Working for ‘third parent’ Oxford Bookstore to curate Kolkata’s First and India’s Only Literary Festival created by a Bookstore and India’s First Bangla Festival

By Aatreyee Ghosh

My first introduction to the world of books was my grandmother who would take me to Oxford Bookstore every first Saturday of the month which would be followed by lunch at one of the restaurants in Park Street and then an evening pouring over the treasures accumulated throughout the day at the bookstore. So, coming back to work at nearly 100 year old Oxford Bookstore as a Creative Manager was much like a deja-vu, only without the reassuring presence of my grandmother guiding me through the stacks of books. My story is nothing unique as this is a story of innumerable Kolkatans who see Oxford as a third parent, a part of their growing selves and an elfish presence in their mundane lives.

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It is this sense of magic that extends to its two festivals, Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival (AKLF),  India’s only literary festival created by a bookstore and Kolkata’s first literary festival and Apeejay Bangla Sahitya Utsob (ABSU), India’s pioneer Bangla Literary Festival as well. Both AKLF and ABSU were conceived not as business ideas but rather as indulgent gifts to a city by a bookstore which like an ageless Peter Pan refuses to grow old. So, everything that happens in these festivals are much like tales from the yonder.

My entry into this world was like the Narnia stories, my magical cupboard being the wizened and the most loved Mrs Bhagat, the Director of Apeejay Oxford Bookstore whom I had come to meet for some random project I was doing at that time. I remember little of what we discussed about my work that day, all that I remember is sharing our mutual love for books and the store and a few days later I found myself a part of the roller-coaster ride we like to call AKLF. AKLF is nothing like any festival, because no festival is guided by an almost centenarian bookstore which has been the home of every writer which I can think of.

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My first year at AKLF was a haze, a whirlwind of running from session to session, getting lowdown from the exceptionally small and superhuman team who somehow ended up delivering a festival which looked like it was managed by at least a thousand hands. I often made this joke to my family that their daughter has been recruited by the Avengers, because that’s exactly what this team would make you feel like—a superhero with a cape.

Building a festival is like building jenga towers, one small wrong move and your entire structure falls over. But it also gives you stories to laugh over for years. I remember one year when one driver took our delegate to the dark and dingy ‘Canal Road’ at the middle of the night instead of hotel ‘Kenilworth’ because in his sleep-addled brain both sounded the same. Or another time when we went goose-feather pillow chasing for a delegate as she was allergic to everything else—stories that can fill up pages of a page-turner, stories that seem impossible until they happen to you at AKLF.

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In the three years that I have worked with AKLF I have been fortunate to not only meet some of my literary heroes but also a lot of new writers who are going to be the next big thing in the world of writing. What makes working in the team so much enjoyable (more than the late night Kusum rolls parties during the days building up to the festival) is that this is a team which doesn’t believe in hierarchy. A lot of my friends find it amazing that our CEO and directors actually discuss with all the members of the team before taking any big decision for the festival—from the new intern to the director, everyone is the same when it comes to deliberating about the festival.

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It is this same sense of camaraderie that spills over to the other festival as well. ABSU is the first Bengali literature festival not only in the city but in the country and that makes it both special and challenging. We are also blessed with a Director (the CEO of Oxford Bookstores) who is the Sidhu Jyatha  to our team’s Feluda, pushing us to constantly think beyond the box and bring the best of Bangla literature to our patrons. It was his idea to do special ABSU events throughout the year and we have ended up with unique events like Bangla Bolte Parlei Bangali, Unishe April: Rituporner Khonje and many more. We have experimented with Bangla literary cosplay, had sessions on the average bangali’s love for food, microtales and many such innovative concepts and it gives us great pleasure when we are sent in suggestions by our audience to try out more new and daring things.

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AKLF and ABSU are both imagined as platforms for everyone who cares about books, culture and reading and every year that is the only brief we work with. With a tagline ‘much more than a bookstore’ we have already a difficult goal set for us. But what makes this difficult job fun are the people I work with. Ours is the noisiest team in the building (which is obvious when you put too many opinionated people in the same room), but we are also a team who would stay back nights in shivering cold without sleeping a wink to make sure the venue is ready, a team that always has each other’s backs, a team that at the end of the day treats the festivals as not a part of their jobs but rather like a part of their own lives. Is it great to work for a hundred years old bookstore? Of course it is! Especially when you get discounts on book purchases and have in-house ghosts to talk about. But what truly makes my work special is that I work with a bunch of people who have almost nothing in common except for their love of books and their wish to see that love spread all over the city, one book event at a time!

Aatreyee Ghosh is Creative Manager, Apeejay Oxford Bookstores Private Limited

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