Ananya Chanda pens her memorable jaunts through the country’s largest book market- College Street- and perhaps, the second largest in the world.
The Boi Para- the colony of books, of India. Columns and columns of books, people sitting within these columns, dozing off on the books, sitting and reading on top of books- welcome to College Street, Kolkata. No. More like College Street, Calcutta. You find everything here, little shops, big bosses, the tiny stand, the double door shops, the lazy shopkeepers and the over enthusiastic “Aashun, aashun, ki boi?”(Welcome, what book?)
It is said that if you don’t find a book which you want on College Street, then it probably never exists! The rarest of rare books, the first editions, the torn and taped back together books, the books which open with a name and are dated years back…you find them all. It amuses me every time I open a book with someone else’s name.
Let the name not fool you. College Street is not just one street; it is a maze of streets. Though there is one main street where sits the majestic Presidency College since 1817. And there are other streets that stream out like veins. On a normal day, the busiest hours are around noon and then post lunch. Everybody in Kolkata knows that there is no such thing as shopping post-lunch, even at the legendary College Street. After a nice bhat, dal, mach bhaja (rice, dal, fish fry) meal, it’s time for a power nap. After all, if you are a true Bangali, you need a short nap after that lavish lunch.
Walking down the maze, crossing the tram lines and eating guavas, I decide to sit in one corner on the footpath and absorb it all. As I write this, I recall everything in black and white. A hand-pulled rickshaw, a man with a gamcha around his neck carrying a man who is sunken in a little tide of books on the rickshaw… You don’t get to see that often, and just when I move in closer to have a better look at that little pool of books, my vision is blocked with a tram that crosses me at a snail speed, right in the middle of the road. I decide to walk parallel to it and see the bookshops. I was almost at par with the tram for some time.
Trying to read the titles as I pass through the stalls, I wonder if there is a course that they don’t have a book on. An incredible range of academic books is stocked up on those racks- engineering, law, medical, biotechnology, microbiology, space science, communications and the list is never ending. And just when I wonder where the fiction books are, I cross a board saying “Pick any, 100 rupees” and stop. Comparatively, it was one of the bigger book shops. The old generation Mills and Boons were for 20 bucks each! The old Arthur Hailey books were 50 rupees! I stay glued to that shop for 45 minutes and getting amused every time I pick a book and the shopkeeper shouts out its price.
Shankar Behra, the shopkeeper tells me about how his boss has had this shop in this family for three generations. He told me about how his great-great grandfather set up the small shop; he bought the neighbouring shop and expanded it into one of biggest shops on the street then. I always wondered where the shop owners sourced the books from and where did they find them. As if reading my mind, Shankar tells me about his loyal customers who come with old books which they want to sell at throwaway prices. And oh, here is a little factoid-the number of books doesn’t decide the price of the sale, the weight of the books decides it.
I end up buying eight books! And each of them had a little notes and memories tucked in between them. The Irving Wallace book is a farewell gift to a Roshmi. It said “stay happy, stay strong, stay wise.” Another torn Arthur Hailey’s Overload opens to a bold writing which says “”This book belongs to Manish Dutta!”. While I was gloating about my new collection of books, there walks in a pudgy man with greying hair and fingers that look like sausages, an ear to ear smile decoartingbhis afce while he stares at me. Looking at my wary expression, he tells me that he has come to College Street after 25 years. Last time, he was here to pick his own course books. And this time he was here to pick gifts for his son. The bright boy had scored 96% in class 10 boards and as a gift, he wanted books.
Quite a collector of second hand books himself, he tells me about a street in Gariahat and Gol Park, where you get more options. The seconds fever took me over and there I was, heading to Gariahat and Gol Park book market. No other city did justice to old books, the way Calcutta does. And I had to explore it all while I was here. And as if it was meant to be, I see a tram heading towards Gariahat. I have heard so much about trams in Kolkata, I decided it’s worth a try. I hop onto it, and the conductor immediately shoves the guy who is occupying ladies seat. Slowly trailing along its tracks, taking its own sweet time, the tram drops me off at Gariahat. At first, it is a little difficult to find the little patch of second hand book shops in the mammoth market, but when I reach there, one glance at the collection and I know its worth every praise its been ever bestowed with.
Gariahat second hand book shops even have old editions of Tintin and Asterix. They know they have a monopoly, so the prices are a little higher than the ones at College Street. But then, if you really love second had books with old torn yellow pages, this is heaven! Multiple shops and thousands of books later, I end up with another six books, three of them with loose pages in them, which I decide need to be sewed back together as soon as I get home.
The other three were really old, with papers which might just tear into two, if folded for too long. Little notes written in fountain ink pens. While reading one of these books, I read a sentence which made me fall in love with second hand books just a little bit more. In the novel, the protagonist tells his brother- “Doesn’t Mom know by now, it’s the 90s, men and women do not sit in different rooms during get-togethers.” It only reminded me that I was probably not even born when this book first released. Gariahat is newer in comparison to the College Street, but it’s collection will remind you of all the libraries you went and decided not to borrow, because you knew you would never want to give such gems back.
Six hours of walking through these incredibly crowded streets, trams, autos, and a lot of books, visiting these places just made my biggest fear a little more plausible- “I will die without reading all the books I know.”