Cyclone Amphan has hit Kolkata where it hurts. It has brought the city's iconic College Street to its knees. Hundreds of tiny book stalls that line both the street were flooded on Wednesday night and books, wet and soaking, have been reduced to raddi or waste. Students and alumni of the iconic street's premier institutions - Presidency and Calcutta University to name few - have started a global campaign for funds to save "boi para" or Kolkata's book street.
"The damage to College Street is huge," said Suvojit Sarkar, a former student of history at Presidency University who is now associated with the CPM student front SFI. "No politics in this. We are appealing all book lovers, all college street lovers to contribute to save it. Without books, without college street, we cannot survive in Kolkata. Kolkata's history and heritage are all about College Street."
"Not charity. We want to show our solidarity with the small book stall owners of College Street and have appealed through social media to alumni worldwide for help," said Ahan Karmakar, a third year economics student at Presidency University. He is part of an organisation called Quarantine Students -- Youth Network or QSYN that is campaigning for funds for College Street.
Six days after Cyclone Amphan, the sight on College Street is heart-breaking. Books on science, philosophy, medicine, the arts all soaking wet have been put out to dry on the road in front of the iconic Coffee House and Presidency University. In fact all along the half kilometre stretch and in the multiple narrow lanes that lead off it.
Cyclone Amphan drowned this street in three to four feet of water for hours. The day after, stall owners saw the street had turned into a river of floating books.
Aslam Hussain, who has been working at his family book stall just opposite Coffee House for the last 45 years, shakes out a sodden physics book and says, "Raddi. These books have been all reduced to waste. We are throwing them out. The raddi walas are taking them away. All we are getting is 1 or 2 rupees a kilo."
"We had to throw away wet books by the van load," said Ranjan Dutta who is a book stall owner and the head of a union of about 100 book stalls on College Street. Some surveys put the number of book stalls on the street at over 2,000.
"90 per cent stalls have not even opened. When owners come and check their damage, only then will we know the extent of our total losses," he added.
For the book stall owners who really know their books well and can hold forth on Tagore and the latest question bank for CBSE exams with equal ease, it is also a matter of livelihood. They have been making a living for generations selling books from their stalls, rare books, exam guides and second hand tomes.
For hundreds of students who flock College Street on a regular basis, the biggest draw is the second hand books.
Ahan Karmakar said, "As students, we cannot afford brand new books. So we reach out to the people who sell second hand books on College Street. And that's how we finance our education. I know I couldn't have completed some courses if these book stall owners had not pulled out some second hand books for me. At a time like this, I think we just have to show solidarity with them."
To do that, Ahan and several other students from Presidency and Calcutta University have come together to campaign for funds for College Street. They were already running an outfit called Quarantine Students - Youth Network or QSYN to help people in trouble because of the Covid19 lockdown. They are now using the platform to raise funds from alumni across the world for "Boi Para" or the book street.
It is QSYN that surveyed the book stalls for the last three-four days and put the number of stalls down to 2050, including those who only sell on the pavement but excluding big publishers who have outlets on the street too.
"The big shops will survive somehow, we think," said Ahan Karmakar. "It is the small ones who need our assistance."
Donors have been generous. In less than five days, more than Rs 75,000 have poured into QSYN bank accounts, details of which are shared on their Facebook page. And donations have come from across the world.
Swagata, a student at Calcutta University, says, "The street is my family, my life. Those who know the street know the gems they hold. We cannot afford to lose that." He is also spearheading QSYN's global campaign for funds. There are concerns about how to help the stall owners - should they be given a one-time grant or a loan or should their power bills be paid off for a couple of months - so along with money, QSYN is also campaigning for ideas.
The Booksellers and Publishers Guild that hosts the annual Kolkata Book Fair will write to the prime minister and the chief minister to save this heritage street of the printed word.
Meanwhile, book stall owners are trying to salvage what Cyclone Amphan has left behind. They are drying the wet books under the sun. Some terribly desperate book stall owners could be seen holding up books one by one in front of pedestal fans they have rigged up in front of their washed out shops. They have an uphill task getting College Street back to its original splendour.