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Red Alert: College Street in Danger

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An ‘evil’ mall is coming up on this iconic street in Kolkata that is considered the world’s largest second-hand book market

When I was a child, my father would read out stories to me while I prepared to sleep. On one of those nights, once all the books on our shelves had been read, he told me a story of his own. He told me that in a land not far from ours, there existed an ancient street. It was an enchanted street, where knowledgeable men lived and trains ran on electricity. But what was most magical was that this street was made of books. This was a true story, he told me. I believed him then, and for many nights continued to dream of it. But with time, as always happens, I began to regard it as nothing more than a childhood fantasy.

Years later, when I was a student of St Xavier’s College in Kolkata, and the number of books needed for college far exceeded the money I had at my disposal, my seniors offered me a solution. They walked me from Park Street to a part of Kolkata I had never been to. As we made our way, the world around us started to change. The large roads shrunk into narrow ones. Modern buildings of glass and concrete gave way to crumbling structures with wooden window slats. By the time the tram lines emerged, and we reached what my seniors called ‘boi-para’ (book mart), I realised that my father’s bedtime story was no fantasy. It was real. It was called College Street and I was on it.

Few paved roads must be like College Street. Both sides of the street are devoted to books. In between runs ordinary life. Some booksellers operate stores in varied states of dilapidation. For others, a patch of pavement is enough. The number of colleges—the likes of Presidency College, Sanskrit College, Scottish Church College, Bethune College, Medical College and the Indian Institute of Social Welfare and Business Management—in this area gives the street its name. But the most iconic structure here is the Coffee House, whose patrons once included the superstars of Bengali intelligentsia: Rabindranath Tagore, Subhash Chandra Bose, Satyajit Ray and Amartya Sen, among others. The café serves no beverage but coffee, and has signs that prohibit smoking and ask customers not to occupy tables for long. But of course everyone smokes. And of course everyone occupies tables for long periods. People read entire novels over a single cup of coffee that costs no more than Rs 8. The Coffee House has something called the Voice Of Kolkata, a large wall meant for graffiti. You can spot a fresh message critical of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee almost every day. In other parts of Kolkata, critics of the CM might get picked up by the cops, but here, nobody seems to fear any such outcome. These messages are never wiped off. The next day, a new one appears beside the old.

But the identity of College Street, an idyll of literature, academic knowledge and debate, is under threat. Just a 15-minute walk away from the Coffee House, the blueprint of the street is being rewritten. A giant mall—125,000 sq ft in size, seven storeys in height, and with two roads running through it—is being constructed. Around 75 per cent of the superstructure has been completed. The mall is scheduled to throw open its doors in a couple of years, and College Street could change forever.

The only consolation is that books will be an important aspect of the complex, touted as India’s first ever ‘book mall’. It’s even named after Barnaparichay, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s primer on the Bengali alphabet and perhaps every Bengali’s initiation into the script.

Naturally, the entire mall won’t sell books. A sizeable section will house bookstores and offices of publishing companies. According to Bengal Shelter Housing Development Ltd (BSHDL) and Kolkata Municipal Corporation, the project’s developers, at least half the mall’s first five floors will be offered at subsidised rates to booksellers and publishers. As can be expected, those that have shown interest so far include large chains like Oxford and Landmark. A small number of local bookstores from College Street have booked spots too. Apart from that, the mall will be like any other. Among those that have booked space here is Adlabs, which will operate a five-screen multiplex on the topmost floor. The small tenements that existed at the location before construction began are being rehabilitated in the basement and ground floor of the mall.

The mall’s developers make no bones about placing the needs of the present over sentimentality. “We cannot continue living in nostalgia,” says Sankalan Datta, deputy general manager, marketing, BSHDL, making a point of keeping up with the times. The group also wants to redevelop the entire book bazaar of College Street. It had submitted such a plan to the previous state government, says Datta, and had been told that the proposal would be considered after the mall’s completion.

Datta is very familiar with the locality. A resident of Bidhan Sarani, very close to College Street, the 30-year-old is the nephew of BSHDL’s Managing Director Samar Nag. “I understand this is a landmark area,” Datta says, sitting in his office at Salt Lake, nattily dressed in a silk shirt and cream trousers, “But this mall is a good thing. I don’t understand why some residents are so sceptical of it. They need to come out of the woodwork and see the world around.”

The developers claim that to maintain the old-worldliness of the area, pavement booksellers will be allowed to sell books in the mall for a few hours every Sunday. “We will change the book-reading culture of Kolkata,” says Datta, “And forget College Street, this is going to be north Kolkata’s most happening destination.”

But not everyone in the ‘woodwork’ is enthused. On one of the lanes of the locality lives a retired Bengali school teacher with a unique passion. For the last 40 years, Sandip Dutta, 61, has been collecting ‘little magazines’: publications that carry characteristically anti-establishment writings that have always found a ready audience at College Street. He runs a library, Gabeshana Kendra, where he has over 60,000 such magazines available. Ask him what he makes of the mall, and he responds with a pun on the word: “In Bengali, ‘mall’ means ‘shit’. Malls sell clothes, vegetables and shoes. They will have loud music, and perhaps even a cinema hall. Now tell me, is that a place for books?”

Dutta, who dyes his hair black but retains the grey of his sidelocks and beard, lives in a small two-storeyed building. If the top floor is crowded with family—it houses him, his wife, son and mother, along with his brother, sister-in-law and their son—the floor below, dedicated to his library, seems ready to burst with little magazines. The bookshelves have long filled up. Stacked atop one another, the magazines now touch the ceiling. The benches where the library’s members—62 life members, 150 yearly members—sit have been drawn up to make space for more, and his computer has to make do with a small part of the desk, the rest of which is piled with magazines.

Among other precious works, Dutta has a copy of Bangla Darshan (1865), a little magazine edited by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, and Narayan Patrika (1916) by Chittranjan Das. Dutta earnestly started collecting such publications in 1972, when he was in his final year of college. “I had gone to the National Library [in Kolkata],” he says, “and was told that the little magazines there would soon be discarded because very few people were interested in them.” Within a few months, Dutta collected around 750 such magazines, and as a mark of protest against the library’s decision, put them on public display at a three-day exhibition he held. Collecting them became a passion. He would maintain piggybanks—which he named his ‘Threepenny Opera’ after his favourite film, a 1931 German critique of capitalism—that would be broken only at the end of a year, and that too only for the purchase of little magazines.

“Once, my wife told me she would throw out the magazines,” Dutta says, “My son has called me a ‘mad man’ on a couple of occasions. He is 28 and rarely speaks with me. I regret having not spent much time with them. But what can I do? I have dedicated my life to this,” he says, pointing to the library. His family was a source of some heartache, he says, but otherwise he was in the happiest phase of his life until he heard of the mall. “I retired last year,” he says, “I now have the entire day for my little magazines. But I don’t know how long this will last. Won’t this mall change everything?”

There are, however, also those who are looking forward to the mall. In fact, the owner of the oldest bookstore in the area, Arabinda Dasgupta of Dasgupta & Co, is very excited by the prospect and has booked a spot in the mall for his bookstore. “We need to [move] with the times. Not get stuck with it,” says the 60-year-old, with spines of colourful books stacked behind his chair on creaky old bookshelves. Apart from the grey around the nape of his neck and his ears, he doesn’t have a strand of hair. As he speaks, his eyes bulging forth through his minus-10 power glasses—which he attributes to a life of reading—he cuts a baronial figure.

Dasgupta lives with 25 family members in an old three-storeyed building in Beleghata with 22 rooms. The eldest member of the family is Dasgupta’s aunt. She is so old that nobody remembers her age. But she remains assertive and opinionated. She rebuked Dasgupta for wanting to open a store in the mall. “[But] I told her, ‘Your time was different’. In this age, I fight not just pirated booksellers, but also the likes of Flipkart,” Dasgupta says.

Dasgupta & Co was started in 1886 by Dasgupta’s great grandfather Girishe Chandra Dasgupta. Back then, few bookstores existed here, even if the area’s many colleges and students held portents of promise. On one of the walls of the store hangs a framed Certificate of Ownership. But it is so covered with soot that nothing beyond its glass casing is visible. Over the years, other shops folded up and hawkers arrived, but this bookstore kept running.

“My great-grandfather was a visionary,” Dasgupta says, “He came to Kolkata from what is now Bangladesh with an intention of doing something with academics. That’s when he thought, ‘What better than a bookstore?’” Apart from Sundays and national holidays, the shop is never shut. Even when much of the shop was gutted by a fire one Sunday night in August 2004, it opened its shutters the following day. “The fire took away [the electricity] and many books, but not our hearts,” Dasgupta says. It took 15 days for electricity to be restored. But Dasgupta and his employees stuck to their routine, working till 7 pm. When it got dark in the evenings, they worked in candlelight. “I love books,” says Dasgupta, “I love them even more than my wife.”

Sadly, the bookstore now finds itself perched a little too precariously. For the first time, after four generations, it’s not clear who will run the shop once Dasgupta and his brothers call it a day. All his brothers’ children are settled in the US and Japan. Some are doctors and others infotech engineers. Dasgupta’s only child, his 25-year-old daughter Ria Dasgupta, is moving to Mumbai to pursue an MBA degree. “I hope my daughter will carry this store forward. But she wants a corporate job. I can’t blame her, there is much money there. But I have told her she won’t get the honour and recognition her forefathers got. Let’s wait and see if she has a change of heart. It is, after all, a Dasgupta heart,” he says, with a laugh.

 

As I walk out of Dasgupta & Co, I wonder if a College Street story could get any more interesting—until I bump into Sabitendranath Ray. If there were ever to be a Grand Old Man of College Street, it would be him. Fondly called Bhanubabu, he is the managing director of Mitra & Ghosh, one of the oldest publishing houses of this area.

Now a leucoderma affected 80-year-old, Ray has authored a number of books, including one on the history of College Street (College Street-e Sottor Bachhor). Ray is a bagful of stories himself. “This area owes a lot to the likes of [the reformer] Raja Rammohun Roy and [English watchmaker-turned-philanthropist] David Hare,” he says, “They laid the groundwork, helping set up the educational institutions here [like Hindu School, Hare School and Presidency College]. Then came the bookstores, and later the second-hand booksellers, most of whom are from current-day Bangladesh.”

An employee at the publishing house when it was set up in 1934 by the two authors whose name it bears (Gajendra Kumar Mitra and Sumathanath Ghosh), Ray did all sorts of work—“carrying books from printers to bookstalls, sitting at bookstalls, getting coffee, etcetera,” he says. “All along, I studied. When I graduated, I was offered the job of a writer and editor.”

The building that houses Mitra & Ghosh’s office is as old as the publishing house itself. Here, books—literally hot out of the oven—arrive from nearby printers like passengers, seated on hand-pulled rickshaws. They are then taken into the building, where they are sorted and taken official account of, before being sent to various bookstalls. Ray often speaks about the Naxal Movement of the 1970s (when College Street became a hotbed of Naxal activity in Kolkata), and how it forced him to go to Delhi to get Mitra & Ghosh’s books printed. “Here, books were being burnt and printers had shut shop. But I have no qualms about it. Otherwise, how would I have met my wife?” he says.

As Ray’s story goes, he had gone to meet an MP of Kolkata for help in finding a good printer in Delhi. Apart from helping him, the parliamentarian introduced him to the lady he went on to marry. ‘Mrs Ray’, as he calls her now, also happened to have leucoderma. “I said, ‘Why not?’ And I haven’t been happier since,” he says.

Ray hasn’t given much thought to the mall that’s coming up, but those who are most worried are the street’s pavement booksellers.

Ajay Hazra is a 54-year-old hawker who owns a small wooden structure, six by three feet in size, which he uses to sell high school books. He is also general secretary of the Calcutta Street Hawker’s Union, which has about 50 pavement booksellers as members and is one of about ten such unions in the area with varying membership counts. “I have been here since 1981, and have done reasonably well,” says Hazra, “I have also been able to enrol my son in an engineering college. But when this mall opens, I am afraid everything will change. People will come, but they will want to go to an air-conditioned market. Even my son is a mall rat.”

He recalls an incident that occurred a month ago. His son Sujit, 22, bought Chetan Bhagat’s The 3 Mistakes Of My Life for Rs 195 at a Crossword outlet. “I asked him why he paid so much money. I could have easily gotten the same book for one fourth its price,” he says. His son told him he was with friends, and could not afford to look like a cheapskate. “But you know what most irked me?” he asks, “That he was reading Chetan Bhagat.”

As I move away, Hazra is accosted by a group of youngsters. He stocks only high school books, but the youngsters want to know if he might have a copy of Haruki Murakami’s IQ84, preferably second-hand. What follows is a flurry of customer service activity that’s unique to pavement sellers. The IQ84 order is swiftly relayed down the street, from hawker to bookshop, bookshop to hawker, blurring all sense of competition in a common quest, until success is achieved. Some 50 shops down the chain, a bookseller holds aloft a copy and shouts, “Only first-hand copy. But 20 per cent discount… Chalega?” Will it do? Sure it will. The youngsters nod, and the book is quickly passed along the chain in reverse order—from hawker to bookshop, bookshop to hawker—till it reaches them.