While reading Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen’s memoir, “Home in the World – A Memoir,” an incident came to light that resonated with my own experience as a bookseller in the 1970s. This story showcases the encounter of Amartya Sen, a renowned economist, researcher, scholar, writer, Nobel Prize winner, and Bharat Ratna recipient, with a bookstall owner in 1950s Kolkata (then Calcutta). Although there is no conceivable comparison between Sen and myself, this parallel narrative highlights the value of books and the kindness of book vendors.
Amartya Sen, who received his name from the legendary Rabindra Nath Tagore, attended Santiniketan, which played a vital role in shaping his thinking. Influenced by the great Bengal famine of 1943, he developed a lifelong commitment to eradicating inequalities and religious divisiveness in Indian society. One of his classmates, Sukhamoy Chakraborty, was an eminent economist who contributed significantly to India’s Five-Year Plans. As a passionate economics student during that time, I held great admiration for Chakraborty and his teachings.
Both Sen and Chakraborty were avid readers and deep thinkers. Their college, Presidency College, was situated in Kolkata’s College Street neighborhood, where the famous Coffee House attracted Bengali writers and intellectuals. The tradition of engaging in addas (intellectual discussions) continues to this day, making the Coffee House a must-visit place for every Bengali intellectual. Surrounding the coffee house, numerous bookstalls lined the lanes, where books were sold with remarkable enthusiasm and flair.
Despite their limited financial resources, Sen and Chakraborty found solace in a particular bookstall, where the owner graciously allowed them to peruse books without the obligation to purchase. In a gesture of friendship and knowledge-seeking fervor, the bookstall owner even lent them valuable books, wrapped carefully in newspapers, with the only condition being their return in the same condition. This act of generosity provided immense opportunities for the young scholars to immerse themselves in their chosen subjects.
In a similar vein, during my formative years in Mangaldoi, Assam, in the 1970s, I too encountered a bookstall that became a haven for my reading pursuits. Despite financial constraints, my family’s passion for books led us to borrow from libraries and seek new releases at the neighborhood bookstand. The old bookstall proprietor greeted me with a friendly smile each time, fostering a sense of trust. Encouraged by his welcoming demeanor, I would often read the books at the stall itself, returning them with a smile upon completion. On occasions when I couldn’t finish a voluminous book, I would return the next day, and the generous book seller would allow me to continue where I left off. This divine opportunity enabled me to indulge in reading without having to make frequent purchases.
These experiences highlight the existence of compassionate bookstall owners, salespeople, and retailers who hold their values dear. Their focus on providing access to knowledge rather than maximizing profits is a refreshing reminder of the enduring value of books and the love for reading. In today’s world, where cutthroat competition often prevails, encountering such individuals is a testament to the integrity and generosity that still exist.
In conclusion, the parallel experiences of Amartya Sen, Sukhamoy Chakraborty, and my own humble journey as a bookseller highlight the profound impact of small acts of kindness within the realm of literature. The unwavering love for books and the compassion exhibited by book vendors contribute to a rich and enduring literary culture.