Kolkata Food Fair, L'Affaire Boi Polloi

I made my annual pilgrimage to the Kolkata Food Fair last week. As part of a very nifty, old branding tradition that squeezes the lingering drops of the lemon that is the Great Bengal Cultural Quotient (GBCQ), Kolkata Food Fair is called International Kolkata Book Fair, or IKBF.

But, as I say, that is intentional. And international – with stalls of Britain (special country this year), France, Germany, etc, also dotting this dusty makeshift fairground expanse. But like other tricks in the bag, these stalls only sell language courses and have ‘how to study in Britain/France/Germany’ kiosks that have longer lines than some visa counters I have seen.

For people of a certain vintage, ‘IKBF’ has a certain radical ring to it: past foreign policy pertaining to the ill-fated IPKF, or Indian Peace Keeping Force, sent by Rajiv Gandhi to Sri Lanka in his attempt to recreate certain aspects of the Ramayan, mixed with the street-theatre credo of the legendary IPTA, Indian People’s Theatre Association. IKBF, however, is as avant-garde as the 121st episode of a Bengali TV family saga serial (where mysteriously everyone is bedecked with wedding-ready finery and jewellery even as they are ready to go to bed).
Kolkata Food Fair is arguably the second biggest cultural event in the city after that other annual eating extravaganza, Durga Puja. But the charm about – and the New Yorker-reading intelligentsia’s grouse against – IKBF is that to taste the varied menu that ranges from biryani and momos, to fish fry, rolls and candy floss, one has to congregate in the ironically named Central Park that lies in the eastern end of the city. And negotiate with boi polloi, the mob that comes for a non-textbook book haul once a year.

The Kolkata Food Fair is unique in that it is also, like the ‘We also make steel’ Tatas, an offline bazaar for booksellers. One would have thought that cookbooks would be the smart thing to sell in this sangam of heavy eating and light reading. But strangely, I didn’t see much evidence of such specialist fare for gastrobibliophiles.

Books largely bought before and after food consumption cater to a smorgasbord of high, middle and lowbrow taste: from old and near-contemporary Bengali classics like Sunil Gangopadhyay’s novels; young adult perennials like Satyajit Ray’s Feluda collections and other TV/movie tie-ins; contemporary popular authors like Swapnamoy Chakraborty (I picked up his latest book, Chokher Bahire (Out of Sight)); and nostalgia-churning kids’ comic books by stalwarts like Narayan Debnath. IKBF is touted as the world’s ‘third largest conglomeration of books after the Frankfurt and London Book Fairs’. This year, some 29 lakh visitors reportedly came to participate in the fortnight-long street food festival that ended on January 31. But in the process, book sales worth ₹27 crore was made on the side – out of which Debabrata Chatterjee, a tuition teacher from Chakdaha in Nadia district (population approx. 95,000), alone reportedly bought books worth over ₹3 lakh. I could obtain no record of how much Chatterjee had spent on food. Kolkata Food Fair is smart in this respect of mixing kitaab with khaana – last year’s Delhi World Book Fair had less than half IKBF’s footfall, and book sales were, well, well below G20 levels. What IKBF provides is an immersive experience that nudges people with strong shoulders and impervious to Kumbh-level crowds to stall-crawl the temp structures exactly like pandal-hopping during Durga Pujo, except to darshan (and hopefully buy) books on rickety rows and shelves instead of idols of Durga en famille.

Visiting Kolkata Food Fair is not for the weak of heart, stomach or leg, the non-young, or those who tend to think that The Bastille could be a smashingly ironic name for a 5-star restaurant. But coming out of Central Park – that Bengali tip of the hat to all things foreign — with a bellyful of deep-fried food and a few plastic bags happily weighed down by books in my hand, once again made me feel that I managed to get down’n’dirty and wise’n’woolly at the same time in these times of food delivery apps. Oh, and Amazon.