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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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At 4 p.m. the monsoon rains pour down so furiously that shopkeepers hustle to cover their books with blue plastic tarp.

Booksellers estimate that the last five generations of city dwellers have shopped these narrow lanes. Even in the rain, the bookstalls are the hub of intellectual activity in the city, nestled amid Presidency College, the oldest college in India. Dozens of other higher-learning institutions are within walking distance.

The city has tried to shut down the market, lamented several booksellers gathered in the rain. Officials wanted the entire neighborhood of books to relocate to a climate-controlled "book mall," which will be built by 2009. No sheep allowed, one bookseller giggled.

But here in the world's largest democracy, the booksellers believe they will win. The book traders demanded compensation. Now, the book mall and plans to move the stalls have been delayed.

In all likelihood, the book mall and College Street will eventually coexist in this city of 14 million that loves to read.

With a strong literary tradition, Kolkata has given birth to some of India's most famous writers, including Rabindranath Tagore, who won the 1913 Nobel Prize for literature for "Gitanjali," his epic verse. He is seen as the Leo Tolstoy of India.

At 4:10 p.m., to get out of the still-pouring rain, a rush of young people climb several flights of dingy, winding stairs, past peeling paint and posters advertising English classes to prospective call center employees.

At the top of the stairs, they find the warehouse-like Indian Coffee House, a legendary cafe that has attracted the city's intelligentsia for decades. Unlike other, trendier chain coffeehouses in newer malls, no one here has their laptops open. There is no Internet access. No flat-screen TVs, no triple-shot skim vanilla lattes and no air conditioning.

This gathering is the city's afternoon adda, a ritual kibitzing session and a favorite pastime in Bengali culture. It's a mix of high-level banter over ancient literature, debates over India's role in geopolitics and perhaps a quick chat about the latest cricket scores. It's champion talking, and regulars say that anything of consequence coming out of Kolkata was at some point discussed in the Indian Coffee House during adda.

A cross section of Bengali literati and chatterati sit in hard-backed chairs under dozens of spinning ceiling fans as polite-looking waiters in feathered turbans and bowties serve kabiraji: cutlets of chicken, mutton, fish or shrimp fried with coats of egg, ginger and garlic. Refreshments include cold milky coffee or chai.

For the next hour, Mihir Bhatta, 69, a retired linguistics professor, and his friends will hold a traditional adda. At 4:30 p.m. they debated the current controversy over local farmers protesting the forced sale of their land to make way for a car factory. By 5:30 p.m., the topic was the need for more Bengali literary magazines.

"We like it here," Bhatta said. "And when we are finished, we can go browsing for books, to see if our ideas are right!"

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