Amidst the threat of the spreading Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus across India, the Asom Granthamela (Assam Book Fair) came to a successful end in Guwahati, the virtual capital of the Northeast. Organized jointly by the Asom Prakashan Parishad (the Assam government’s Publication Board) and the All Assam Publishers & Book Sellers Association the event maintained Covid-19 precautions to some extent. Apart from the brisk trade in books, the 12-day event again discussed the future of printed books and newspapers.
Braving the cold wave, thousands of book-lovers in the region visited the Assam Engineering Institute playground in the city’s Chandmari locality to celebrate the festival of reading, information, and wisdom. Nearly 150 book-publishing groups and retailers including a few from neighboring Bangladesh, as well as from Delhi and Kolkata and local publishers showcased their work. The stands were placed in six rows, in the memory of celebrated Assamese intellectuals – Hemchandra Goswami, Padmanath Gohain Barua, Panindranath Gogoi, Giripada Devchoudhury, Rabin Devchoudhury, and Sananta Tanti.
Inaugurating the book fair on 29 December 2021, the state education minister Dr Ranoj Pegu emphasized book reading and the translation of Assamese literary works to other languages and also the work of other Indian languages in the region into Assamese. Dr Pegu, who is also the chairman of the Prakashan Parishad, expressed happiness that more people are now reading books as they acquire the habit to escape the loneliness created by the nationwide corona-lockdowns.
The minister also honored Dr Nandita Devi with the Prakashan Parishad literary award for her novel Bongol Bohu Door along with its publisher Nagen Sarma of Jyoti Prakashan. Dr Kuladhar Saikia, president of the Asom Sahitya Sabha, graced the inaugural function and spoke of popularizing books with varied and rich content among young audiences and for using technology to do so.
Dr Noni Gopal Mahanta, an adviser to the state education department, revealed that even after the invasion of the Internet, books remain popular globally. The function was attended by Prakashan Parishad secretary Pramod Kalita, its vice-president Sumanta Chaliha, the State Publishers and
Booksellers Association’s office-bearers Imran Ahmed, and Baharul Islam Choudhury. The first evening’s cultural program was inaugurated by Pabitra Margherita, member-secretary of the state-level advisory committee for student and youth welfare.
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the P&BA could not organize the Northeast Book Fair in 2020 and it failed to accommodate the annual event in 2019 because of the anti-CAA (citizenship amendment act) agitation. However, the Prakashan Parishad successfully held Guwahati Granthamela in 2020 with visible public support.
Organizers of both the events joined hands this time for a combined trade show, where the state chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma took the initiative. Although Sarma could not be present at the inaugural, he later visited the fair and engaged with the public. Many of the younger visitors applauded Sarma, as he appreciated the efforts of the organizers. Next year, both the events may again take place separately if the corona situation improves, he commented.
Initially, there was some resentment among a section of the attendees as the name of Granthamela was temporarily changed from Guwahati Book Fair (or Northeast Book Fair) to Asom Granthamela. Done under difficult circumstances, the Prakashan Parishad announced that it has no intention of dishonoring the legacy of Guwahati Granthamela that started its voyage in 1984.
Assam readers will always remember the contributions of the great literary souls including author-journalist Chandra Prasad Saikia, instrumental in organizing the first book fair in the region.
Prakashan Parishad joined hands with the National Book Trust of India to launch the book fair movement with great success. Subsequently, in 1987, the Prakashan Parishad organized the book fair independently which continued.
In its initial years, the venue of the Guwahati Granthamela was the Judges field on the south bank of the Brahmaputra. As a large number of publishers and booksellers from various parts of the country started participating in the book fair, the venue was shifted to the present location that is bigger. “With the availability of cheaper mobile internet services across the country, there were apprehensions that the young people might turn away from the reading. This is, however, not the case. Various exciting audio-visuals, made easily available through the internet, can attract a huge number of people, but they finally get solace in serious reading only,” said Dhiraj Goswami of the Publishers & Booksellers Association, adding that books worth Rupees five crore were sold at the fair.
Visiting the Granthamela, union minister Sarbananda Sonowal also praised the organizers. Buying several books and interacting with book lovers, Sonowal commented that books remain the symbols of the identity of a community and society. The young generation should inculcate the habit of reading books, he said, adding that a book revolution should be everyone’s resolution.
Fifty new titles released at Granthamela
The Assam children’s literature trust secretary Hrishikesh Goswami accompanied Sonowal at the venue. More than 50 new titles were released at the event in the two halls named after Assamese authors Dr Lakshminandan Bora and Homen Borgohain. The Prakashan Parishad itself released 16 titles at the fair.
Several literary discussions and cultural evenings were inaugurated by national award-winning actor Moloya Goswami and included Aimi Barua, Gayatri Mahanta, and Partha Sarathi Mahanta enriching the flavor of the festival. The Bangladesh assistant high commissioner, posted in Guwahati, Shah Mohammad Tanvir Mansur also attended the book fair and welcomed the return of book publishers and shellers from his country. In a brief meeting, attended by Mihir Deuri, editor of Prakash (published by Prakashan Parishad), author-journalists Rupam Barua and Ranen Kr Goswami, poet-journalist Nabajyoti Pathak with a few others, the diplomat once again thanked India for supporting his country’s freedom movement.
The presence of many eminent Assamese authors and intellectuals including Govinda Prasad Sarma, Hiren Gohain, Shyama Prasad Sarma, Dhrubajyoti Bora, Apurba Kumar Sarma, Pranabjyoti Deka, Rita Choudhury, Anuradha Sarma Pujari, Dinesh Goswami, Dayananda Pathak, Ranju Hazarika, Jayanta Madhab Bora, Devashish Sarma, Phanindra Kumar Devchoudhury, Pranjit Bora, Paramananda Majumder, Prasanta Chakrabarty, Abhijit Bora, Mrinal Chandra Kalita, Utpal Dutta, Bandita Phukan, Arindam Borkataky, Apurba Saikia, Atanu Bhattacharya, Pabitra Gogoi, Subodhmalla Barua, Hyder Hussain, Pranjal Sarma Vasistha, Nilim Kumar added texture and color to the event. A session dedicated to Nilamoni Phukan, the third Assamese litterateur (after Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya and Mamoni Raisom Goswami) to receive the Jnyanpeeth award also received great interest.
Young writers session
The closing ceremony on 9 January 2022 was graced by Jnyanpeeth awardee Damodar Mauzo, the illustrious story writer, novelist, and critic in the Konkani language from Goa. Bodo Sahitya Sabha president Toren Boro also took part.
An interactive session involving young writers, where they narrated their literary dreams, received appreciation from the audience. Moderated by this writer with support from promising author Geetali Bora, several budding talents like Anindita Parag Saikia, Jintu Geetartha Thakuria, Utpal Deka, Pranjal Talukder, Gitali Saikia, Diganta Nibir, Pranjal Barman, Jayanta Dutta, Farhan Javed, Pranjal A Sarma, Ranjit Patgiri, Manoj Neog took part in the session. They were unanimous in their views that the medium (of physical ink on paper) may change in the future, but the habit of reading will continue forever.
Nava Thakuria is a Guwahati-based journalist and media commentator.