Bookkake in India: College Street Bookstalls

College Street runs through the heart of Calcutta, past the grand old University and Medical School, as well as countless colleges and institutes. It also claims to be the largest second-hand book market in the world, and having walked the length of it I’m not inclined to disagree.

The vast majority of bookstores are single market plots specialising in Scientific, Technical and Medical (STM) titles, but there’s a scattering of literature too, and a range of languages. The best represented is Bengali, the local tongue, and many Bengali publishers have their headquarters on the street – notably Rupa (publisher of the million-selling Chetam Bhagat, who I’ve written about at booktwo).

I’m a sucker for big stacks of books and microstores, so College Street is heaven. Each stallholder has their own speciality, and excellent knowledge of their stock. And if they don’t have what you’re looking for, you can be sure they’ve got a friend who will. More photos after the jump.

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Posted February 6, 2009 | Comments (1).

Bookkake in India: Woodblock Printing

Hello, we’re back. As those who’ve been paying attention will know, I’ve been shortlisted for the British Council’s UK Young Publishing Entrepreneur of the Year Award 2009. As part of the award programme, the six shortlisted entrepreneurs went on a two week study tour of the Indian publishing industry, travelling to Jaipur, Delhi and Calcutta.

I’ve lots to report when I get round to writing it all up, but I wanted to share my favourite souvenir of the trip: a Bookkake logo woodblock, handmade in the Printer’s Quarter in Calcutta. The Printer’s Quarter is chock-full of tiny printing presses, from old hand letterpresses to greasy offset and litho set-ups, paper shops, and handcarts and autorickshaws carrying bundles of printed pages and jars of ink. It’s a print geek’s paradise.

These woodblocks are made to be used in the kind of (semi-)mechanical presses seen at the start of the film, alongside metal type, but they can be used for handprinting too.

It was all done from the logo on my business card, which was xeroxed, transferred onto the wood with oil, then carved with chisels. While the street carries on around.

The whole process took about forty minutes, and cost 30 Rupees (about 50p). I tried to give the craftsman more, but he wouldn’t take it…

Posted February 4, 2009 | Comments (4).

Bookkake in India: Nabaneeta Dev Sen

As you know, I’m currently in India on a trip for publishers organised by The British Council. We’ve spent the last few days at the Jaipur Literary Festival – an absolutely wonderful experience, about which I’ll write some more later. For now, while internet time is short, I just want to share one writer who I’ve been introduced to, and was fortunate enough to meet.

Nabaneeta Dev Sen is a Bengali poet and writer whose work has, for decades, dealt with the most complicated issues in Indian life: the role of the intellectual, the cultural divides of language and the caste system, child labour, women’s rights, sex, homosexuality and transgenderism, AIDS, immigration and exile. At the same time, her tales of single motherhood, and independent womanhood, are widely read for their warmth, humour and humanity. Her poetry has been written in Bengali, her prose mostly in English, and translated into many languages.

At Jaipur, I heard her speak, together with her daughter, the writer Antara Dev Sen, where she talked about her writing, particularly her writing about AIDS and homosexuality, which, she said, she undertook because “writing about homosexuality is a way of challenging the system.” Almost all of her writing has been undertaken in a similar spirit, whether it’s her family tales, which challenge the Indian ideal of the male-led household, her travel journals, championing women’s independence, or her retellings of epics from the Mahabarata from a decidedly female perspective. “When you write from a woman’s point of view,” she says, “you use a different gaze, which changes the meaning of what you are writing about.”

I was privileged enough to meet her later in the festival, and was treated to a warm and generous retelling of some of the friendships that led to many of her books, of personal experiences that drove her to focus on the many issues her work covers. I’m going to spend the rest of the trip looking out as much of her work as I can find.


my exile is over, mother,
no more living in the jungle for me
come, mother, underneath this matted beard
feel the familiar cheeks of your child
open up your breasts, mother, and watch how
the seven streams of milk
gush towards my parched tongue

look at these feet, mother, the tiny feet
where your golden bells had jingled
look at this arm
upon which you had tied your talisman
when I was born
now look at this chest where you had planted
the sapling of a heart
in a soft green stretch of sun
in the hidden mesh of this dark jungle,
has grown a hungry tree…
with toothy leaves and sharp claws
and fierce flowers
it chews on other hearts
a fine flesh-eater

my time in the jungle is over, mother,
now the jungle lives in me.

Nabaneeta Dev Sen (b.1938). The above photo and poem are taken from her website. More at Wikipedia.

Posted January 26, 2009 | Comments (1).

To the Indus and Beyond

I’m off to India for a couple of weeks as I’ve been shortlisted for the British Council’s UK Young Publishing Entrepreneur of the Year Award 2009 – in part for my work on Bookkake.

While I hope to find much of interest to Bookkake readers there – like these beautiful carvings from the Khajuraho temple complex which I saw last time I was in India, in 2000 – I probably won’t be able to blog often, if at all, so please bear with me until normal service resumes, some time after the 4th of February. There may also be slight delays in the delivery of books ordered direct from the site, but these will be kept to a minimum.

If any Bookkake readers have suggestions for any books, locations or people I should seek out while I’m there, I’d love to hear them. I’ll be at the Jaipur Literary Festival and the Kholkata Book Fair, as well as meeting people from Zubaan Books, Osian’s, the IPDA, HarperCollins India, and a bunch of others. I’m very much looking forward to it.

Images of Khajuraho by pasug, micbaun, and pomeso, used under Creative Commons.

Posted January 16, 2009 | Comments (2).

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