I had recently been to the fair that steals my heart each time, like the very first time it did when I was in the second grade. I was mesmerized by the wonderful array of alluring stationery and colourful comic books laid out in the book fair when I was seven. I continue to be mesmerized by the stacks of the old spines and new, of books that seem to call out to embrace me with its arms shaped with words, words that steal our heart and reduce the loneliness that we face in our cellular life.
It’s true that every public congregation displays a wide array of human temperaments, but I personally feel that the multitudinous crowd flocked in the book fair is spiked with the most fascinating individualities.
As I walked in through the gates onto the ground that accommodates uncountable hundreds and thousands of books, the wonder took over me, leading my strides into the stalls of leading publishing houses and small-scale bookstores, as the aroma of fresh pages of new books caressed my olfactory senses, alternating with that of wet grass and spicy food being churned out by shacks set up all around the premises to satiate the hungry book-lovers and word-hunters.
And it is amidst this wondrous mayhem, amidst flipping through the pages of new releases and old, impressive titles, that sets of young eyes find way to meet other sets of young eyes embedded in cute faces, suppressing the intermittent coy smiles. Thrown in amongst this assemblage are stooped old figures in dark, muted and old sweaters, of old and forgotten writers who faded away from the periphery of limelight, belonging to the times when writers were identified by their words, not the depth of their dimples. One can’t tell them apart from their closely linked kin of closet writers confined in the bodies of retired clerks with a patched jhola slung across their shoulder, walking tiresome steps in their equally old Bata sandals, flipping through the browned pages of ancient titles in the smaller shops that stock old, tattered and rare books, perhaps in a vague attempt of find a rare gem in the treasury. The frame welcomes contrasting shades as celebrated authors in posh clothing escorted by a scurrying team of guild representatives, guards and volunteers steer past indie authors with sleepy eyes slumped on chairs, sitting behind tables that have a few copies of their printed words laid out on white tablecloths of their desolate stalls opposite humungous set-ups of major publishing houses that have multiple tens waiting in a queue to enter and browse through their shelves. Ten at a time. Glittering eyes of young, aspiring writers observe the spectacle in wonder with bags of books in hand, walking alone or in a group of raucous friends, marching past the grounds with the persistent harangue of that one hipster brimming with complaints, in complete dejection of the society they are surrounded by.
Small squarish installations with manicured trees are lined with people everywhere. The bold lady with heavy kohl-lined eyes taking a long drag from her cigarette, talking to her companions in a voice with distinctive authority that cuts through the nagging cries of children, complaining of tiny paining feet, reaching all the way to the ears of the old couple that never quite able to shed off the ritual of visiting this annual fest, reminiscing nostalgically; demanding their attention towards her who utter their mutual resentment of modernity in women, in unison. Littering all around these squares are more people with paining feet waiting to grab a seat as soon as it is deserted. Oh, there are also regional soap stars, fleeting time near the crowds of the common people from whom they once drew the plentitude of their popularity, now blanched with time; their eyes fleeing far away from their conversations, coveting the fan mobs they once eluded from.
For quite a few years now the authority has been welcoming the active participation of overseas nation to ensure a steady cultural exchange. The prevalent ‘theme’ got a Francais makeover this year, as France participated as the major partner nation, setting up a huge stall with a seemingly high artistic appeal, attracting hundreds of enthusiastic people, eager to engulf bits of France. I too had entered the stall, curious about what lies inside. After a thorough checkup of 5 minutes, which rather contributed to building up a long queue, we finally entered the gigantic set-up with three separate halls inside. What emerged out of the elaborate affair was that, it turned out to be a major disappointment. In a book fair, there was hardly any mention about the rich cultural and literary heritage of France. There were only illusory art installations with a paragraph here and there about France’s historical alliances with India, about some common French phrases and words and about how popular French is. There was hardly any mention of literature as we passed through alleys of digital screens blaring Triptych tales and modern French music. It was outside the halls, in the display boxes attached to the makeshift walls lining the exit that there lay books in an unorganised dismay with a copy of Montaigne’s works and elementary school French books, proudly stating “LOOK BUT DO NOT TOUCH”. Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Voltaire, Mozart, Boulanger and Chabrier perhaps packed up for a distant vacation from the alienating modernism from the fair that is otherwise supposed to uphold the integrity of literature and celebrate it.
It happened to me gradually, when I pointed stalls of popular spice brands, selling packets of spices, sticking out from the colony of bookstalls like irritating boils in the book fair. People aren’t really celebrating books anymore. The have given up their search for literature in life, poetry in petty existence and food for thought. The book fair has become just another reason to take an early leave from the drudgery of a day’s work, a minute break from the banality of existence to enjoy food for appetite, unintellectual gossip and glossy propaganda pamphlets distributed by the huge stalls of banks(!), and universities; books being just excuses to savour the grandeur of the annual book fair that is so hyped about. It’s the glowing stalls advertising ebook readers that are attracting crowds of Icarus. It’s the stalls announcing rewards for a trivial trivia contest and 30 seconds of fame on live television that are summoning giggling-gaggling swarms. The dwindling spirit of book fair was mirrored phoney voice of the naive teen who raised her voice when her friend admiringly picked up a collector’s copy of Romantic poetry, nodding her head in disapproval and stating, “Fifty shades is fifty times more romantic!”
The irony lay in stark exposure as the speakers conveying the voices from the main auditorium lamented the decadence of modern society in their response to books and literature, in the unpeopled auditorium while lakhs roamed around aimlessly. I took my quiet exit contemplating how the book fair buzzed with visitors, not readers.
Note- Photos have been taken from the internet.