India's Kolkata city rallies to help its booksellers

Books laid out to dry in the sun Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The city's book market street has been lined with tomes drying in the sun

Communities in the Indian city of Kolkata are rallying round to help its booksellers after images of thousands of books in flood water have gone viral on social media.

Cyclone Amphan hit Bangladesh and India's West Bengal state on 20 May, causing huge amounts of damage. Kolkata's booksellers on College Street, like many others, are doing their best to recover.

College Street, known locally as Boipara, meaning "book colony", is often described as one of Asia's largest book markets.

The area is also an academic hub given the Hindu College, now known as Presidency University, was established there in 1817, as were several other educational institutions in the decades after.

The kilometre-long stretch in north Kolkata houses hundreds of stalls stocking second-hand books, rare academic tomes, collectors editions, bestsellers and everything in between.

'Hundreds of books destroyed'

"This place is as Calcutta (Kolkata) as the city can get and now it's all destroyed," said one popular comment. "Books lost. So many pages… So many stories!" said another.

"Books worth over $650,000 have been damaged. There are booksellers who have been here for 50 years and they have never seen damage like this from a storm," said Tridib Chatterjee, president of the Publishers and Booksellers Guild.

"It was devastating," said Nimai Gorai, the owner of Lalmati Publishers whose bookstore was also flooded.

"Inside the shop there was around two feet of water. Hundreds of books were destroyed. We spent days bailing the water out and cleaning up."

A few days later, however, a more hopeful sight started doing the rounds on social media - hundreds of books laid out on the road, drying in the sun.

Image copyright Tridib Chatterjee
Image caption Hundreds of thousands of dollars of books have been damaged in a cyclone

"We have been painstakingly trying to dry as many books as we can, but it takes time,' says Sujay Dhar of Kamala Bookstall.

"The pages have to be separated and dried individually, otherwise they will stick together. Sometimes the pages or spines detach and we try and stick them together. We will try to sell them at discounted prices or give them to charity."

Ongoing bouts of rain have not helped. The hundreds of books spread out on the roads have to be put away, even if they are not dry yet, and brought out again when the sun comes out.

But the local community has been rallying round as well. Several fundraising initiatives have been organised by groups ranging from the Guild itself to small student groups, to help the booksellers recover some of their losses.

'Boipara coming back to life'

Shop owners are also finding new ways to reach customers.

"I have started selling books online for the first time," says Mr Gorai. "Our main source of income has been booksellers from remote areas of West Bengal and neighbouring states who come to College Street to buy books wholesale to take back to their towns and villages to resell them. They can't travel now, so I'm finding new avenues to sell my books."

The shock of the destruction on College Street has been felt far beyond Kolkata. Pallavi Roy is a lecturer at SOAS University of London in the UK who studied at Presidency.

"Watching the photographs of those precious pages floating in dirty water was heartbreaking," she said. "The damage to the book stalls on College Street also reminded me of how precious our emotional connection to the city is at times like these. Those stalls were such an important part of being a student at Presidency."

But the rebuilding has begun and College Street is recovering its indomitable spirit slowly but surely, says Mr Chatterjee. "It will take months, and things won't be back to normal until after the coronavirus crisis is over. But we will be back. We will overcome this."

That's a sentiment echoed by Ms Roy: "I think that this is the spirit that will see Boipara coming back to life after perhaps a brief hiatus."

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Reporting by Nisha Lahiri

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