Of Old Books And Nostalgia – A Journey Through College Street

Vellichor – The strange wistfulness of a used bookshop

For me, the word conjures up images of shops selling old books, their pages yellowed with age, their musty smell transporting me to a distant land. Memories left behind like the hint of a perfume, between the pages by the previous owners, and sometimes, a scribble giving away a tiny little secret about them.

In other words, Vellichor reminds me of College Street. The street tucked in one corner of my hometown, Kolkata. College Street is the world’s largest market for second-hand books and is considered to be one of India’s most famous landmarks.

Why? Allow me to take you on a tour around College Street.

Imagine, a quaint sepia-tinted vintage photo, where time stands still. You amble down the memory lane, into some nostalgic pathway of old books and memories. Old buildings surround you, while you meander through the lanes filled with bookshops and make shift bookstalls.

The serpentine lanes crowded with people looking for their books. While you’d find shops on the side of the roads, there would be stacks of books on display in some temporary stalls on the footpath. As a result, the lanes are so narrow that sometimes, barely two people can walk abreast. It always gives a sense of being too crowded. However, when finding our favorite book is at stake, a lot of us bibliophiles wouldn’t be daunted by a bit of pushing and jostling, right? 🙂

A lazy afternoon, with a lot of time to spare, you spend hours in each shop going through the eclectic collection of books. Ranging from Science Fiction to Text Books, from Classic and Contemporary Literature to Mills & Boon- College Street doesn’t disappoint any book lover.

Books ranging from sports to photography to coffee table books to trignometry & algebra-all the genres believe in peaceful coexistence

College Street elicits nostalgia in most booklovers from Kolkata. You can find your favorite magazine from childhood that is no more in print; you can come across stacks of complete works of William Shakespeare or Charles Dickens, to an exhaustive Stephen King collection. College Street is a book lover’s veritable paradise. You get lost in the old world charm of literature produced in a host of Indian languages along with books from all across the globe.

The icing on the cake is the price. Most of the old books are available at dirt cheap prices. For example, you might find a bestseller in mint condition for Rs 50 (less than $1).

When your quest for books tires out your legs after long hours of browsing, you head over to rest awhile at the Indian Coffee House, another major attraction of College Street.

Surrounded by some of the most prominent colleges such as University of Calcutta and Presidency College, Coffee House was the cultural hub of Kolkata in the yesteryears. It was once thronged by the greatest intelligentsia of Bengal-starting from poets to politicians.

You can almost imagine few authors immersed in literary discussions, while their coffee turned cold, thick clouds of cigarette smoke emanating from their midst as if from a witch’s cauldron. Well, in one way they definitely created Magic in the form of their films and novels and poetry! Prominent literati across generations including Rabindranath Tagore, Satyajit Ray, and Amartya Sen were known to frequent this coffee joint, to nourish their minds through discussions with the like minded.

Now, enter the precincts of this historical building. You observe there has been a sea of change. You see college kids transformed by globalization, clicking ‘selfies’ on their phones or discussing their love lives or careers. But you like it all. You try inhaling the entire aroma of the Coffee House in one deep breath. You don’t even mind the diluted, swill like coffee or the oily fried egg (The declining patronage has taken a toll on its food). You’ve come here for the experience after all :)!

Finally, you start reflecting on how books are one of the greatest binding forces, even in today’s fast paced world littered by mobiles, tablets and playstations. You see books, explore books, and have an experience of how life revolves around books – through your journey via College Street.

(Photo Credit: Sagnik Mukherjee and Rashmija Chakraborty
Since I am in Delhi right now, two of my friends, Sagnik Mukherjee and Rashmija Chakraborty, have been extremely kind to take time out for the photo-shoot of College Street. This piece would certainly not be complete without the images perfectly capturing the spirit of the place. I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to them for their generous and wonderful contributions.)

This is a guest feature by Kasturi Patra, Kolkata.