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

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."

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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