After Durga Puja, the Book Fair is Kolkata’s second best festival. It makes perfect sense that a festival celebrating books and the intellect that we acquire from them would be celebrated with such high esteem here in India’s cultural capital. And because it is a festival–in Kolkata–the food is equally celebrated just as much as the books.
Food stands are conveniently tucked between the stalls and large halls which house many big time publishers such as Starmark, Penguin and HarperCollins. The crowds are huge and they continue to grow as the sunny afternoons become chilly nights. Thus, by the end of the day, some of the stands run out of food. The food is typical fair/festival food (think super snacks). There’s papri chaat (think eastern nachos, tangy but no cheese) and phuchka (another tangy potato mixture with spicy water), momos (potstickers), biriyani (though non-veg), samosas, sandwiches, ice cream, corn, other types of mishti (sweets). For lunch I had kachori ( deep fried dough with mashed peas in the middle) with aloo dum (potatoes cooked in a tangy gravy) and this sweet which tastes like an old fashioned donut but sweeter.
I must confess, I didn’t go to the fair just to enjoy. I had some Fulbright duties which included giving a speech on attending university in the U.S. and helping out my roommate with the art lesson that she had been asked to give. I was told to keep the presentation light since it was designed for a crowd in flux so I made a nice picture powerpoint with headings like: Studying, Football Games, Dorm Life, Boston, Travel & Opportunities and Friends & Social Life. I think the only people that listened to my whole presentation were the volunteers and one middle aged man in a Greenbay Packers crewneck sweatshirt. I gave him a shout out during the North American football section of the slideshow.
My favorite part of the day was the arts & craft activity. We made Valentine’s Day bookmarks. They were sort of impractical, since they were made out of foam sheets, but still nice. Some of the kids were very meticulous with their cutting and designing, others just listened to what their parents encouraged them to do. Most of the kids did not realize that they could keep their bookmarks, so their faces lit up when we told them it was theirs for keeps. We ended up running our little crafts table for three hours or, until the glitter pens ran out.
The downside to attending an event that draws such large crowds is the dust and transportation. The winter in Kolkata is very dusty due to the lack of rainfall. Thus, all of the people walking around naturally kick up a lot of dust. Also, the primary mode of transportation to and from the book fair is by bus and it is nearly impossible to get a taxi. In order to get home, I had to take two buses and two auto rickshaws. The first bus was ridiculously crowded, I felt like one of 100 sardines smushed into a can designed for 70 at the most. On top of that, the bus was incredibly bumpy and jerky but I didn’t need to hold on to anything because I was safely sandwiched between so many bodies (60-70% male). At this point of my life in India, I usually try to avoid buses that are crowded well over capacity, but sometimes it is the only way to get from one point to another.