With all the attractions of the digital era, it should be quite a task to convince readers that the excitement of the printed word is still a better option than the thrills of the fine touch. It is a challenge that organisers of the Kolkata Book Fair 2019 have chosen to cope with this year with a burst of new ideas. The biggest challenge is to sustain the footfall — if possible, take it to the next level — when the gates are opened this Thursday, 31 January.
By all accounts, it has scaled the million-mark over the 12 days that the fair draws crowds from remote areas to taste the pleasures of the literary exposure now spiced with new market strategies. None of the stalls selected by the Booksellers and Publishers Guild can complain that they have not grabbed the advantages of an overflowing presence that may not always be related to the love for books. But the new market strategies reinforced by other calculations are evident all the same. The Kolkata book fair has traditionally been anchored in conventional incentives. These have included modest discounts, encounters with authors and opportunities to get acquainted with the latest trends and personalities who have shot into prominence.
But when these devices cannot match the convenience of on-line purchases and the impact of launch ceremonies — not to speak of corporate support for lit-fests held around the same time — there had to be other means of giving visitors what others cannot offer. The lottery scheme to be introduced this year to give the average book lover — a student, a researcher or just another reader who relies on the literary pages of mainstream newspapers — an opportunity to fulfil an impossible dream to possess a library would appear to be a masterstroke.
Others can concentrate on literary and social insights presented by celebrity authors and academics in a five-star or elegant ambiance.
On the fair ground, someone with a few hundred rupees can pick up a few modestly priced books and go on to get a gift of a one-lakh library crammed with personal choices from the fair.
Under the daily lottery scheme, one lucky winner will get a Book Gift Coupon of Rs 10000 every day. On 11 February, the last day of the fair, four visitors will get a chance to buy books worth Rs 1 lakh and also a cupboard to keep the books.
After all the arrangements that have been put in place at Salt Lake’s Central Park — transport, food stalls, fire safety and now smartphone devices to locate stalls — the ultimate opportunity to start a personal library with a designer book shelf would be hard to resist. By all accounts, the four winners may themselves become celebrities but the real winner would be those who would help to give the book trade a much-needed boost.
A new corner for Lepcha literature and the exploration of a little known territory like Guatemala may also contribute to the projected splurge.
But, finally, the Kolkata book fair should survive as a joyous event that cuts across age barriers. A wholesome diet of literary conversations with soft notes of Tagore music in the background, group tours with plenty of lip-smacking delights, happy encounters with long-lost friends and an overall package that has moved to new locations with great success have kept the book fair alive for 43 years – and keeps promising to grow.