Literary Kolkata: A guide to India’s first city of books

(CNN)Kolkata, India, is known for its love for all things literary.

Roadside tea shack owners will talk at length on important writers of the day and rickshaw pullers adorn the backs of their vehicles with the names of writers.

Literary fever peaks here with the arrival of the year’s most awaited event — the Boi Mela (Kolkata Book Fair).

    It’s the world’s largest non-trade book fair (for the general public instead of wholesalers) with approximately 1.5 million in attendance.

    This year’s Boi Mela runs from January 28-February 8 — writers and bibilophiles from all corners of the country and the world have already begun descending on the city.

    In addition to the book fair, Kolkata has countless havens for book lovers — some shops are part of big chains, some are tiny independent operations hidden in alleys, some fall somewhere between big and tiny.

    Here’s a short list of the city’s best book shops and venues for visitors.

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    Kolkata has a rich history with the written word.

    In his book “Printing in Calcutta to 1800: a description and checklist of printing in late 18th-century Calcutta,” Graham Shaw (head of Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections at the British Library) states that the city became a hub of printing in the 18th century as the East India Company introduced printing to facilitate trade and consolidate the British Empire.

    An area around Chitpur Road in north Kolkata became the center of that effort.

    Just a handful of the old letterpress operators are left.

    One of the better remaining examples is Bisjwanath Bag’s press, located inside the narrow lanes of Kumartuli, home to Kolkata’s idolmakers.

    Bag operates from an unassuming, shed-like building, with no signage.

    He owns two letterpress machines along with boxes brimming over with type — alphabets in English, Hindi and Bengali.

    Bag is one of the world’s few surviving practitioners of Gutenberg’s age-old method.

    The traditional movable type printing method created by Johanness Gutenberg in 1450 inks paper with letter dies aligned in the right order. It takes Bag about two hours to set and compose 40-odd lines of type on an A4 size page.

    He mostly composes menus for weddings, bills and memos, pamphlets and other small items.

    A current printing job has Bag particularly excited at the moment — an assignment from an Australian customer to print a book on Gutenberg and his revolutionary printing process.

    He’ll compose a page for visitors for Rs250 ($4).

    Bishwanath Bag, Nepal Neogi Street, near Kumartuli Maath, Oorepaara, Kolkata, India


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