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Vol. XXXIII No. 21, February 16-29, 2024

Navigating the Chennai Book Fair 2024

-- by S. Lashman

A celebration of diversity and pluralistic reading by BAPASI

The 47th edition of the Chennai Book Fair took place at YMCA grounds, Nandanam, from January 3rd to the 21st. Organised by the Booksellers and Publishers Association of South India (BAPASI), the expansive fair, boasting 915 bookstalls this year, was inaugurated by Chief Minister M.K. Stalin.

Book stores in Chennai, or frankly anywhere in India, are becoming increasingly unvaried. What unanimously occupy the shelves are the same “viral” titles such as Ikigai, Sapiens, God of Small Things, some “reimagination” of Ramayana, and the same inspirational content slyly categorised either under ‘Motivational’ or ‘Self-help’ sections, depending on who their target audience is- men or women. A somewhat welcome, new addition to this rather monotonous line-up is Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan, thanks to the recent renaissance of this cult classic in the hands of Mani Ratnam and his star-studded cast. But that’s about it. God forbid you entering these stores looking for a Virginia Woolf or a Victor Hugo.

What the Chennai Book Fair provided, amidst this numbing sameness, was a much-needed breath of fresh air. With an eclectic assortment of 915 stalls, the defining characteristic of the fair was its remarkable diversity- in terms of publishers, content, style, target audiences, and price ranges; but not language so much, as it was predominantly just Tamil and English. For every Periyarist bookstall like Dravida Thamilar Arakkattalai, there was an ISKCON pop up. On the one hand you had Giri Trading Agency, and on the other, a Thirunangai Press LLP. It is quite fascinating to witness such diverse publications all under one roof, which would be highly unlikely otherwise.

From Sangam poetry provided with purport, to Tevaram and Divyaprabandham, to U Ve Swamitha Iyer, to Ambedkarite-Buddhist literature, to translations of western classics like Homer and Shakespeare, the Tamil reader was particularly spoilt for choice. There was a place for everything from war memorials to management text books, not to forget the impressive collection of children’s books. While some stalls did play safe with a generous display of the aforementioned trendy titles, it was also refreshing to find stalls where you could find books on niche subjects like the Gothic architecture of Bombay, for instance.

The spectrum of price range was a key contributor to the book fair’s allure. Upon diligent searching, you could discover a second-hand store, where you could buy the complete collection of novels by Franz Kafka for just INR 100, juxtaposed with a relatively high-end spot offering a coffee table book on the Chola legacy retailing at around INR 4,500. On top of the customary 10 per cent off on all books at all stalls, some stalls were not opposed to the idea of further bargaining.

However, for all its eclecticism and copiousness, the book fair was not devoid of its flaws. Firstly, although the entry ticket costed a mere INR 10, there was no singular fixed ticket booth. Every few minutes, an announcement went out, indicating the counter currently issuing the tickets. So, it could shift between counter 7 to 2 to 10 in a matter of half an hour, only to keep shifting, leading invariably to confusion and inconvenience. Secondly, visitors lacked a designated area to deposit their bags. Carrying possessions became increasingly burdensome as they accumulated more books while navigating the fair’s aisles. If a safe-deposit unit seems impractical given the fair’s scale, why not provide readers with at least a shopping cart?

While the astounding number of stalls, spread across ten aisles, was a matter of great delight, there was no uncomplicated way to discern their locations. Volunteers stationed at connecting aisles, when asked where a certain publication held stall, were often clueless, offering only a pamphlet listing publications and stall numbers, which did little to dispel confusion. Additionally, there was no communal space for readers to socialise, take a momentary break, or for parents to unwind with their children and their colouring books. Making things worse, the makeshift restrooms were all located outside one end of the mammoth set-up and the entire 10th row ended up being overpowered with the odour of Dettol.

Despite these setbacks, the customers remained undeterred. Encountering a diverse community of book lovers within a single premises was delightful. It was heartening to observe that many roadside second-hand bookstores too, typically unable to secure a spot inside the fair, showcased their collections on the sidewalks outside YMCA. This stood as a compelling testament to the Book Fair’s potential to generate income and support vendors across various tiers of the book business.

Alongside the December Music Season, the Chennai Book Fair has solidified its place in the cultural calendar of Chennai, as a landmark event, eagerly anticipated by enthusiasts with their multifaceted readership preferences. The event has become an annual ritual for many inhabitants of the city, who tell themselves that hoarding books is not the worst of traits, and book addiction is not seriously dangerous, after all.

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