A day of books

The New Delhi World Book Fair is an annual event held at the Pragati Maidan –  a location that always brings back many and varied memories of earlier times.  Well before it became the  official exhibition  complex, in the late 50s and early 60s, a kind of bi-annual Industries Fair was held at this site. This was before the Supreme Court was built and only the National Stadium and Purana Qila existed around the area. This was also at a time when Nehruvian “temples of modern India’ were just getting constructed and the little overgrown village that Delhi was got excited by any event. Everyone flocked to these events, and as a schoolgirl, I remember trudging through the stalls, seeing replicas of dams and factories and other similar exhibits.

The formal Maidan complex was opened in 1972, I now learn!! During my 5 and half years stay at MAMC hostel at Delhi Gate, between 66 and 72,  the construction of the present complex must have been on going on. Between 1973 (when I left Delhi) and 1982, the trips from Chandigarh were made mostly by road – but I distinctly remember that on every  vacation trip Southbound, the Raj Rewal “Hall of Nations” structure was always the indication that the Yamuna had been crossed and that N Delhi Station was approaching!!

My first distinct memory of a visit to the site, was not to the complex itself, but to Apu Ghar which was located at the Tilak Bridge end of the complex. This was on a rare family visit to Delhi from Mumbai. Apu Ghar was the first of its kind for the country, a fun park that attracted huge number of visitors. And it was  must for any young visitor, which Mukta was then, to the capital. And during the 80s and early 90s, I must have visited the  Indian International Trade Fair on a couple of occasions. An annual winter event, it was a ‘must do’ outing for all Delhiites.

In the 90s, Mukta also spent a few years at the  SPA hostel at ITO and must have visited the Pragati Maidan at least to see the movies at Shakuntalam. I probably made it there too with her on one of my visits. But my most vivid memories of Pragati Maidan was the International Congress of Immunology held there in November 1998. Dr GPT, the doyen of Indian Immunology (which is my specialty) had excellent public relations within the global Immunology community. He was keen to host the International Congress which takes place every 3 years. India did not much of an International presence for its scientific contributions to the specialty.  But GPT was able to prevail upon the various levels of decision making in the Organization, but to finally get the Congress to India, a visiting team had to be convinced about the facilities on offer. An appropriate convention center to host 4-5 thousand delegates, with a large central hall for 2-3 thousand and 12-14 parallel smaller halls for parallel scientific sessions was what was needed. No where in India, did we have any thing close to that in the mid-90s, and unfortunately we still do not have any such facility!! The largest facility in Delhi, the Vigyan Bhavan was no where near close!

Finally, a suggestion came up that the multiple halls at Pragati Maidan could be converted into a temporary convention center. I remember vividly, the many trips to attend the organizing committee meetings at Delhi, and the visit with the international team to the prospective venue. Only the charm and persuasive powers of GPT achieved the almost impossible – because, Pragati Maidan stripped off an event is a deserted, conglomeration of assorted buildings. Of course, all the temporary halls were appropriately equipped for the conference in late 98 – but it was probably the only time that the International Congress was held in a converted exhibition facility!

Although not much has changed in Pragati Maidan, the buildings look just the same and  the gardens are shabbily unkempt, it has acquired an internal shuttle service and is on the metro route! It is now home to a series of events through the year, Car,  Home decor and other shows. But for me the highlight is the Annual Book Fair, which is usually held in the second week of February each year. Even in the Lucknow days, I used to stay over an extra day if I happened to be in Delhi around that time to take in an afternoon of books. And since moving to the NCR, I have made it most years, with Udai for company last and this year. Even though the eBooks have advantage of cost and convenience, just the smell and feel of the books is an irreplaceable attraction. And most of all, it is reassuring to be among so many book lovers, and see that the obituary to the printed book is still some ways off!

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