To me, the Music Season, Madras Week and the Book Fair are three annual highpoints in the Chennai calendar. And I have been visiting the Book Fair without fail over several years now, following its career even as it moves from location to location, year after year.
This year, the Book Fair was at the YMCA Nandanam Grounds. I have often wondered as to what would life in Chennai have been like if the visionaries who gave us large school campuses, sports facilities and auditoria had not existed. And each time I am grateful for what they have done. Whether future generations will benefit I am not sure, as I see most of these places getting increasingly built up. Thankfully, the Y remains a vast open lung and, thus, when the Metro put paid to the hopes of the Book Fair being held at the St George’s campus on Poonamallee High Road, it became an eminently suitable alternative venue.
For years, I have been visiting the Book Fair as part of a group of four. There is an actor who is greatly interested in film history, a musician with a passion for Tamil fiction (when he is not playing board games) and his wife. I make up the fourth and, therefore, the stalls we visit are pretty much fixed. I cannot, therefore, say whether what I am covering here is a comprehensive account of what was on display at the Fair.
There are several encouraging aspects to the Fair. One is the vast turnout. People of all ages visit there and, despite the heat and dust, the din and disturbance, and the increasing crowd, find in stall after stall people browsing through titles and taking their time to select what they want to buy. And buy they do; in large volumes. There is scarcely anyone who goes away empty-handed. Most people have more than one bag, laden with purchases.
A second feature is that the Book Fair gives Tamil volumes a showcase that they do not get in the established bookshops in Chennai. This is where you can look around for that evasive title that you had long meant to buy. And even if you have only a nebulous idea of what to buy, there are enough and more informed people present. Most of them are armed with a directory of stalls, listing the publishers. That by itself is a ready-reckoner. In addition, most publishers know what others are selling and willingly direct you to what you are looking for.
As always, the stalls were in one vast enclosure. There were 500 stalls of two kinds, of 150 sq.ft. and 300 sq.ft. This area is divided into grids, with each of the intervening alleys named after famous authors (I could not help noticing a Bernardsha Way). Outside is an informal food court.
The bulk of the stalls comprises those selling books for the here and now and the hereafter. Thus, you have guide books, reference books, computer books and also a heady dose of religious works. In between, there are the (to me) most fascinating sections – the stalls dedicated to fiction, literature, travel and heritage. Somewhere in between I found I was also in one of them. My The Devadasi and The Saint has come out in Tamil as Devadasiyum Mahanum, published by Kalachuvadu Pathippagam.
Among the books I picked up this time were the following:
Vikatan has brought out a two-volume compilation of all the temple sketches done by the famed artist Shilpi. Very slickly produced, it also has the accompanying text by Shilpi and an introductory note by veteran artist Gopulu. Another purchase from Vikatan was Kamala Kalyaname Vaibhogame, a compilation of some of the articles of humorist Agasthyan. While purchasing it I could not help reflecting that humour as a genre is almost gone from Tamil writing these days.
Alliance Publishers offered their historic material. A small volume on the life of Kasturiranga Iyengar made good reading. But more interesting was the output from Sandhya Pathippagam. Among the pick from here was a volume titled Tamil Nadu. First published by AK Chettiar in 1964, it is a compilation of travel writing from the Tamil regions in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. The first impressions of train and air travel make for fascinating reading. Among other purchases were the autobiographies of Dr.T.S.S. Rajan, U.V. Swaminatha Iyer (must have bought it three times and loaned them permanently to friends so far) and Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar. The last mentioned is not his voluminous Nataka Medai Ninaivugal but a slim volume in which he covers his full life.
Getting into the Book Fair was easy. Leaving the place was not. Steel barricades put up by the police on the plea that Mount Road was getting congested blocked the exit. Nothing happened for twenty minutes during which the long line of cars trying to get out had extended almost up to the stalls. A matron decided she had had enough. I could see her marching up to the policeman on duty who simply passed her on to a higher up. That panjandrum coolly said that he had always been against the Book Fair coming to Nandanam and so he could not lift the barricades.
It appeared that he was doing it more out of spite, for traffic on Mount Road was not blocked and was, for a change, moving smoothly. A slanging match followed and finally, on hearing that a heart patient was in one of the cars, the police relented. The barricades were lifted and some cars were allowed to leave. I managed to escape but found, on looking back, that the barricades were back in place, blocking cars following mine. No doubt, another slanging match was due. No wonder books on philosophy sell.