College Street is a kilometre-long street in the heart of Kolkata. A book-lover’s Eden known as Boi Para, the neighbourhood is packed with bookshops that are decades old.
If one place were to be called the intellectual hub of the city, it would be College Street. The place owes a lot of this reputation to the presence of the Calcutta and Presidency universities. And then there is the Indian Coffee House, a café that has attracted the erudite and the wise of the city for decades. My parents say that if walls had ears, the ones of the Coffee House are the most blessed. This was the place where the Amartya Sens and Satyajit Rays would come to talk of things that mattered.
College Street has a kind of mystery about it with its dark bylanes and dusty bookstores. The stores seem to be telling a tale as old as time but only few seem able to understand it. When I was a child, my father would frequent Calcutta University as a guest teacher and my brother, who was the reader in the family, would force my dad to take him along to College Street. I, on the other hand, had no interest in reading at the time but I was a proper pet to my brother and would follow him to hell and back if need be. So, my father would drive up to College Street with my brother and I almost every other weekend. He would leave us at a bookstore called “Banerjee Publishing”.
A unique characteristic of College Street stores is that you are allowed to just sit in the store and read for however long you like without actually buying the book. So, my brother would tuck his head into a book and start reading as soon as we stepped foot in the store. I would sit and stare at my brother, the other people in the store, the shopkeeper, my feet, basically everything but the pages of a book. My brother often tried to hand me books but I never took them. I was simply not interested!
Five on a Treasure Island
Till one day, the elderly man who always sat at the counter with a Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay novel in his hands came and knelt in front of me. I was never a shy kid so when he asked my name, I told him willingly. He smiled and asked me why he always saw my dada reading and never me. I was never at a loss for words, even as a child, but that day I could not come up with an excuse that seemed good enough. Somehow, I felt very embarrassed and hung my head, fixing my eyes on my feet. He got up without a word and left. When he returned after a few minutes, he had a book in his hands. He handed the book to me and again left without saying anything. I looked down at the title — Five on a Treasure Island by Enid Blyton, which I later found out was the first book of the series The Famous Five.
That was the first book I read and I haven’t been able to stop since.
Every week I went down to Banerjee Publishing regardless of my father’s commitments and stood in front of Banerjee kaku waiting for him to give me my next book. Very soon, he started giving me books by different authors. Some days I would be on treasure islands, the next on a journey to the centre of the earth and the third, in a shipwreck with Robinson Crusoe.
I had my low wooden tool and a book in my hand
I no longer felt like anything was impossible as long as I had my low wooden tool — what we call a piri — and a book in my hand. I wasn’t very comfortable reading Bengali books but Banerjee kaku never saw that as a barrier. He would bark at his assistant to sit at the counter while he disappeared into an aisle with me. He would sit on the ground next to me and read Rabindranath Tagore’s poems with the grace of an elocutionist.
I have been going to that store for the past 12 years. Banerjee kaku saw me as a project of his. Every time I finished a book, he would look at me and move his eyebrows to silent ask: “How’d you like this one?” He introduced me to modern writers like Dan Brown, Jeffrey Archer and Amish Tripathi as well as literary geniuses from the century’s past like William Wordsworth, William Blake, Robert Browning and Percy Shelley. The frequency with which I went to his store decreased as my Board exams approached and my academics took precedence over my passions.
A tap on my shoulder, and ‘Anandamath’
As the gaps between visits increased, I started noticing Banerjee kaku looking more tired than usual. He seemed to be walking a little slower and with diminished spirit. With time, he stopped coming to the store every day.
One day, I had gone to buy a book for college and was in an aisle when he came and tapped me on my shoulder. I was overjoyed to see him. We spoke for about 10 minutes before he said he had to go. I said goodbye and returned to my book. He came back after a few minutes and handed me a copy of Anandamath by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, his favourite author. He told me it was a gift and I should read it whenever I got the time.
A few days later, a tiny article on an inside page of The Telegraph read: “Dilip Kr. Banerjee, owner of Banerjee Publishing, dies at 92”.
I sat in silence for a while as a tear rolled down my cheek. A man whom I couldn’t characterise as family nor friend had opened my eyes to a world outside of the three dimensions we call home. He had equipped a six-year-old girl with the greatest gift of all. I will forever be grateful to him, for without him, there is no me.