If Paris has Bouquinistes then Kolkata has College Street.” That’s what my friend Biswadip would often tell me. While I wasn’t sure whether the famed booksellers along the river Seine in Paris could be compared with their counterparts in West Bengal capital, I was always curious. Kolkata, after all, has been one of the major cultural centres of South Asia and capital of British India till 1911. The city is known for its intellectuals and the iconic figures who dominated the subcontinent's social, political and cultural landscapes. ‘There must be some veracity in my friend's claim,’ I thought.
So, on a warm March afternoon, within days after landing in Kolkata for the
first time in my adult life, I decide to take a tour of College Street – the book colony of
the City of Joy.
Hopping off a tram car --- Kolkata is the only Indian city where these wonderful vehicles still ply –I amble down the pavement in front of the university main campus. The Central Library stands tall in the middle of British-era buildings of the university. But away from the cool environs of the library, students are busy looking for books in the small kiosks that line up along the street. Painted in grey and blue, these stalls look like small compartments of a long train, with the booksellers lounging on their seats.
Well, not all are really lounging – some are making their presence felt with shrill hawking. Some of the sellers are claiming to offer 50 per cent discount on book prices, while others are hoping to attract buyers with the “latest edition” of Gunter Grass collection, “first-class plays” penned by Harold Pinter, “everything written by Guy deMaupassant” and “best of Sylvia Plath”.
I move a bit northward and manage to cross the furiously busy street to land right in front of the National Book Store along the eastern pavement. The pavement here is crowded and vibrant; there is not much space to move freely. The wooden book stalls occupy half of the pavement, covered by blue and yellow plastic sheets for bit of shadow from the sunlight. These kiosks stand bang opposite the ancient bookstores that have seen the turn of centuries.
The varnished interiors of the stores smell of the past that was glorious, with the best of Indian minds frequenting these establishments.
The kiosks have no such glory to boast of – they are the subaltern lot here.
But still, the book kiosks on this side of College Street are fiercely competing with the staid bookstores. It’s a competition that has been going on for decades I am told – the kiosks often offering better deals than the stores, and the stores trying to counter it
with better collections. So, the kiosk owners are shouting their lungs out to attract
buyers; and the bookstores have deployed their agents who are inviting everyone
into their stores.
I hear all sorts of appeals. Some of the kiosk owners and their acolytes try to attract my attention. But I shake my head and they are clearly disappointed.
On the street, the yellow Kolkata taxis, blue tram cars, and buses of different shapes and shades rush past the kiosks and the old buildings. Pushcarts and rickshaw-pullers make their way through the narrow lanes that open up on College Street. The pushcarts carry stacks of books – from the publishing houses based on the lanes to the bookstores. The rickshaw-pullers alert everyone with their bells that they hold in their hands. A couple of sugarcane juice sellers help students to quench their thirst. Someone is selling pakoda somewhere – its alluring smell wafting all over. Posters of latest Byomkesh Bakshi film in Bengali – Sajarur Kanta – stare at me from the lamp post. A golgappa seller is doing brisk business. The constant buzz of bargaining and hawking act like a background score, punctuated by honking of bus and taxis and the bells of the tram cars.
It is this chaotic nature of College Street that makes it one-of-a-kind in India.