved teacher’s burial near the Hare School which, along with its renowned neighbours, continues to spread enlightenment.