I don’t know why, but due to some strange reasons, I caught myself standing directly under the winter sky on a Sunday evening at the 10th Northeast Book Fair. Even a small book store hidden somewhere in a dark and dingy lane is enough to drive a book lover crazy, so it’s only expected that such a large fair will draw a large crowd. But still, with the significant advent of the ‘multiplex culture’ in the city, I was a bit surprised to see the considerable number of visitors. First of all let me tell you that visiting a fair at a time of the day when it’s likely to draw the thickest crowd, is not commendable. Either you will find the heel of some lady’s shoe poking your footwear or worse, you may find yourself being dragged with the queue while patiently going through a book, right into the ‘madding crowd. You have to say ‘sorry’ a hundred times without even being able to properly cover-read a single title. Well, I want to clarify something. If you think that you will find preachy details of the various events that took place in the book fair throughout the long schedule, you are mistaken. I will only share a few silly experiences of spending this particular Sunday afternoon in the fair.
Let me give you a glimpse of some of my intriguing encounters with people from different walks of life in the fair. I was in a stall of a Kolkata based book house, in front of a rack, which by any definition can pass off as a ‘best seller’ row, with all big authors jostling for space with each other. Suddenly I was aware that a father and his daughter (in her teens) were standing by my side browsing through the books. Mr. Dad was however looking at everything in general but not reading anything in particular. The daughter scanned through all the tittles and finally picked up Chetan Bhagat’s Five Point Someone. Mr. Dad was quick enough to detect this immoral act by his daughter. “What is this?” he asked in a grave tone and continued, “What faltoo book have you picked up? Can’t you search for anything which will help you in school? Can’t you find a good mathematics reference book or an essay book?” He said all these with such rapidity that it appeared as if he had prepared this short speech before coming to the fair. The girl, quite hurt, answered in a low voice that she had read the other two tittles by this author and wanted to read this book. “You have read the others?” Mr. Dad uttered in a tone which signified that either he had suffered a stroke at the moment or the next hostage situation would be in some hotel in Guwahati. He grabbed the slim book from his daughter’s hand, and after thumbing through the entire book with a few milliseconds threw it back to the shelf. Chetan Bhagat, Open and Shut.
Well done, Mr. Dad! After all what will all this light literature give your daughter? Will they teach her to solve complicated equations or the stringent rules of grammar? Neither. And yes there is a question of her cultural or better still, intellectual needs, isn’t it Mr. Dad? I am sure that you, you who are so protective about your daughter, must have surely planted an idiot box in your drawing room to speak nonsense to her whenever she is bored of her studies. Right? People like Mr. Dad have quite unknowingly given a stern dictum to their children—study, give exams, get marks, get a job, earn the green notes, reproduce, then? Then die. No creativity, no thoughts, no ideas. A complete desert in the grey cells. No green leaves, no red roses.
I moved on to other stalls and found that Adiga was selling like hot cakes. People of all ages, grabbing the White Tiger, rushed to the counter. The Booker has given this wonderful piece of verse a major market. I encountered two guys, whom I assumed to be college friends, were speaking in Hindi. One of them picked up Adiga’s novel and explained something to his friend. I moved closer to them and in the hullabaloo of the crowd heard tit-bits of their conversation which was quite like this: “rags to riches ka story hai”; “aam admi becomes a rich guy”, and some more phrases like this. Wow! That is Aravind Adiga before you, thoroughly explained, interpreted and digested in two or three lines. I thought the guy had read the book and consequently was telling all this, but you know what? He hadn’t read it earlier and neither did he buy it. I heard him say, “College pressure, no time to read”, to his friend. Now will you term their attitude as ‘the enemies of the finer things in life’? Pressure and problems of this type have not only deprived the poor guy of reading what he had wanted to or had a knack of, but a good many people of my generation as well. Now will you categorize the guys as people who have let the burden of everyday life to crush their passions, whatever they had? Or will you put the entire blame on the system? Or do you think they are happy being unable to spend some time reading?
I don’t think true book lovers ever comment on a book without actually reading it and only going by the critiques. Neither are they attracted to books on the basis of the publishing company or the number of awards won. The true admirer of literature is attracted towards a book by the pleasant yet powerful appeal of good writing.
I came out of this stall and roamed about, somewhat aimlessly, only to be greeted by an eyeful of pathetic sights like nursery rhymes VCD being played on television and young couples with their infants on their shoulders craning for a glimpse of it, a nearly empty NBT stall with books adorning Gandhi’s and Nehru’s pictures lying untouched, people eating popcorn while browsing through books with oily fingers. But don’t get me wrong. I also saw a few scholarly gentleman and connoisseurs of books, people who stood long at one of the display shelves and scanned books they had searched and finally found. Seniors who had dared the cold to enjoy the delightful sight of thousands of book, middle aged people who browsed through serious literature or profession oriented books, and of course teenagers with insatiable hunger who lapped up and devoured anything from Blyton to Christie. It is for these people that the fair glowed and bubbled with life.
In this ever changing and globalised world, the substantial domination of electronic media over our lives is growing stronger everyday. A good percentage of the present generation is bereft of the habit of reading, and in a sense parents can be held responsible for this. The fact that reading in leisure can be the most rewarding for children must be hammered home as soon as possible. The immortality of Great Books as described by Adler should be the foremost reason for our association with it. To get closer to aesthetic qualities is more of responsibility than a passion. Literature in mother tongue can help us search for our roots in times of identity crisis facing us. And even the highly reality based modern wave of English writing by Indian writers are worth reading for anyone who is curious enough to know about the current India.
What is life without some finer taste? Without some poetry, without some romance? No matter what our troubles are, what terrible days we pass, whatever crisis we are in, somewhere the escape from all this lies in ‘finer things of life’-art, culture, literature- only. Good music and inspiring movies, good poetry, thought provoking literature essays, humorous writings, modern literature, biographies, history, whatever be it, the answer of all troubles lies here. And even the creations themselves seem to tell us that literature is the ultimate champion- the frustration in the poems of John Keats, the writings of Dickens influenced by grief and poverty, numerous writing depicting the identity crisis, the drawbacks of war, the fallout of political policies, and many others. Sugar candies, cheap guide books, nursery rhyme VCD and all this stuff can be found anywhere and everywhere. Don’t crowd a fair like this for these things. Go to the fair to spend the evening among the variety of books and feel a sense of gratitude for the all the knowledge that the books stores within their covers and appreciate the wisdom of facts. We should go to a book fair and return with something that will help us regain our lost inner voice which has been suppressed due to the ‘desert in the grey cells’, I have already mentioned, caused by the materialistic inclination of our brain.
The chill of winter air left me a little cold and my legs started aching. I had to quit the fair empty handed for the day-the pleasure doesn’t always lie in buying-but with a full heart to share a lot with you. And this I have done.