“When a person is lucky enough to live inside a story, to live inside an imaginary world, the pains of this world disappear. For as long as the story goes on, reality no longer exists.”
Paul Auster, The Brooklyn Follies
If 2020 was a reality, which it was, then COVID-19 was its greatest pain. We have lost many near and dear ones in this formless crisis. Yet, human nature is such that we don’t let go of a chance to go out to meet and greet the people we love. After six months of lockdown, a sort of solitary confinement, we needed an opportunity to step out of our homes, and it arrived in the form of the 33rd Guwahati Book Fair. In all its 12 days of existence, the fair attracted a million bibliophiles, young and old alike, and hundreds of publishers and sellers, some from as far as Delhi, Kolkata, and Bangladesh.
Bookfairs serve the purpose where bookshops fail: a space to read. Except for a few, there are hardly any bookshops in Guwahati where readers have the freedom to choose, select, read, and decide which ones they would like to buy. In one of the stalls in the bookfair, I picked up a rare translated copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and I found it so enthralling that I kept going to the stall until I was done with the book. This is what a bookfair offers. It throws open a plethora of choices and encourages us to connect to the reader in us.
Bookfairs – both publishing and consumer ones – are vital for the literary world. They bring together independent publishers, distributors, readers, authors, and the media under one roof. Only in bookfairs are lesser-known works and works from first-time authors made known to the people. One of the shining examples of this is Rupam Dutta’s book, The life of a Driver, where the author writes about his experience as a night-super driver. By the time the curtains were drawn on the Guwahati Book Fair on January 10, 2021, Dutta’s book had sold over 6,000 copies. The media, too, shifted their attention towards books with day-wise coverage and interviews with authors. There is hardly anything that is as delightful as watching enthusiastic readers meeting their favourite authors with their beloved books tucked under their arms and with eyes brimming with joy.
The most popular section of any bookfair is the second-hand book section. On a lucky day, you may come across Daphne Du Maurier’s Cornish novels, or PG Wodehouse’s Uncle Fred (omnibus), or even a rare copy of Colin Wilson’s From Atlantis to the Sphinx waiting anxiously for their owners to take them home. And the importance of a bookfair isn’t just limited to the periphery where it has been organised; livelihoods start to flourish outside of it, too. People sell groundnuts, colourful balloons, fast-food, and even stationery items: opportunities that wouldn’t have been possible had there been no bookfairs.
Bookfairs are also a great place for interaction for prospective writers. In 2013, I had the pleasure of meeting a well-known TV personality of that time during the North-East Book Fair. I approached him for work as a photographer and writer. He told me to visit his office the next day, and a month later, I had my first pay-check.
But the question is: do we need a bookfair amid an ongoing pandemic? There is no straightforward answer to this. On the final day of the 33rd Guwahati Book Fair, a bird’s eye view of the ground looked like bubbles spouting out of a champagne bottle: a sea of book lovers. This violated the social distancing policy. Organisers provided sanitisers on all days but the final day. Everyone came out of their homes in search of belongingness. The bookfair also provided much-needed relief for small publishing houses that had incurred massive losses during the lockdowns. But an important aspect that the Publication Board of Assam and everyone should look into was the usage of plastic bags inside the grounds. Imagine this: buying a book on ‘environmental and climate change’ and carrying it inside a plastic bag! The least the organisers could do was to ban plastic and wrap the books in beautiful paper bags. The least the booklovers could do was stick to cloth bags. They look pleasing and help the local artisans, too.
Perhaps we need to go back and introspect on Auster’s statement: to live inside a story, to live inside an imaginary world. Bookfairs offer us a space to read and dream. Losing someone close to our heart is irreplaceable, but if there is anything that can comfort us in these uncertain times—it’s a good book. In a world slowly overpowered by the relentless tentacles of Amazon, bookfairs will continue to serve as the last bastion for booklovers.