Guwahati Book Fair – 30 December 2020 to 10 January 2021

Pandemic-hit Assamese book publishers look at the bright side

The 33rd Guwahati Book Fair from 30 December 2020 to 10 January 2021|Book industry ups and downs
The 33rd Guwahati Book Fair from 30 December 2020 to 10 January 2021

It was an intriguing discussion at a special session of the prestigious 33rd Guwahati Book Fair. Many book publishers, writers, journalists, and conscientious readers assembled to introspect the various challenges faced by the book and periodical publishing industry during the Covid-19 induced national lockdown in India. They also evoked some of the new possibilities in the coming post-corona era.

The participants were unanimous – the pandemic had severely affected the publication industry, including the printed newspapers. Still, at the same time, it helped to increase the number of committed readers among the new generation. They also said that the process of publication and marketing of Assamese books reemerged with new approaches to the technology-driven profession in the interest of valued readers.

Inaugurating the session, Assam based senior publisher Nabin Baruah thoroughly described the hardship faced by the publication houses as the corona-pandemic hit the country in early March. However, he said that the disaster helped everyone redefine their lives in a tricky and isolated ambiance. Many regained their reading habit, and as many others join the legion of committed readers irrespective of the ink on paper books or digital platforms, he said.

Several young publishers addressed the session, including Pritima Kaushik Barua, Manish Hazarika, Dhiraj Lahkar, Amrit Upadhaya, Farhan Javed, Buljit Buragohain along with award-winning Assamese author Bipul Deuri. They observed that various modern technological tools for publication, promotion, and marketing would finally bring a better deal for quality publishers worldwide.

Assamese – an internet-savvy language and culture

Participating in the discussion, literary magazine editor Mihir Deuri, senior journalist Dixit Sarma, prolific writers Geetali Borah, Nabajyoti Pathak, Rupam Dutta, Jintu Thakuria, and Nripen Dutta expressed concern over the shrinkage of readers in various regional languages across India. But they asserted with confidence that it’s time to promote Assamese as an internet-savvy language and reach out to millions of potential readers living in the diaspora.

As a moderator, I also drew attention to the severe crisis in front of the print media. Many, if not most, readers are still evading the distribution of newspapers inside their homes. First, it was the rumor that newspapers carry the corona-virus, which discouraged senior citizens from reading their favorite dailies. Then most of the newsy content became available on digital platforms on the previous day itself. Editors may have to change their approach to news for the survival of newspapers, was my observation.

The ongoing Guwahati Granthamela from 30 December 2020 to 10 January 2021 has attracted thousands of book lovers each day with its more than 125 stands. The entry to the fair was made free by the organizer, Asom Prakasan Parisad. The state-run publication board had to postpone the book fair because of political unrest in 2019 and the pandemic in early 2020. Several literary discussions, book release events, and spectacular cultural evenings evoked a heady ambiance.

Formally inaugurated by the Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal’s media adviser Hrishikesh Goswami in the presence of noted intellectual Tathagata Roy, renowned litterateur Yeshe Dorjee Thongshi and other dignitaries, the book fair brought some of the desired relief to publishers and delight to the bookworms.

The festival venue at the Assam Engineering Institute playground in the Chandmari locality of the city maintained the necessary health protocols related to the Covid-19 pandemic. While representing CM Sonowal at the function, Goswami conveyed his goodwill to everyone, commenting that books are the oases in the desert that nurture human beings’ intellectual and creative capacities.

Lifetime achievement award to Dr Thaneswar Sarma

He also conferred the Prakasan Parisad’s lifetime achievement award for 2019, carrying a citation and Rs. 2 lakh check to eminent Assamese scholar Dr Thaneswar Sarma in the presence of the assembled dignitaries. The former Governor of Tripura, Meghalaya, and Arunachal Pradesh, Roy, in his speech, termed Assamese a sweet language and expressed the hope that the bonhomie between Assamese and Bengali culture and readers would continue in the future too. A resident of West Bengal but familiar with Assamese society, the outspoken author observed that the National Education Policy 2020 should help immensely in highlighting the regional languages and their literature.

Padmashri Thongshi, a resident of neighboring Arunachal Pradesh, described various challenges that surfaced due to the pandemic. The Sahitya Academy awardee cited the increase of quality readers worldwide as a positive note. Thongshi expressed happiness that a collection of literary pieces, including novels, short stories, and folk tales written in both Assamese and English by Arunachali author Lumber Dai were released at the function.

A stall dedicated to Bangladesh literature and another showcasing Tibetan culture added colors to the book fair. The freedom movement led by exile Tibetans against the Communist regime in Beijing also comes alive in the stall, opened by Tibetan support group leader RK Khrimey and managed by Buddha enthusiast Soumyadeep Datta. Its highlights included the message of Tibet being India’s real neighbor rather than China and the Brahmaputra river’s potential devastation by Beijing’s environmental intervention in the mineral-rich land.

Amongst the books on display and sale, the creative pieces penned by young writers received satisfactory responses from the visitors at Granthamela. Some reprinted Assamese books by Prakasan Parisad also enjoyed visible interest. Two important translated works related to Prime Minister Narendra Modi sold in large numbers. The Assamese version of Modi’s letters to his mother titled ‘Aailoi Chithi’ and the translations of the PM’s weekly radio program titled ‘Man Ki Baat’ as ‘Mor Priya Deshbasi’ drew the attention of fair visitors.

“We are happy to witness the massive gathering of visitors at the book fair venue. The participating stalls have sold books for crores of rupees,” said Pramod Kalita, secretary to the publication board, which launched the book fair movement in the early eighties initially in collaboration with the National Book Trust of India. She added that the appreciation of book lovers encouraged the publication board to reprint many rare pieces as well as new creative work by new and promising authors.

The Covid-19 pandemic led to the country-wide lockdown on 25 March 2020. It will be two years tomorrow as I write this. What have we learned in this time? Maybe the meaning of resilience since small companies like us have had to rely on our resources and the forbearance of our employees as we have struggled to produce our trade platforms.

The print and packaging industries have been fortunate, although the commercial printing industry is still to recover. We have learned more about the digital transformation that affects commercial printing and packaging. Ultimately digital will help print grow in a country where we are still far behind in our paper and print consumption and where digital is a leapfrog technology that will only increase the demand for print in the foreseeable future.

Web analytics show that we now have readership in North America and Europe amongst the 90 countries where our five platforms reach. Our traffic which more than doubled in 2020, has at times gone up by another 50% in 2021. And advertising which had fallen to pieces in 2020 and 2021, has started its return since January 2022.

As the economy approaches real growth with unevenness and shortages a given, we are looking forward to the PrintPack India exhibition in Greater Noida. We are again appointed to produce the Show Daily on all five days of the show from 26 to 30 May 2022.

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– Naresh Khanna

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