Kolkata: A 1km-stretch that was at the heart of the Bengal Renaissance has once again displayed indomitable spirit, springing back to life after it was flattened by one of the fiercest cyclones the state has ever witnessed, with a little help from everyone, even direct business competitors.
Pictures of books floating in water and strewn across the length of College Street to dry started making the rounds on social media two weeks ago, pulling at the heartstrings of Kolkatans across the globe.
The devastation that attacked the very core of Kolkata’s culture prompted people from across the world to extend help and even started crowd-funding initiatives to revive their beloved Boipara.
Thanks to the support by people from various walks of life, coupled with the resilience of the iconic stretch, more than 95% of College Street’s book shops and stalls reopened last week and were even back in business, less than 20 days from the battering by Cycone Amphan.
A crowd-funding initiative by Indrani Roy Mitra, joint managing director of Mitra and Ghosh Publishers, has garnered close to Rs 16 lakh till Sunday, and cheques have been handed over to 64 affected publishers and bookshop owners. The process of scrutinising and processing several hundred applications is also under way. “People have been contributing from all parts of the country and abroad. We have been able to provide some relief to some of the owners till now. The devastation was huge and many people have lost everything they had. It is going to be a long and sustained effort to redeem the former glory of Boipara,” Indrani said.
Snehasish Ghosh, a former student of Presidency College who is now based in Singapore, has donated a “small amount” to help College Street’s shop-owners get back up on their feet. He specifies it is not a contribution, but a “debt” that he is repaying.
“I remember some of the kakus would let us photocopy portions from several books even if we just bought one book because they were aware we wouldn’t be able to afford all of them. The engagement of the student community with Boipara was not just about sales and profit, but was a much deeper connection. I felt deep pain in my heart when a friend forwarded pictures of books floating on the street,” said the 2006-batch student.
Those studying in colleges and universities on College Street were the first to reach out to affected owners, assessing damage and bringing it in focus through social media. “Despite being competitors, many shop owners helped others who incurred huge losses. This has played a big part in rebuilding Boipara,” said Ahan Karmakar, a student of Quarantined Student Youth Network, which is collecting funds and mobilizing resources for College Street.
College Street (which took its name after David Hare established Hindu College in 1817), also known as Boipara, is a hub of Kolkata’s student and literary crowd. It is the largest second-hand book market in the world and largest book market in India. The street and area played a stellar role in the Bengal Renaissance, with its leading lights Vidyasagar, Rammohan Roy and Rabindranath Tagore walking the stretch steeped in history. With several colleges and universities on either side, the Indian Coffee House and a war memorial inside the east gate of College Square, it soon became a hub of modern Bengal’s culture, education and ideology.
Amal Basu of Swapna Book Stall on PC Sarkar Street, between Calcutta University and Presidency University, said he had no clue that empathy would pour in in such a manner, particularly when the reading habit seemed to be on the decline, and virtual learning was on the rise. “I had forgotten that Boipara was a shared legacy, not just a market,” he said.