United by language, West Bengal and Bangladesh meet at the Calcutta Book Fair.

A book fair that can make people buy tickets in the black market to avoid the wait in long queues must indeed be special. But then, this is Calcutta, and it is the Calcutta Book Fair. What was conceived 24 years ago over a casual cup of coffee, has now assumed the role of a cultural tamasha of international significance.

One of the major attractions at the latest fair was the India Pavilion put up by the NBT. While showcasing Indian regional literature in 14 languages, the pavilion drew large crowds at its unique idea of the adda (informal meets). Eminent writers, poets and artists got together at this desi chat-show. At other corners of the huge fair ground, seminars took place on subjects like the translation of regional literature and how it could work as a unifying force.

This year's theme was closer to home, and something long overdue: Bangladesh, which shares with West Bengal a cultural ethos, language and border. Twenty-three Bangladeshi publishers of the Bangladesh Publishers' Council (BPC), came armed with the latest and 'best' works. And they were not disappointed; many visitors were visibly impressed by the quality of the Bangladeshi publications.

But the fair did have its unsavoury moments. While the local press was irked by the behaviour of the police when Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed was doing the inauguration honours, the Bangladeshi publishers were none too happy with the arrangement of stalls. There were also less than happy exchanges between the publishers of the two countries on the question of piracy.

As books by famous West Bengal writers sell well in Bangladesh, unscrupulous publishers have been flooding the Bangladeshi market with pirated copies within days of a new publication, robbing the original publishers in India of their due. This has been a matter of much contention between the publishers of the two countries for some time, and one that has eluded solution till now. BPC President Mofidul Hoque admitted that the Indian publishers are sore about it, but added, "There has not been a single instance of formal protest by them." He also alleged that some Indian publishers are also part of the book piracy racket.

Irritants apart, the Bangladeshi team felt good about the whole experience of such a big boi-mela (book fair). Said the BPC spokesman MR. Khoka, "We've been here in the past but not in this big a way. We know there is a big readership of Bangladeshi books here. We have come to see, and get the intellectual feedback to assess future ventures."

These future ventures will include marketing tie-ups with their Indian counterparts as the two Bengali language publishing industries would stand to gain from inter-dependence rather than from the cut-throat ways of intruding into each other's market. The Bangladesh publishers also do not have to depend solely on Calcutta. There is a big Bengali readership in places like New Delhi where regular book fairs are held. Another stop for the Bangladeshi publishers will now be the new Northeast Book Fair in Guwahati, which has invited BPC to participate in its next fair in November.

In the meantime, the organisers of the Calcutta Book Fair are planning the silver jubilee of the fair in the millennium year with some changes. One of them is the ban on the smalltime magazines produced by enthusiastic amateurs with little expectation of monetary returns. Some believe that this will take some of the charm off the fair next year, but the organisers defend their decision saying that the 'little magazines' divert attention from the main event.

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Himal Southasian