Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Day 2: Walking Around in College Street

I spent most of today walking around in College Street. Yes, College Street, that old, run-down, crowded area of Calcutta, which was its core - its heart - till about recently, till Sector 5 took over. All the things Calcutta was known for was here: Its colleges, its Coffee House, its most famous square, its bookshops. As I walked around, I knew the streets and its corners, and almost recognized the people, after all these years. I realized that I spent most of my college life on these roads [as opposed to being inside the classes as I should have], but also realized that it has changed very little since then.

Before I was in the area, I was asking my father how the Bengali publishers are doing. My assumption was that they should be doing well. The reasons are plain to see: There are new channels of book selling, the new departmental stores, and a new trend where being a Bengali is actually fashionable. The Bengali eateries are doing well. So are Bengal-focused websites. So, I was expecting to see a sort of a revival in the college street, home of most Bengali publishers.

I am also aware that at least one Bengali publishing house has done very well in the recent past. Ananda Publishers. They were always good, but of late, they have integrated their various businesses - Newspaper, Magazines, Television, Radio, Events and Book Publishing - extremely well and built an institution. As we walked past their large three storied showroom [which, I recalled, was a modest shop when I was in college], I could visibly see the signs of wealth and success. I was hoping that this would be the general story of College Street too.

However, my experience turned out to be exactly the opposite. It was sad to see some of the once famous publishers so run down and fragile. I walked into Signet, the publisher who earned its name as much for the literature it published as its signature cover designs, many of them done by Satyajit Ray, in his earlier career as a Graphic Artist. I was after the Bengali translation of Jim Corbett's The Man-eaters of Kumayon, a hunting tale immortalized by a very special cover design by Satyajit Ray. I did find the book, but horrified by its production and print [production and print used to be USP of Signet]. I then walked into Granthalay, another publisher who made their name by publishing collected works of famous post-independence Bengali writers. An uninterested staff informed me that most of those books are out of print, and few volumes may be available here and there.

I almost gave up my search and went over a bookseller I knew for years. My intent is to build a library of Bengali literature, something that I dreamt of as a college kid but could not afford. I realized, in the few brief minutes of walking around, that the opportunity is fast disappearing, as, very shortly, may be in a couple of years' time, none of the books I coveted, will be available in print anymore. Once in his shop, I tried to take his counsel on my next intended purchase, the Collected Works of Bibhutibhusan Bandopadhyay, the novelist who is known for Satyajit Ray's timeless adaptation of his classic, Pather Panchali, but has also written at least a dozen of captivating novels. I could get a copy - an overpriced centennial edition - but was put off by the print, paper, design and spelling errors.

At this point, I had to ask, what's going on. The market for Bengali books should be expanding - expat bengalis are trying to rediscover their roots more than ever and the new 'young' bengal finds its fashionable to be Bengali. Besides, there is a huge market in Bangladesh and the interactions between the two countries have expanded significantly over the last 15 years. However, it seems that the Bengali publishers, who hold the rights for some of most remarkable pieces of Bengali literary and artistic creation, are going nowhere.

I was offered three explanations. First, the market for books have changed, tastes have changed. Possibly yes, but frankly, I have noticed more Bengali books, and translations from Bengali Classic books, on the upmarket shop-windows more than ever. So, while there may be a change in demand, there is no fundamental issues with demand. There may be an issue with distribution strategies, which most Bengali publishing houses, being small and family-run organizations, have failed to grasp. Yesterday, I was watching Big Bazaar with fascination; today, I am looking at the the backwater of the economy that the phenomena like Big Bazaar is bound to create.

The second explanation, as one would guess, was piracy. I was told that the market for Bangladesh, which should be bigger in size terms than West Bengal, is virtually inaccessible because of pirated, local editions. This is, of course, a very common argument, offered by any book publisher or music producer anywhere in the world. However, piracy actually reflects that there is no fundamental problem with demand, but only a flaw in distribution. Besides, the way to deal with piracy is to stick to the basics - ensuring that every copy of the original publication looks worth its value in terms of print and production; instead, most Bengali publishers made their books look like pirated copies, with cheap paper, clumsy printing and terrible production.

The third thought, interestingly, was offered as an explanation why the books are so terribly produced. I was told, like a zillion times before this, that the Indian consumers seek VALUE, and hence, as long as they can read the content, they are happy and they don't care for the quality of paper or the aesthetics of the cover design. I do think this thought is fundamentally flawed. As a lover of books, and an avid purchaser, I know I buy books not just to read, but to preserve. I would not buy most of the books I buy if I was just supposed to read; a library copy would have suited the purpose just fine. And, the moment I think of a book as a commodity that needs to be preserved long term, the requirements of aesthetics become more important than ever.

I did think of a reason for this rapid decline in terms of production quality, and unfortunately, I am going to blame the government, yet again. The Left Front government in West Bengal has done many commendable things, including a significant investment in building public libraries across the state. I had a feeling that the book market today, at least the one in College Street, exists solely to meet the requirements of the Library purchaser, a paid Civil Servant who demands maximum value for his buck and buys books he is not going to read, much less preserve. The shop-windows at Crossword and Starmark are only a fraction of the market; the real market that gets these publishers excited is the one which those bureaucrats control. So, no surprises then that the most coveted publications of our literature are being value-unbundled, commoditized, by the very people who should try to preserve its value and keep the heritage for the posterity.

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