After working 10 years as some kind of journalist or editor, I’ve spent the last six months trying to unhook the information IV from my brain. (Hello, my name is Neela and I used to mainline the interwebs.) In my last year as an editor with a non-profit media organization, I would daydream through editorial meetings of writing a book proposal about spending a year without imbibing any kind of modern media. It was textbook burnout. The general malaise about the death of the newspaper didn’t help either. Knowing how many good reporters my local newspaper had recently laid off, I very rarely picked it up, except maybe to absent-mindedly peruse a forgotten paper left on a train seat. Skimming through websites and following Twitter links killed time, but it didn’t seem to inspire me. I had no sense of ritual to go along with reading the news except a faint carpel-tunnel-esque twitch in my right wrist from all that web surfing.

My trips to Kolkata over the last decade have always been different. Here newspaper media is fiercely alive and competitive, with several papers (in several languages) to choose from in each city. Much of the commentary I have done from India over the past years came directly from the inspiration I got from not only reading the newspaper, but observing the way the news had an affect on the community. I also love the way it distills this disparate and complex country. For example, yesterday’s Telegraph includes a story about a new salon at the Constitution Club in New Delhi where all the nation’s MPs and their families are getting a fancy new facial treatments, a story about a possible tiger poisoning in Orang National Park and one about striking tea workers in Alipurduar—and then a few obligatory grip and grin shots of Bollywood starlets at some event or another. It’s both the array of stories and the array of people you see reading the newspaper—from a scarf-wrapped gentlemen in a lungi at the tea stall to my wizened old aunties to a young woman at Café Coffee Day – the daily community building of news media is still happening in a analog way here.

When my grandmother was still alive, she’d have sent someone for a newspaper early in the morning and I’d read it while sipping tea and eating the luxurious breakfast she prepared. Now, on my way to the market or after the gym, I’ll walk the three blocks down to Rash Behari where there are several newspaper and magazine stands. There is a beautifully elegant woman, with short stylish graying hair, who sits at the newspaper stand, wrapped in a red shawl. She chats up the other regular customers, all men, who seem to be drawn to her, as I am. I linger by the stand sometimes to try and hear what they are talking about, whether they are discussing personal issues or news, but I can never quite catch the drift. (My Bangla eavesdropping skills need some serious work.) I’ll buy a Telegraph or a Statesman, or both, or an Open—a Newsweek meets Salon.com magazine that I’ve been enjoying. One of my uncles told me to take delivery, but I wouldn’t give up this small walk and interaction for the world.

One interesting thing I’ve noticed about Indian papers, or at least the ones in Kolkata, is that there is a story about a writer, or about writing or publishing, or literature every day. Writers have a different kind of celebrity here than they seem to in America. There seems to be a similar kind of fascination with writers that there are with movie or television celebrities in America. Not entirely, but enough to get them in the paper on a regular basis. Also, because writers in India seem inherently more political, the sense of their role as rabble-rousers is also present.

For example, back in December, there was a Telegraph article about a jungle bungalow that Arundhati Roy owns, which may or may not encroach on tribal land. Under dispute, the case will be judged by a Manoj Srivastava—known for his “nationalist” (read conservative) tendencies. The tone of the article, written by Rasheed Kidwai, was tongue in cheek—sending up both Roy and Srivastava and celebrating this clash between India’s literary left and bureaucratic right. The surprising thing for me was the large amount of space this took up on the Telegraph’s National section (page 5) – in the prominent above-the-fold placement with several photographs – including a stunning one of Ms Roy, one of the disputed jungle bungalow and one showing Srivastava looking, well, exactly how you think a stodgy Indian bureaucrat should look. About a week later there was an article almost in the same space about a Gujarati poet named Aqeel Shatir who was asked by the Gujarat Urdu Sahitya Academy to return the money they had spent to publish his collection, Zinda Hon Main or “I’m Still Alive”— some two years after it was published. This happened after the publishers discovered an offensive remark about Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi in Shatir’s book. The sentence was not written by the poet, but in the introduction by another poet named Raunaq Afroz, commenting on Modi’s controversial involvement in communal riots and about the poor state of Urdu in Gujarat. Yet Shatir insists that the Academy is coming down on him because he filed a Right to Information act to look carefully at the way the organization is using their funds. Again, a fascinating story, but not one I’m sure would find it’s way to mainstream media in America.

The Telegraph has also run a series of articles about the upcoming Kolkata Book Fair, or Boi Mela, which will be held in late January. This festival, in its 33rd year, is one of the biggest book fairs in all of India and runs 12 whole days. The articles have been aimed at exposing the controversy surrounding the fact that the Book Fair, or to be more specific the Publishers and Booksellers Guild — the non-profit org that runs the Book Fair — has received serious discounts and incentives on space rental, etc., even though the Book Fair is a trade convention that makes all the members of the Guild money. Writer Kinsuk Basu’s “objective reporting” seems to come down hard on the Guild, as you can see by the lede: “Book-lover Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s favorite annual event is reeling from the shock of a Rs 3.14 crore rent estimate for the next edition after being spoilt silly by sops that have swelled it’s coffers and eroded the state exchequer.” [Emphasis mine.] Actually, Bhattacharjee, West Bengal’s Chief Minister, is quite a literary patron, as well as a poet in his own right and cousin-brother to revolutionary poet Sukanta Bhattacharya. Again, it is fascinating to be in a place where the inner workings of a literature festival make their way to the front of the metro section.

There have also been a series of articles both covering events that have to do with Tagore’s 150th birthday. Sunday’s Metro paper led with a feature story covering a two-day conference in Kolkata about Tagore, and today’s paper talked about plans for a joint conference on Tagore to be held next Spring organized by both India and Bangladesh. Other recent literary stories include one in yesterday’s Telegraph about making George Orwell’s birthplace – which apparently is a run-down house in Bihar, some 160 km north of Patna – a protected site. I had no idea he was born in India!

Anyway, this is just the beginning of my investigation of Indian writing/reading. I am conducting a slow survey of Kolkata’s bookstores to learn more about what Indians are writing about, but am equally as fascinated by what books they are reading. I’ve also been wandering around the alleys of Kolkata’s College Street area, which are rife with publishing houses and–as my friend Aritra says–smell of ink, or kali. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to spend all of 2011 writing about my literary journeys, tourism, investigations and event coverage weekly or more on this blog. In January alone, I will be writing about the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival, the Jaipur Literature Festival and the Kolkata Boi Mela!

Tomorrow there’s an event to launch Indivisible in India sponsored by Aryanil Mukherjee’s indie poetry magazine Kaurab. It will be held at the Bangla Academy — a renowned place for Bangla literature. I will be reading some of my work, as will my friend and Indivisible contributor Minal Hajratwala — currently on her own Fulbright year in Mumbai. In honor of the reading, held in a hall named after this popular Bengali poet, I’ve been working on a translation of the first section of Minal’s amazing poem “Angerfish”. I’m terribly nervous about reciting this translation in proper Bangla, as I am about how my own work will hold up in such a storied venue. The flip side of living in a city where so many people are thinking about and valuing literature, is that it is held to an incredibly high standard. Wish me luck.