Recent logo of the Kolkata International Book Fair. Image for representative purpose only

When the Book Fair burnt in January 1997, it did not smell of authentic Bengali cuisine. Or of any of the many subliminal ‘snake foods’ (purported snacks) that were being cooked inside the fairground, one of whose stalls had been that very Prometheus who handed over fire to an undiscerning congregation of millions. Inside a stall, around 5 in the evening, I was browsing through a book on the city. Yes, a collection of photographs on Calcutta by Tapan Mitra. The Calcutta Persona, with text by Partha Basu. I distinctly remember being tucked somewhere along the alabaster balustrade of one of Chitpur’s grand old palaces, when I heard ‘fire fire’! I turned around. And in a distance there was a giant mouth of a fireball, like an open gape of a fire-spouting dragon, eating into a large stall at a distance, aided happily by the late winter breeze. This was the very breeze which on other, recent days, soothed hapless fathers who had just given in to buying the tenth encyclopedia Britannica or the eleventh Tintin to his demanding kid. That breeze was now backslapping the marauding fire vehemently, to eat up everything that came on its way, as if the fire was on a race to dive straight into the river that was in usual saunter less than a mile away. It was an inferno. And the inferno was at that moment eating ravenously into the bulky volumes of Standard Literature. I had never seen a fire this up, close and personal and for moments I could not move. The fire’s appetite seemed unending and slowly it ate into Oxford University Press, Tata Mc Graw Hill, sundry local publishers, maybe Dey’s and Thema, maybe the Montmartre — the little magazine territory. Was it just a coincidence that only days before I had read the Maria Upton poem: Fire is the roar/The hum, the sting of Wind/ Fire is the pepper pulsing/from the flower/ Fire is the frenzied volcano dancing/It is the lightning’s blitz, the drumming, the singing/The beat of tribes, telling their story all night/Piercing the bottom of dark, birthing the light.

Was it a bonfire of vanities in a city that was increasingly losing its hallowed claims to public culture? Was it a bonfire of sanities, when the late nineties’ fin-de siècle doom loomed large? Or maybe it was a bonfire of profundities; of losing to the pillaging fire-breathing monster the last of the city’s famed pretences to greatness — its million-thronging, free-spirited, green-chomping, buccaneering, swashbuckling Book Fair! Along with other assorted isms in its showcase.         I did not know. And I could not see what it meant because the horizons, as far as I and the thousands stranded with me could look, it was dark smoke. Up in smoke was Umberto Eco, up in smoke was Frantz Fanon, up in smoke was Jorge Luis Borges. Was there ever a more elaborate burning of books in history since the fire at Alexandria? Was there ever a more poignant collective sigh since Rome burnt? In annuls of the city, destruction of the good as against the bad and the ugly has been a recurrent motif, like a bad character from a forgettable film. So I was not surprised. Just plain dazed, looking into the haze of black fire, and then pale and vague into the sky. I could not make out if it was the twilight or the black smoke which caused that terrible darkness up there. But by now I was only too conscious to be a witness to one of the city’s high points of contact with itself that was now slowly engulfed by the wrath of its past and present sinners!

The Book Fair was good as over. Half of it lay burnt and razed in front of us. Howling cries made the air heavy. Must be small publishers who had stacked everything. Or may be it was the ghost of the reading public, who had waited a full year only to have his yearning dashed to the ground. I went back the day after. A giant dark patch marked Maidan. The smell of charcoal filled the air. There was no one on that quiet afternoon. There was no picketing, no fencing. No sign of vigilance. That morning newspapers barked over each other’s voice to mourn the accident. Some blamed the penchant for food – over reading – for the philistines who thronged the fair in hordes. The CM in waiting and the cultureminster Comrade Buddhadeb had thumped his chest and vowed to come back with a new Fair within a few days.

Standing in front of the expansive, burnt heath, amidst the flutter of burst papers and charcoaled books, somehow I felt that the days of the Fair in the heart of the city was indeed numbered. The madness of the downtown fair, the proclivity of its endless, eager visitors, the chirpiness of the children, the smell of grass with a new book in tow, the foolhardiness of chasing beauty in the crowd, the cheesiness of peeping clumsily into the book of nudes and the sheer freewill of walking back home with hundred others, all with at least one packet of books held close to their chest on happy January evenings, was going to end soon. And it did. Since it burnt, Book Fair never found a steady ground in Maidan. It slipped and fell on its cloistered feet for some years till it was relocated to its current promises, one-sixth of its original size, one-millionth of its original charm.

But burning is not just the only memory one has of the fair. Book Fair is perhaps the only event in the city, apart from the Pujas, which manages to connect, as we will see, very different demographies. In younger days, young boys from suburban areas would show a keen interest in the fair. They had not read a single book in their life and would never do. But come every Fair, they would religiously head for the Maidan in groups. Their intention? To gather together inside a stall, create some disorder and then, taking advantage of the attention lapse of vigilantes, steal books away which they sold in the market to make some quick pocket money. ‘Cultured’ boys and girls went with their parents and browsed dutifully at Enid Blytons. ‘Uncultured’ boys stole books. On anything. Yoga. the moonraker. Kayaking. Gardening. And if they were caught? No, they were not in for any corporal punishment. Instead, they were made to sit down and write essays on why they should not steal books. Being from kaaltured family, I was aghast at this practice of stealing till much later I heard, in JNU, a famous and irreverent professor advocating stealing of books from the library. ‘That way, some of it will be read’, he said. Donno why, and without reference to those who I knew stole books in my past, I believed in him.

Book Fair was also the time when one KC Paul, Counter-Copernicus of the Nether World, would appear from nowhere and espouse his famous theory of the Sun going around the earth once every year (and not what we, the fools know) complete with mathematical sums, diagrams et al. He occupied his place religiously outside Gate One of the Fair for years, undaunted by and unmindful of the ludicrosity of his enterprise.

It is in Book Fair again that I heard, live, one Jacques Derrida, the philosopher and proponent of the theory of Deconstruction when he came for the annual lecture sometime at the end nineties. He had famously said that the Book, chased by the assorted ills of modernity from the world at large, had finally found a resting place in Calcutta. Deconstructed, this means that Calcutta was outside the world. Perhaps, till very late into its modernity, with its legendary nature of playing truant with time, Calcutta was indeed outside the world.

This was all before the fire burst in, as if sent from the outer globe, to put a leash around Calcutta — oblivious and drunken in a world of books — back to the fold of order, the order of un-books that Derrida had derided. 

The fire was a burning reminder that Calcutta’s famed romance with books could not have gone forever. It had to finally succumb to the ways of the world. Now, the Fair is still there, propah like a trade fair, cemented like an industrial exhibition, clustered like corporate jamborees.

But the Book, chased and troubled by fire and forgetfulness, perhaps isn’t.