Can there be a season for books? How can it be? Books have nothing to do with the season. They are all-weather nourishers of our souls. But book fairs are seasonal affairs. And this is book fair time. Perhaps two years ago, a friend of mine made a comment about New Delhi World Book Fair on social media.

He said that when he had visited the book fair, he was missing something very badly. But he was unable to articulate his feelings and say what exactly he was missing. Perhaps he was overwhelmed by a deep sense of melancholy. Perhaps something drastically changed in the milieu of the New Delhi World Book Fair.

New Delhi World Book Fair has been continuing for decades now. It is not a one-time affair. It was a regular thing. Then why my friend observed it only now and not before? This is interesting. The things which happen suddenly can also be identified easily. But changes also take place in a subtle manner that go unnoticed. At times we realize it when the process is completed. Then only we notice that things are not the same as they used to be. Then we feel that what was lost could not be regained again.

Here, we can refer to a recent comment of Salman Rushdie in a group discussion. He said, “My childhood, of course, was spent in Bombay. In Two Years, one of my Indian-origin central characters discovers that like many of us, he can’t go back home again – not because you can’t buy a plane ticket, but the world you came from has gone. The loss of a home is not because you are not there, but because it is not there.”  This is an interesting observation. How can you go to a nonexistent place?

Am I feeling the same way about the Guwahati Book Fair, which is being fashioned this time as Assam Book Fair? Are we really missing something or it is just a meaningless rumination over the past?  If we examine the new from the standpoint of values and essence, it is difficult to say that it is a pointless rumination over the past. It is not. Where are the books and where are the authors? Forget about the regional publishing, what is being published nationally in English by the best of publishers now?

Again, sometime back, a historian, and a chancellor of a reputed university and also a distinguished reviewer of books expressed his apprehension about the general publishing scene in the county.  The publishing scene in India is pretty dismal now.

The question is why it is dismal is difficult to answer. Or is it happening only in Assam or India? Or is it a worldwide phenomenon? Who can answer such questions self-assuredly? Such questions are difficult to answer. But one thing is for sure. The scholarly publishing of a county is directly linked to its state of affairs in education, particularly higher education.

There is no doubt about it that the higher education of our county is afflicted by a serious malady presently. If we remember the heydays of Indian publishing, we also realize that those were the heydays of higher education in our country. Those were the decades following the independence of the country till the eighties. Those were the golden days of research and learning in social sciences and humanities in our country which was reflected in the seminal books published during the period.

That was also the time of our self-discovery and creative drive. All our great authors were the product of that time. Why have things decayed since then? Or is it a too simplistic generalization? I don’t know. May be immediately after the independence or may be during the freedom struggle itself, we were striving for something, or we were trying to assert our identity or existence. May this craving for self-assertion result in a creative oeuvre of authors. If we look at the books of that period these are things and feelings which come to our mind.

But what is happening in Assam? It seems we are no exception. In the last three decades, journalism has ruled the roost in the state, that too bad journalism. And this bad journalism has replaced good literature. Assamese society has undergone turmoil in the last four decades. Things have changed beyond recognition. These changes have taken place because of local, national and global factors.

As if this turmoil has not touched the present generation of writers. Most of them, almost all of them have not tried to grapple with the changes and they failed to make a sense of them in their literary pursuits. That is why there is no reflection of this in their writings. How can one be a writer by ignoring the society around her?

A book fair is on in the city. To visit the event is a peculiar experience because past memories haunt you. You look for a crowd which is not there. You feel completely lost. All around you, you see shiny people and colorful Assamese books where the book is lost in the colorful cover. But is it so that past cannot be overcome? I think it is just the opposite. History is made by overcoming the legacy of the past, by creating a new future. Changes are not welcomed if they are not meaningful.

Paresh Malakar

Paresh Malakar is a commentator based in Guwahati. He can be reached at: malakarparesh@gmail.com