Lit fests are the flavour of the season. I have been having a quiet book fest of my own. The first was the Chennai Book Fair this year.
The Chennai Book Fair reminded me of the Chennai Trade Fair that I used to go as a child to the Island Grounds each year. With sand in between our toes, cotton candy on our lips and a warning not to get lost in the crowds ringing in our ears, off we went to the Trade Fair. It was an ‘event’ to be looked forward to each year. Many people had much the same idea when visiting the Chennai Book Fair. There were food stalls, loud speakers and crowds. I was better prepared this year than I was last year. Most of the stalls had books in Tamil which I can’t read so it was easy to filter out the stalls that I wanted to visit. I was happy to see people with bags full of books. And even among bookstalls that sold English books, I had to avoid the ubiquitous colouring books, encyclopaedias, dictionaries and educational CDs. Which actually made my job much easier. I went a bit berserk at the first stall which had lots of Indian Writing in English (I got stuck on poetry) but thereafter was more in control. Or so I think. I didn’t all the stalls at the book fair and my arms were already aching from carrying books.
Two bookstalls stood out for me. The first was the unassumingly named Shree Balaji Booksellers. Don’t be fooled by the name – it had one of the best collection of novels and large format books. Last year I got two books from this stall both on Che Guevara and in large format which I thought would cost me a chunk of my salary but they didn’t. They were quite affordable. This year they had a 3 novels for Rs. 200 offer which I could hardly refuse. And a separate shelf of 100 rupee books.
The highlight of this bookshop was that I finally found an original Bloomsbury published Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It was pre-owned by one Timothy Dobson and had some tea stains on the cover. (I imagine a British guy having tea and reading Harry Potter. The bell rings. He gets up to answer in a hurry and spills some tea on the book cover.) But I was nonetheless thrilled. Because it was ‘Philosopher’s Stone,’ which meant a UK edition and not the ubiquitous ‘Sorcerer’s Stone,’ which meant a US edition. The first published Harry Potter editions have become collector’s items but that is not why I wanted to have this book. It’s to complete my incomplete HP collection. No, I don’t have all the HPs in spite of reading all of them. Is that a surprise? Well, when HP started being published in the mid to late 90s, I didn’t collect them thinking that they’d be around forever. Well, they are but I failed to foresee a revision of edition! In a series, unless I can help it, I’d like to have all the books in the same edition. I remember looking long and hard for Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy in the same edition until I found them in Bangalore’s famous Blossom Book House. So I only have Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (book 3) Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (book 2). I finally can add Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (book 1) to that list. The others will have to be sourced patiently.
The other bookstall that quietly impressed me was that of the National Book Trust. I know what you are thinking – how can a government publishing house be interesting? But it was interesting in the way that I used to find unusual books at the college library. These books might not have glossy look of books published by a private/MNC publishing house but they are pushing the envelope in a way that I haven’t seen a private/MNC publishing house do in a while. And the books were beyond reasonably priced. Three books prove my point. Up first is Mirrored Images: An Anthology of Sri Lankan Poetry edited by Rajiva Wijesinha. The only Sri Lankan poetry I have dipped into was Michael Ondaatje’s and that too only in bits and pieces (The Cinnamon Peeler; here’s a poem). I was willing to explore further. This is a perfect collection of poems and also includes an essay on post-colonial Sri Lankan Tamil poetry. Next, Three Score Assamese Poems compiled and translated by D.N. Bezboruah. I have not read Asomiya literature (I mean in translation) so I thought this would be a good place to start. We need more translations from Indian languages to English. (Almost every lit fest talks about this but it is true.) Finally, the book that intrigued me a lot The Hair Timer: An Anthology of Science Fiction Stories by Dinesh Chandra Goswami translated by Amrit Jyoti Mahanta. It made me look again – did I just read that right? A book of Assamese Science Fiction stories translated from Asomiya! Wait, this is unique. I had to read it. I know Assam and the North Eastern states are not well represented in mainstream Indian publishing. So this was an eye-opener. How little we know our own backyard! Thankfully, the situation is slowly changing – Anjum Hasan and Janice Pariat come to mind immediately. I’m just glad that the North East is writing itself into existence. I might have made one bad choice because it was about hot air balloons priced at Rs.35 which made me want to rescue the book first and then read it.
I will be reading these books in the coming days and (maybe) posting about them.