Song & Seth, Mamata & music...

Written by Sudipta Datta | Updated: Jan 29 2012, 08:45am hrs
The shadow of the shameful episode about Salman Rushdie and his forced expulsion from the Jaipur Literary Festival is hanging over the 36th Kolkata Book Fair too, which began on January 26. With chief minister Mamata Banerjee bringing in a whiff of change to this editionsports management agency Gameplan has organised a Kolkata Literary Meet at the Book Fair groundsA Suitable Boy writer Vikram Seth began proceedings by tearing into the government for misusing religion ahead of crucial state polls (UP) and reiterating that the Indian republic wouldnt be hijacked by fear.

Strong words from SethGod and his prophets dont need bullies to defend themselves, or We will not let our beloved and free republic to be hijacked by fear. It happened once during the Emergency. It must never happen again. We cannot let them break the pen. We cannot let them ration the inkset the mood for the literary meet. Pakistani writers and politicians Imran Khan, Mohammad Hanif and Moni Mohsin will also take the stage to discuss politics, religion, society and the like. Over six days, there will be 30 sessions featuring writers from other countries as well, including Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Italy (theme country of the book fair), France, England, America and writers from Bengal. A coup of sorts for the maiden literary meet is to get Vikram Seth talking with his mother Leila Seth, a retired judge and writer, on January 31.

Gameplans Malabika Banerjee says it was only three and a half months ago that the Booksellers and Publishers Guild of Kolkata, which organises the book fair annually, got in touch with them and asked whether they would like to be a part of the fair. Having expertise in organising other events, we put in our heart to organising a literary meet at the book fair despite the fact that it was at such short notice, she adds.

But in that short time, Gameplan managed to win over Vikram Seth, and the literary meet became the talking point of a fair, which has had its share of problems down the years, from frequent venue changes to organisational inefficiencies. What the fair is always guaranteed is people. As Banerjee puts it: The Kolkata Book Fair is a great brand. All the writers who agreed to be

a part of it did so because the fair is such an incredible celebration of books.

For the 10-day festival, Kolkatans embrace the festival like none other last year, two million people attended, and if day one was any indication, there will be great crowds this year, though the fair has 50 stalls less, because of organisational reasons: the venue needs to have less stalls to accommodate people. On day one itself, a holiday, there were long queues at stalls, some still putting finishing touches, and argumentative Kolkatans were busy dissecting Vikram Seths angry speech.

On January 24, the book fair was inaugurated by Mamata Banerjee with Italian writer and columnist Beppe Severgnini by her side, who in his speech, gently pointed out how cultural ascendancy doesnt take a nation too far: Leonardo Da Vinci and Vivaldi are very good, but they are not going to return public debt. It is very important for a state to have discipline in functioning. The reference obviously was to the economic mess in his home country, especially when Berlusconi was at the helm, but the irony was not lost on anyone in Bengal too, with the Mamata government showing little signs of fiscal discipline despite the fact that the state is in dire need of a visionary fiscal governance plan.

In fact, this year the entry fees to the book fair have been done away with, thus making the fair less profitable; at least R40 lakh could have come from ticket sales. The guild organisers dont want to talk business, but insiders admit that in 2011, sales from books amounted to

R18-odd crore.

At the inauguration, which became a Mamata show, the chief minister cautioned the audience that never lend your books, wife and intellect to anyone. She left her stamp on this edition by insisting that music be part of the fair. So, the literary meet has a theme song, put to music by Shantanu Moitra no less, and theres Tagore, baul, folk and disco too, blaring out from everywhere at the fair, prompting a diehard bookworm to wish for some quiet

and peace. Taking a cue from her predecessor Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, a poet and playwright, perhaps, Mamata got her book, My Unforgettable Memories, released at the fair, besides a collection of poems.

Even as Seth was tearing apart the government: What happened in Jaipur was a disgraceful exhibition of the suppression of the word People are not fools. It is election time. Everyone knows the truth. It was whipped up because of power and politics and the misuse of religion. Frankly, this is madness, little magazines owners were taking out protests at the fair against the arrogance of the bookfair organisers. Whats a book fair without a protest Especially in Kolkata.