Many moons ago, I attended a talk about India by a travel journalist. I recently came across my notes, and among other things I had jotted down was: NB! Calcutta, College Street. When I planned my first visit to Calcutta three years ago, College Street – known to be the largest second-hand book sale in Asia or the world for that matter (statistics vary) – was high on my agenda.
College Street is rightly a street, but putting all the nearby book-ish lanes and alleys together, it becomes an area. Here you’ll find the city’s most prestigious and renowned academic institutions like University of Calcutta, Calcutta Medical College, Presidency College, Sanskrit College, Hare School and Hindu School. Not surprisingly then, the many stalls and shops sell text books and students can be seen roaming the area. In fact, text books seem to be predominantly.
I haven’t actively searched for novels on College Street, but from the many hand painted signs literary work seems to be less available. From what I’ve read, it hasn’t always been like this, but India now has Amazon and Flipkart, and people are turning to their computers here as elsewhere. Although I’m pretty sure those intent of finding that rare, long sought-after book on College Street will be able to, either by luck or hard work.
Because books are more than plenty in ‘Boi Para’; the Book Town. And that is of course an understatement … Uncountable, I’d say, at the same time I guess every stall and shop-owner has a reasonable idea about his stock.
If you’re not hunting for that special book, there are still plenty of reasons to visit College Street, like for instance the mere sight of the area. What intrigues me more than the number of books, is the various stalls; how they come in many sizes and shapes, made of different materials. Always with a man (yes, this is yet another man’s world) peeping out of an opening; small or large, made to measure, hand in glove – some not wasting a centimetre and stack their books so that their face is just about visible. What more do you need to sell a book anyway?
Some stalls are just a cupboard, others seem to be literary made of books – more spacious ones occur. And there are of course ordinary shops among the stalls, many of them highly reputable, dating years back, like Dasgupta established in 1886. College Street is also home to important publishing houses. Some of the shops have beautifully fitted furniture and a feeling of awe is never far away. Or perhaps it is fear; that all this will be lost to a modern e-world.
What I also love about College Street, is the hand painted signs (found all over the city for that matter). I haven’t seen a single neon-lit sign, only beautiful lettering. Signs may be worn and grimy, looking rather poor as it is, but they belong to the city’s rough surface.
A must-visit on College Street is the Indian Coffee House. It’s a renowned intellectual and literary hub, proud to have once welcomed Rabindranath Tagore, Subhas Chandra Bose, Satyajit Ray and many more. One might go there to admire the waiter’s fancy hats and the retro environment, but coffee is definitely better elsewhere. I couldn’t resist paying a short visit to TripAdvisor, and it’s obvious that many visitors (based on their grumpy coments) expect something entirely different than they get. In many ways I’m glad the place seems not to have lost its eccentricity and ended up a slick tourist destination. Maybe the coffee house is best left to the native people of Calcutta and their adda.
College Street is a fascinating jumble of book stalls, food stalls, people – and among the buses, cars, carts and rickshaws I spotted a flock of goats being herded down College Street – just to complete the picture!