Published: 10th January 2019
What I discovered on a Sunday afternoon at the Chennai Book Fair
The Chennai book fair is one of the biggest book fairs in the country and is a busy place every single year, 20 lakh people are expected to visit this year
At the risk of sounding like a meme fanatic (which I can assure you I'm not, I'm still unsure of how to pronounce the word), for a 90's child, going to the book fair 2019 puts your faith back in all things bright and beautiful. It's very heartening to know that people, old, young and especially parents, think taking their children to the book fair in the middle of a hot Sunday afternoon is totally worth it.
This year, the fair was held at the YMCA grounds. So, besides the book fair, there was another event taking place in the adjacent field which is why we were welcomed to the raucous strains of Maari 2's Rowdy Baby on full blast. But as we approached the book stalls, the familiar and happy sound of loud murmurs took over. The experience is almost nostalgic — old couples trudging along with cloth bags (plastic ban, yo), children disobediently letting go of their parents' hands to run to grab a colourful book, teenagers trying to convince their parents to buy them one too many books, young adults streaming into the IAS stalls with their glasses almost falling off their faces, there are the PhDs, the academics and scholars, the romantics secretly checking the Mills and Boons covers, the second-hand book scavengers and then there are people who are there simply because it's tradition. A routine.
The reader must pardon me if I sound biased. I have to warn you that I haven't been to many book fairs outside of Chennai. But it really does seem like a very Chennai thing to see so many families swarm into the tents. Nobody thought it was odd that a bunch of families had happily seated themselves on the floor in the common area, passing around tiffin boxes. It was like a semi-picnic day, anyway! Taking another risk here — the risk of sounding old — since all the kids get to choose the books they want online and the adults constantly buy books online, it just felt like nobody really cared for book fairs anymore. But seeing that people still make it a part of their mandatory plans is nice to know.
Having been to the Chennai Book fair once or twice before, I was looking for things that had changed. What had disappeared, what had remained and what was new. The new — Director's Pa Ranjith's Neelam Productions had set up a bookstall and they had displayed almost 25-30 sculptures of various prolific leaders with Dr BR Ambedkar's places right in front of the stall. Even cooler was a cardboard cut-out of Ambedkar as a Harry Potter character! The bookstall was selling books from most of these leaders, primarily Ambedkar and Periyar's work. The stall was so crowded, I had to return halfway because the other customers were so blissfully unaware of the crowd and drowning in the words of those great revolutionaries. These stalls are tiny, so by halfway, I'm talking five steps!
A Udaya, who was in charge of the stall tells me this is the first time they are setting up the stall. The success of the bookstall follows on the heels of the tremendous success of the Vaanam festival, "The festival created a platform and access for people to learn about Ambedkar, Periyar, the Dalit movement and celebrated our art. So we thought we should continue to find ways to make information easily accessible to everyone, which is why we decided to set up the stall this time." He goes on to tell me that Neelam is also going to start printing their own books soon especially now since the stall is doing so well. Now for a bit of trivia - the most sold book at the Chennai book fair last year was Ambedkar Indrum Endrum: Collection of Essays
As we walked in and past the other bookstalls, my friend happened to notice that many of the other stalls were pretty empty. That is when I began to notice that she was, in fact, right. Interestingly, the books that were running empty were largely the religious bookstores, while even a lot of the regular ones didn't seem too busy. But there were one or two more Ambedkar book related stores that were bustling with activity. Perhaps it was the time of day. One may never know.
This could just be a Sunday afternoon phenomenon though but pleasing nevertheless. As we walked out, my friend and I stopped at the softy ice cream stall to quickly grab a softy under the blazing sun. At this point, my friend told me how as a child her ambition in life was to one day own a softy vending machine and we both laughed.
Then I went back to thinking about how nostalgic book fairs are and about how much things had changed since then. I'm sure Ambedkar was always a bestseller and my knowledge is limited but I do feel that we embrace him more and celebrate him more now. While our ministers might continue to misinterpret and ridiculously pass bills against the constitution, there are a huge number of people who are reading the literature of the marginalised and are educating themselves. An afternoon at the book fair is not much to go by but well, looks like we have some hope.
(The views expressed are the author's own)