Edinburgh was the first UNESCO City of Literature and now, Kolkata in the Indian state of West Bengal is bidding for the title. This bid is not without reason – the city prides itself on its deep association with anything literary.
The land has produced literary giants like the Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay and Mahashweta Devi. Contemporary writers of Bengali origin include Amitav Ghosh, Jhumpa Lahiri, Upamanyu Chatterjee,Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Bharati Mukherjee. The acclaimed film director, Satyajit Ray was a prolific short story writer and he also created a detective character called Feluda.
The average Kolkatan is as much a part of the literary scene as the writers, poets and dramatists. It is proclaimed often that literature runs in the Bengali's blood and there is invariably a writer or two in one's family tree. Literature slips into conversations, spills over shelves, and even dictates choice of career.
Books and childhood are inextricably linked in the Bengali psyche. Reading was heartily encouraged and a book was the gift of choice for children. It doesn't take much for a Kolkatan to remember the Enid Blyton he was gifted by an uncle, of grandfather's library with its leather-bound tomes and long summer afternoons lazing on a reed mat deeply engrossed in an adventure story.
While the intelligentsia may have a well-stocked library at home, the average Bengali has at least one tall book shelf crammed with hard covers in the living room as proof of his literary leanings. If nothing else, the 'adda's (spontaneous discussions), that are a Kolkata feature, invariably turn to books. Russian authors like Dostoevsky are as much part of the fierce debates in noisy coffee houses, as Tagore.
Despite the presence of swank new bookstores in the city, the Kolkatan thrives on the weekly browse through the unorganised stacks on the College Street pavement. It is a must-do destination for every book lover who visits the city. There are new and second hand books to be had for much lesser prices than one would pay elsewhere.
And then, there's the literary feast - The Kolkata Book Fair or Kolkata Boi Mela as it is called in Bengali - normally held at the Maidan and touted to be the third largest in the world. The week-long Fair has been held every year since 1976 except this year, due to the refusal of permission by the state government to use the Maidan as venue. All elements of the publishing business come together here, with the primary emphasis being on the reader. It's a happy jamboree of publishers, writers, readers and many, many books. There are book launches, addas, publishers from other markets and a constant stream of visitors soaking in the literary atmosphere. There is food to help replenish one's sagging energy level as often, people spend an entire day there. Some even return many times to satiate their literary cravings.
(An edited version was published in the June 2008 issue of 'At A Glance')