Made in Moscow Society

Let’s talk Pushkin

Browsing Soviet-era books in Golpark.

Browsing Soviet-era books in Golpark.   | Photo Credit: Anuradha Sengupta

Ceiling fans easily dating back a hundred years keep the high-walled Manisha Granthalaya cool on a humid day in Kolkata. Tucked away in a narrow by-lane off College Street, you have to weave a zigzag trail around pushcarts, stacks of books, scooters and a multitude of people to get here.

Very few people seem to know about this throwback to the communist era, where wooden signage abounds and dusty wall shelves heave with books—on literature, science, children’s literature—most of them English translations of Russian books.

Some of the books look a bit worse for wear because they have been here for more than 25 years, the last batch to arrive from Raduga Publishers in Moscow after the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991. But at ₹20-30, the books at this store are a steal.

The bookstore was established on May 18, 1964, by the Communist Party of India. “This was when the party was breaking apart into factions,” says Bhanudeb Dutta, a director of the bookstore. “Until then we had the National Book Agency (NBA) that would source books from Soviet Russia. After the dissolution, a faction of the party wanted to stay tuned to communist news from around the world. NBA did not provide that. And so we started this store.”

Hub of intellectual activity

In the 1960s and 1970s, the book store was quite the hub of intellectual activity. Bengali historian and communist Chinmohan Sehanabis was one of the founding members of the Granthalaya. Prominent Bengali poet, writer, academic and art critic Bishnu Dey gave the bookstore its name. The logo was designed by Satyajit Ray. And Jamini Roy gifted a painting which hangs on the wall.

Manisha Granthalaya doesn’t just sell books, it has also translated several Russian books into Bengali. “There are a few stores like ours, in Andhra Pradesh and Punjab. We exchange books with them. But our policy is to keep books on social sciences only,” says Dutta.

Manisha Granthalaya

Manisha Granthalaya   | Photo Credit: Anuradha Sengupta

There are stacks of magazines and books on science, agriculture, industrial production, sports, and literature. I pick up several. Their children’s books section is somewhat depleted but still makes for an interesting collection. “It was cheap, and at its worst it was deadly dull. In 1920s Russia, however, El Lissitzky, among others, was showing how it could sparkle with modernist brilliance,” says Dutta. No wonder then that Russian children’s books gained the popularity they did. As I leave the book store with my stack, Dutta and a few others are getting ready for a meeting. I overhear an elderly gentleman in dhoti-kurta and dark 60s-style glasses say:

“They are saving cows, that is what they say…”

Finding out-of-print books

Across the city lies Golpark where second hand booksellers stock out-of-print books, including Soviet era ones, on the pavement. Here booksellers are familiar with Tolstoy, Gogol, Gorky, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov. Tell them what you are looking for and they will whip it out from the towering stacks. Most are by Raduga and Progress Publishers.

I pick up a book by well-known Soviet agriculturist and plant breeder Ivan V. Michurin for ₹300, and a copy of Russian 19th Century Gothic Tales published by Raduga Publishers at ₹200. You are likely to come across aficionados of Russian literature here. One gentleman browsing through the heap says, “Soviet era books had a great history. I hope these books can survive the next decades so future generations too can enjoy these treasures.”

The author is a freelance journalist who focusses on issues affecting women, youth, environment and urban subcultures.

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Printable version | Sep 18, 2020 10:59:36 PM |

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