Time Zones:  2 1/2 Hours at a Bengal Bazaar

History, Heritage and a Few Hundred Sheep In Kolkata's 'Neighborhood of Books'

Sandhya Tiwary, 20, enjoys roaming the alleyways of College Street, known as the
Sandhya Tiwary, 20, enjoys roaming the alleyways of College Street, known as the "neighborhood of books" and considered the hub of intellectual activity in the city. (By Emily Wax -- The Washington Post)
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By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 24, 2008

KOLKATA, India -- Through summer's sweltering heat, through the monsoon season's torrential downpours and even after the city's recent accumulation of air-conditioned shopping malls, Sandhya Tiwary, 20, and her friends remain loyal to their afternoon strolls through the crowded, muddy lanes of College Street, long known as India's "neighborhood of books."

It's 3 p.m., just after their university classes. On a bustling street corner, Tiwary and her friends eat a quick lunch of Kolkata's favorite street food: steaming, egg-dipped chicken Kathi rolls -- with a side of freshly churned yogurt served in a salmon-colored earthen pot. Then, the group takes off to browse the secondhand -- and sometimes third- or fourth-hand -- books.

The 1,200 dilapidated bookstore kiosks create a maze of roadside cubbyholes stacked with dusty dictionaries in Hindi, underlined chemistry textbooks in Urdu and dozens of worn copies of a three-volume "History of West Bengal." Nearby are piles of "Mars and Venus in the Bedroom."

With booksellers bargaining in Bengali, the air fills with the merchants' favorite phrases. "Nowhere else on this green earth is such a deal," or "One fine day, you will know you have made a real fool of me for this generous price."

Some young customers come with lists of books they need for school. If a seller doesn't have a particular book, he will simply shout -- extremely loudly -- to a fellow shopkeeper for the title, usually screaming the name of the book three times in quick succession. As in "Sun Also Rises, Sun Also Rises, Sun Also Rises," or "Kite Runner, Kite Runner, Kite Runner." Eventually, a young worker will come sprinting out of an alleyway, requested book in hand.

The constant yelling of famous book titles mixes with the constant honking of car and rickshaw horns. This afternoon, a scratchy loudspeaker is screeching from the back of a truck, calling for donations for the victims of recent floods in India's eastern state of Bihar.

"This street, this way of life -- of buying books, of being together -- is a grand part of our heritage," said Tiwary, a geography student at the University of Calcutta, which is just around the block.

Suddenly, several herds of sheep toddle by on their way to a nearby market. Bells jangling, hundreds of the furry, coarse-wooled animals step among piles of books.

Shopkeepers tsk, dusting off their wares. Tiwary laughs and laughs, for several minutes. Her friend also cannot stop giggling, removing the headphones attached to her iPod Mini as she holds an arm full of Indian chick lit.

"Only in our India, only in our Kolkata," Tiwary, says over hundreds of earsplitting baa-ing and meh-ing sheep. "We don't want to lose this. It's the real Kolkata."

At 3:45 p.m., a rickshaw-puller naps inside his carriage, which is loaded with physics books. A bookworm has hired him to pull his load through the crowded streets of the city when they are done shopping. For now, the rickshaw has been turned into a shopping cart.

As he sleeps, his calloused feet dangle over a shopkeeper's haphazardly arranged stacks of medical textbooks, ancient-looking copies of various works of Marcel Proust, along with "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare" and the non-fiction memoir and irreverent romp "Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure."

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