The heady smell of books, the sight of titles long gone out of print, interesting conversations among booklovers… a walk at the ongoing Chennai Book Fair is quite an experience

Do books talk? Walk by the book-lined avenues of the Chennai Book Fair and you realise they do. Why else would you stop at every other stall, peer inside, and run your eyes and hands over the titles? Why else would just a few from the lakhs of titles on display get to come home with you? Why else would you go back feeling richer, despite your purse being much lighter?

Ask booklovers at the Fair organised by the Booksellers and Publishers Association of South India at YMCA College of Physical Education, Nandanam, and they would tell you how the sight and smell of so many books gives them a high like nothing else.

Men and women with jolna pais (cloth bags) slung across their shoulders stroll by themselves, happy with none but books for company. Parents look on hopefully as their children pick up one title after another. School teachers browse for titles to be given away as prizes at the next annual day function. Youngsters armed with long booklists shop like there’s no tomorrow… Interesting characters, conversations, stories… the 37th edition of the Fair has plenty to offer.

Eighty-two-year-old Lakshmi Pandurangan reads an Amar Chitra Katha book as she waits for her family members in front of a stall. “I will read this out to my grandchildren,” she says. The Fair has variety — the people it attracts are just as varied. While school student Sowmya walks way with a book on English grammar, poet Murugesan, a Periyarist, has just purchased a copy of Neminatham by Saiva Siddhanta Pathippagam. “I found titles that I was searching for for a long time,” says Murugesan, an avid reader and collector of books by scholars such as Devaneya Pavanar, Thiru.Vi.Ka, Anna, and Maraimalai Adigal.

Fifteen-year-old Janani too found a title she was long on the look out for. “The book went out of print and I found it here,” she grins. It is common to see people lug around two or even three duffel bags stuffed with books. Josephine and friends from Bengaluru, for instance, have purchased over 40 titles, and Usha, a budding writer has spent Rs. 2,000 in just an hour. Some stalls come with character — such as Iyalvagai Pathippagam’s. It stocks the best of organic farming expert Nammalvar’s works, among others. A neem tree twists its way upwards from the entrance, even as feathers peep from behind the recycled wooden book shelves. There even is a crow’s nest perched on the branch of the tree! The owners have kept plastics away; there are no flex boards and shoppers get to take away books in unbleached cloth bags.

“It’s all too overwhelming,” sighs Vijay Krishnan from Coimbatore. “There’s so much to see. I struggle to concentrate! For me, one day will not do. I’m coming back,” he says as travel bags heavy with books he just purchased nod at his feet. The purpose of the Fair is to introduce a reader to books, feels S. Ramakrishnan of Crea Publications. “Our focus is more on the exposure of a book rather than sales,” he says.

A slender old man in a white dhoti smiles benignly at me as he strides in. It’s a smile that suggests a deep intellect that comes with years of association with books. He walks past me before I can gather my thoughts. It is much later, when he merges with the crowd, that it strikes me he was writer Ashokamitran!