Hundreds of books damaged in last week’s Cyclone Amphan pockmark the pavements and tram tracks in Kolkata’s iconic College Street area, an attempt by booksellers to dry and save whatever they can. Uprooted tree trunks and branches lie strewn nearby, a testament to the storm’s calamitous effect.
First, it was the coronavirus-triggered lockdown, then the cyclone hurtled down six days ago, leaving hundreds of bookshops in the area battered.
Owners of small shops and makeshift stalls at College Street — said to be India’s largest book market — are staring at an uncertain future, with many resigned to selling damaged books for Rs 6 a kg to “kabadiwalas”, or scrap dealers.
The Publishers and Booksellers Guild estimates that books worth Rs 5 crore were destroyed in the cyclone.
Among the affected shopkeepers is 40-year-old Muhammed Kashem Midde, a resident of Jangipara in Hooghly district. He has returned to the shop for the first time in two months to assess the damage.
“From March 23, our shop has been closed. We have lost business worth lakhs. We have no money now. This cyclone has snatched even the books from us. Rainwater accumulated inside my shop. Books worth Rs 90,000 have been destroyed. We are collecting some of the undamaged books and sending them to our village,” says Midde.
Another shopkeeper, Sujit Saha (50), says he visited his shop a day before the cyclone made landfall, and kept all exercise books on upper racks.
“But due to strong winds, those books fell on the floor and were damaged by rainwater. Exercise books worth Rs 5,000 have been ruined. After drying these books, I will distribute them to poor children,” Saha adds.
He says April and May constitute the peak season for selling school and exercise books. But due to the pandemic and now this storm, booksellers have lost a great deal of money.
“In this peak season, CBSE, ICSE, Higher Secondary students usually buy school books. But due to lockdown, there was no business. We have lost more than Rs 50,000 in business. Now, we are selling these wet books to ‘kabadiwalas’ at Rs 6 per kg,” laments Saha.
Sheikh Gulam (32) seconds him. A resident of Gochoran in South 24 Parganas district, 50 km from College Street, Gulam has cycled all the way to the market. “Due to the lockdown, we had no conveyance. So, we cycled to the market. All our books got soaked in water. These are of no value. We will sell these books to ‘kabadiwalas’ now,” rues Gulam.
Many who live in faraway districts could not come to save the books due to lockdown restrictions. “How are we supposed to come here during lockdown?” asks another stall owner.
The 1.5-km stretch of College Street is lined with 700 licensed stalls, 500 shops of noted publishers, and 400 unregistered stalls.
Nicknamed “Boi Para” (Book Town), College Street’s history runs parallel to that of many educational institutions such as Hindu College (established in 1817 and later renamed Presidency College), University of Calcutta, Sanskrit College and University, Indian Institute of Social Welfare and Business Management, Calcutta Medical College and Hospital, Hindu School and Hare School. Its eclectic offering of books has attracted the city’s intelligentsia for decades.
The Publishers and Booksellers Guild has appealed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee for financial assistance to rehabilitate the stall owners. They have also created a separate relief fund for the booksellers.
“Publishers and booksellers were already in acute crisis due to the lockdown. Now, the cyclone has further plunged them into deeper financial loss… We appeal to all sections to come forward and help these publishers and sellers,” implores Tridib Chatterjee, the guild president.
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