Friday, May 15, 2015

Calcutta's College Street : A Mecca for Secondhand Books

Jim Corbett was an English hunter-turned-conservationist with a surprising knack for good prose. He specialised in hunting down man-eating big cats in the Kumaon and Garhwal regions of erstwhile British India, and his vivid descriptions have since become very popular. At least in India. Well, at least in Bengal, where I hail from.

My first introduction to Corbett was when I was six. My mother had bought a secondhand Bengali translation for me on her way back from Presidency College where she would teach Bengali literature, especially stuff that Tagore wrote. She would buy that and similar other delicious books from this quasi-mythological place called College Street where the college, and quite a few of its siblings, used to, and still do, live in1.

Lo and behold! A dozen and a solitary year later, guess who would be taking up his major in the same college? Would the myth, pardon, quasi-myth be now debubbled? Would College Street be the stuff of Borges' Library, or would it dissolve into the unanimous night? To find out, tune in next paragraph. Same article.

Okay, maybe the paragraph after. You see, we Bengali collegefolk, especially those from Calcutta (now Kolkata), have a reputation of trying very hard to be intellectuals. Which basically means we sit around all day in our kurtas and sandals and carrybags and consume tea and coffee and ciggies and discuss Kafka and Sartre and Camus and generally be Metamorphosed Anobled Outsiders2. Now all of these ingredients steady supply of fire-breathing timid intellectuals; steady supply of tepid cuppas of thrice-boiled tea; steady supply of world thought and literature in printed form were all available at the timeless Coffee House. Which of course is in...(drumroll)...College Street!4

Back to the promised paragraph.

College Street stocks books in almost every Indian language. And in English. And in Russian. And in French. And in German. Books that have gone out of print for years. Decades even. It manages to do this because of its penchant for secondhand or used books. It has one of the largest collections in this corner of the world of used books, and a predatory stroll through its dusty nooks and crannies can unearth jewels. Which cost peanuts. Well, peanuts cost more nowadays. Anyway, you gotta bargain. The auteur Satyajit Ray was known for stalking the Street with his six-foot many-inches frame and hitting pot luck on multiple occasions. Students with pocket money barely enough to scrape by would scrape through the outer too-expensive new-book-crust and reach the inner cheap but glorious mantle of secondhand texts that generations of collegegoers have put lovenotes in. Scholars and academicians would go about unearthing dusty tomes and discovering their predecessors trying to emulate the once-marginalised Fermat. And once too often, a paperback or hardcover, perhaps an old but complete Decline & Fall or a forgotten Lost Horizon, would leave its former domicile for ever, ready to sleep, perchance to dream, awaiting to be awakened. Books never die. They are simply reincarnated. They are the true observers of all that is, all that ever was, and all that ever will be. Assuming the cosmos stays well short of the numbers 4, 5, and 1. In that order.

The boy of six, now a boy of slightly-more-than-six, closer to the inevitable end of his teenagehood, exits the gates of Presidency College. It is a warm day. The afternoon sun has turned golden. The kettles are full and boiling; the tea leaves are in; thirsting brigades wait, queueless. The soprano clatter of the enterprising photocopiers create imperfect anharmony with the baritone rattle of the lackadaisical trams. The boy sees none of this, hears none of this, feels none of this. He instead goes to the stall nearest the college gate. He sees an old, faded, yellowed, thin paperback. He asks, how much. He is replied, two hundred. He counters, five.

Sitting at the back corner window seat of the tram, homeward bound, the boy's wallet feels fifteen rupees lighter. His bag feels five ounces heavier. And Corbett stalks his Man-Eating Leopard through the jungles of Kumaon.

1 When one is little, and one hears stories, stories about stuff one digs, everything is quasi-mythological, just not too heavy on the quasi.
2 Doesn't actually mean anything. Made it up. Good pfun3.
3 Made that up too. The 'p' can be silent, if you want it to be.
4 Confetti? Fresh out. Sorry.

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