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Alan Thomas

Calcutta: Bookland



College Street bookseller, Kolkata, 2011

An election is coming in April, and the hammer and sickle is everywhere in Kolkata, formerly Calcutta, a city established by the East India Company and once capital of the British Raj. The Maoist insurgency controls large parts of the countryside just to the west of the city. At the Kolkata Book Fair last month, I find Mao less in evidence than Che, whose iconic image adorns several publishers’ displays, including the Latin American pavilion. Although politics in West Bengal have been dominated by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) since the 1970s, the CPI(M) stands a good chance of losing in April, and there is a sense of apathy in the left-wing bookstalls. At LeftWord Books, an edition of “Karl’s” Capital is 50% off. As I look more closely, I realize that at one display I’m not seeing Che, but Benicio del Toro as Che.

The crowds at the fair pack other bookstalls. At Penguin, families jostle for space around stacks of illustrated books. I’m visiting the book fair with Colin Robinson, a veteran book editor (Verso, Scribner, The New Press) and now co-director of OR Books, an experimental imprint in New York. Colin and I are astounded that books could generate such a fair-ground atmosphere. We each have business in India, but we’re also on holiday from the anxieties of the publishing industry — the death of this, the crisis of that. Here, tens of thousands of people have endured a trip through choked roads to the city outskirts to enjoy a day off among … books. There isn’t an e-reader in sight.


We push through the Penguin display, past a poster of a spectacular Indian model reading Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, and make our way to the U.S. pavilion. For the first time in the fair’s thirty-five years, its theme country is the United States, so the pavilion is something special: an enormous plywood replica of the U.S. Capitol building. Inside are stands with information about the consulate’s American Library and how to visit the U.S. I see only a single bookcase. In it are three dozen books, all face out, most of them Cambridge University Press books on English as a second language. The rest are Obama biographies, Obama picture books, and four or five novels by Richard Ford, who was here the week before to give the fair’s opening address. We leave and head to the British Council’s pavilion. It looks like a good bookshop, shelves crowded with literary classics, British history, books on politics, even scholarly books. We find a Verso book Colin edited more than a decade ago and head outside to celebrate with ice cream.

Colin and I have come to Kolkata in part to visit friends at Seagull Books; Colin is on Seagull’s board, and the University of Chicago Press, for whom I work, distributes Seagull’s titles. Seagull’s publisher, Naveen Kishore, presides also over a bookshop and a gallery carrying the Seagull name. Seagull’s authors now include Tzvetan Todorov, Paul Virilio, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, and Thomas Bernhard, and their books have a distinctive look — the work of Sunandini Banerjee, who designs all of them with her digital collages as jacket art. Passing through Kolkata to visit Seagull this first week of February are also the artist William Kentridge and his wife Anne (for a show of his work in Seagull’s gallery), the anthropologist Rosalind Morris (here to interview Kentridge for a Seagull book), the writer and translator Esther Kinsky (for a reading from her new novel published by Seagull), and Martin Chalmers (translator of Kinsky as well as Enzensberger and others). Every morning, we converge at the Seagull offices, where Naveen, Sunandini, and the rest of the staff are so hospitable that you’d never know they have anything to do but relax with us. In fact, they’re up against Chicago’s deadline for marketing copy, which they will meet, for a fall list of two dozen books.

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I'm surprised to read that The Scottish Cemetery is stillin a state of desolation. I had gathered that a rteam had trvelled to Calcutta, from Scotland, in 2008 with the aim of renovating this cemetery and re -righting the gravestones.
I was in Calcutta a couple of weeks ago. However, because I was caring for a disabled friend on a tripto India I did not have enough free time to visit The Scottish Cemetery.
I am returning to India later this year and would like to be involved in this project. Should anyone be in a position to point me in the right direction please contact me.
Ralph Maver (from Dundee)
04.16.11 at 01:41

A team did travel to Calcutta, cleared brush from the cemetery, and did extensive documentation. But they have not righted the gravestones, and with the jungle-like growth removed, the dilapidated state of the cemetery is even more evident. You will find the team's blog here: http://scottishcemeterykolkata.wordpress.com/. I haven't found any evidence online that the project is ongoing.
Alan Thomas
04.17.11 at 10:41


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ABOUT THE SLIDESHOW

A slideshow of the 2011 Kolkata book fair.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alan Thomas is Editorial Director for the Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Chicago Press and a photographer specializing in urban landscape.
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