By Shriya Roy
On the night of May 20, cyclone Amphan blazed through the states of Odisha and West Bengal, leaving behind a massive trail of destruction. The city of joy, especially was ravaged in minutes. Buildings collapsed, trees were uprooted and electricity grids were destroyed. One of the worst affected was the iconic and historic College Street. Usually teeming with bibliophiles browsing through its various book stalls, Asia’s largest book market was left unrecognisable, with roads flooded and battered books floating in the muddy waters.
College Street is a 1.5-km-long market considered a treasure trove for book lovers. If you were to visit the market, or ‘Boi para’ (as it is fondly referred to by the city’s book-loving populace), on any normal day, you would notice shops—selling books from Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto to Arundhati Roy’s My Seditious Heart—bustling with people. Many sellers and traders who didn’t have proper shops would set up temporary stalls on the pavement and sell second-hand books at nominal rates. Situated at a prime location, College Street has seen many generations of students, teachers, adults and children come here to shop and browse over the past many years. It was the ‘adda’ for the young and a nostalgic walk down memory lane for the elderly. For Kolkata, it was as intrinsic as its love for rosogolla and Sourav Ganguly.
All that is gone now. As per reports, books worth over Rs 60 lakh have been damaged. A look around the street in the aftermath of the devastation brings forth the grim reality. A number of booksellers can be seen picking up the sodden books from the flooded street. While some are still hoping to dry them and sell at second-hand prices, others look devastated, saying that the books have been reduced to waste and will have to be thrown out.
These booksellers were already in distress as shops were closed for nearly two months amid the nationwide lockdown. Many of them have now decided to open grocery shops instead. One of them stands staring at what used to be his shop, but is now filled with water and soaked books. “I am finished. There is nothing left. Everything is gone. We have been making our living out of these books and now it is all gone,” he says. Another shopkeeper says, “These books have been all reduced to waste. We have to throw them out. The raddi-waalas are taking them away, but all we will get is Rs 1-2 a kilo.”
When pictures of the ravaged College Street took over social media, people from around the world, who have had some connection to the city, poured their hearts out. “I have spent countless lazy afternoons in shop after shop, going through the eclectic collection of books. From my favourite childhood magazine, which is now out of print, to rare first editions of my favourite authors, the place never disappointed,” says Delhi-based Sriwanti Bhattacharya who grew up in Kolkata, but left the city after school. “Boi para was more than just books. For me, it’s nostalgia… almost like a quaint sepia-tinted vintage photo where time stands still. My heart aches to see what the cyclone did. An important part of my childhood was ravaged in hours,” says Bhattacharya, a 32-year-old media professional.
Recalling his first visit to College Street, Delhi-based advertising professional Bodhisatwa Dasgupta says, “The first time I went was when I was applying to Presidency College. The second time was when I went to Presidency College to find out I didn’t get in. With Amphan, I have no idea how College Street looks now. I remember seeing a picture the other day where a bookseller was picking up a book that was floating in the water. And if that picture is anything to go by, there’s a lot of work needed to rebuild and rehabilitate,”
But there is hope still. The Publishers and Booksellers Guild (which organises the International Kolkata Book Fair and is engaged in different book promotion activities throughout the year) has started a relief fund, requesting donations from people around the world to restore the market and help the booksellers. “The Guild will contribute Rs 10 lakh to start the initiative. After that, we hope donations will pour in,” says Tridib Chatterjee, president, Publishers and Booksellers Guild, adding that the cyclone destroyed thousands of books, not only those that were in the open stalls, but those inside locked bookstores as well. The Guild has also written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, urging him to release a special package to help in the revival of College Street. “It is estimated that the losses incurred by the booksellers could run into lakhs even crores,” says Apu Dey, a member of the Guild, adding that the cyclone has turned things difficult for both publishers and booksellers of College Street.
Students and alumni of the premier institutions of the city—Presidency College, Loreto College, Calcutta University, to name a few—have also started a global campaign to collect funds. A student-led initiative called Quarantine Students Youth Network is attempting to raise funds from people across the world. They surveyed the damage and concluded the number of affected stalls as above 2,000. So far, they have been able to collect around Rs 75,000, spreading the word through Facebook.
The student council of the iconic Presidency College has also joined hands with the institute’s publication society to reconstruct College Street by raising funds. “After deliberations, the members of the council decided to approach classmates and other well-wishers for monetary help,” their statement said.
Author and renowned sports journalist Boria Majumdar and around 25 other prominent people who have some association with Bengal—Ambuja Neotia Group chairman Harshvardhan Neotia, business leader Utsav Parekh, journalist Gautam Bhattacharya, Woodlands Hospital CEO Rupali Basu, film director Srijit Mukherjee, Heineken marketing head Debabrata Mukherjee, etc—have started an initiative called Abar Banglae Dekhi Sopno, or ABDS, which will handhold booksellers in the rebuilding of College Street. “College Street is world heritage. Our initiative is a structured one.
Firstly, we have to properly estimate the losses. The second job is to calibrate the immediate amount needed to open the shops and the resources needed to restart business. And finally, we need to create a bank account that can be audited and monitored,” says Majumdar, adding, “We need global solidarity… College Street can be a micro plan. There are Indians, Bengalis, academics, scholars around the world who are willing to contribute. Venky Mysore, CEO of Kolkata Knight Riders, Pradip Kheruka, head of Borosil, Parth Jindal, managing director of JSW group, have all assured support. While the original splendour is a long shot, our priority is to get College Street to the level of functionality and take it one step at a time from there.”
One step at a time is the way ahead for sure for restoring this haven for book lovers. It will be an uphill task to get things back to their original splendour, but with patience and perseverance, Boi para can come alive again. “College Street has always been nothing short of a paradise for me,” says 26-year-old Kolkata resident Saamidheni Das, a former student of Calcutta University. Her friend Samawita Paul, former student of Loreto College, adds, “It’s the soul of Bengal.”
Express photos by Shashi Ghosh