The Nightmare of Book Festivals in India

The Small publishers at the Book Fair

Rita Banerji©. All Rights Reserved.

Yesterday I went to the annual Book Fair here in Kolkata.  It is one event that I look forward to all year.  I can devour books…I have eaten, breathed and lived them from the time I think I developed consciousness! 

And I love that publishers from all over India and from other countries set up stalls at the fair: For me it’s being a child in Disneyland. This year the theme country is Italy, and a few weeks ago I attended concert organized by the Italian embassy, which was also attended by contingent of Italian publishers and authors.  Noted Italian authors — Valerio Massimo Manfredi  and Beppe Severgni are here.

At a lecture he delivered at the book fair, Manfredi’ said, “The only difference between historians and storytellers is that the former has to tell the truth while the latter is unfettered by such compulsions.”  I smiled when I heard this and  thought — well,  maybe there really isn’t any difference between a historian and story-teller.   If a historian is not able to look his research and findings in the eye and present them as honestly as he/she can, they will just select the material they are comfortable with and present it in a light that distorts the past according to their sensibilities.

The book fair though keeps getting smaller every year — I’d think it would be the other way.  There are fewer stalls, and few publishers.  So now, you don’t get to see stalls like the one in the photo above which I took 4-5 years ago.  Earlier even very small publishers like this one with maybe 30-50 books to display would rent a stall and get a chance to be seen.  Fewer publishers from other parts of India travel to display their books — which I think is such a pity because the literature in each state in India is different and unique, and people from one state are almost totally unaware of the literature and works by authors in other states.  They can’t seem to get a grip on organization either!!  So 4 days into the fair — there were carpenters etc. banging away still setting up stalls, and huge piles of wood shavings, packaging etc. lying around, two piles in front of the main gates.  The ground maps for the publishers and stores was not available either! It’s still not printed! So I literally had to ask around to get to certain stores — for e.g. Penguin, my publisher! And then my biggest peeve — filth!!!  This year the book fair organizers decided they will dole out thousands of pouches of free drinking water.  But for some reason they did not think to ask “And where will the public dump the empty pouches?”  There were only a few dustbins, and so there were plastic bags, pamphlets, empty soda and coffee cups just littering the entire fair in heaps!!!

February 02, 2012  I was not at the book fair yesterday, but this morning I learned about an event that happened yesterday that perhaps is the most upsetting.  Feminist author Taslima Nasreen’s book (the 7th part of her autobiography) was to be released yesterday.  But under pressure from extremist Mulim groups the fair organizers forced her publishers to stop the release. A few days ago, at another book fair, in Jaipur the same was done to author Salman Rushdie.  He was prevented from attending the fair because at one time, one of his books had been banned! What this means is that that now in India: once a book by an author is banned (even on flimsy grounds like people’s sentimentality,  then all the other books they write will be banned too! And so will the authors! India is starting to feel not like a vibrant, intelligent, growing democracy — but rather a repressive, regressive, totalitarian autocracy!

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