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Tale of a Ritual

February 29, 2012

Dhaka University student Barkat felt it was just not right that Urdu would be the only official language of Pakistan when Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Governor General of Pakistan, made the decision in 1948. Abdul Jabbar worried about his cancer patient mother-in-law and came to Dhaka for her treatment also felt that it was unjust. College student Rafiq Uddin Ahmed at that time helping his father running family printing press also felt that this was a humiliation to his mother tongue.

The Holy Month
There was resentment among Bengalis against Muslim League govt.’s decision. But Bengali cries fell on deaf years of Muslim League leaders, who created Pakistan on the basis of a safe Muslim space in South Asia. Now we can see how safe it is for Muslims! As rulers, they were incapable of reading peoples mind and were unaware of the repercussions of such decision.

Barkat, Salam, Rafiq and Jabbar, motivated by the sheer need to do something, went to street on February 21, 1952 and protested against the decision violating section 144. The Muslim League govt. chose the power of might in dealing with the language movement. Police fired at the protest and killed Barkat , Salam, Rafiq and Jabbar. On February 21, they became the first language martyrs of human history. Like August March and December, February carved a permanent place in the lives of Bengalis. February 21 inspired Bengalis to dream for an independent land for Bengali speakers—Bangladesh. Perhaps the very success of language movement makes the month holier than any other month.

Now February 21 is observed across the world as international mother language day. It is no more a mere Bengali event.

The Ritual
As part of commemorating February 21, a one-month-long book fair, known as Ekushey (means 21st) Book Fair takes place every year at Bangla Academy. The book fair is basically the publication and selling of books, mostly Bangla, published in Bangladesh. The publication industry longs for this month as it provides the vital revenue for the industry. It would not be wrong to say that the publication Industry is based on February. We have very few celebrity writers who are actually paid by publishers. In fact, new writers pay publishers for publishing their works.

In February, going to book fair and buying some books have become a ritual. People go to fair and buy books for themselves and for their dear ones. Rest of the year the industry remains dormant. So the industry is still in its nascent stage. When I was a kid, the newsstands were full of paperbacks and hard covers. Nowadays, I can barely find any book at the newsstands. Even the neighborhood stores stop displaying commercially successful books! One can barely notice any publicity of books on newspaper during the rest of the year.

Very few print media publish review on books. Electronic media have no time and intention to broadcast show on book reviews. Thousands of books are published in February and the staggering figure of the sold books does not indicate that there is a quantum leap forward in the increase in reader’s number. Rather it reveals the ritual!

Ekushey Book Fair has some interesting aspects. The fair is mainly Dhaka based and it meets the need of urban readers. Foreign publishers are not allowed to take part in this fair. Books of few celebrity writers account for two-third of the total sales. A large part of the published books are children books, translated works of world classics, and anthologies of works of the passed away celebrity Bengali writers. Most of the books are in hard covers. No paperbacks or low-price edition for popular non-fiction and fiction books, yet a great number of buyers are comprised of students and lower income groups! Non-fiction books and novels based on historical events do not have index, notes and bibliography! All the celebrity writers have US connection, either studied there or they, or their dear ones, work with US organizations!

Since February 21 became international mother Language Day, Ekushey Book Fair should not be limited to local publishers. I know Dhaka Book Fair is organized for publishers from all over the world, but it is not as much publicized and popular as the Ekushey Book Fair. Participation of international publisher’s like Penguin, Oxford, Harper & Collins, IB Taurus, Anandabazar , Rupa, and Dey’s will take the Ekushey Book Fair into a new stature and will positively brand Bangladesh.

The Unaccounted and the Unwanted
Just few yards from the main entrance of Bangla Academy, street vendors are selling pirated books of Indian Bengali writers on the footpath. We do not know the actual figure of the sold books in this illegal market. The problem is the writers are not rewarded for their works in this market. Indian Bengali writers make an easy entry to the list of favorite books of Bangladeshi readers as they write brilliant novels on wide range of topics. In fact, some of the popular Bengali dailies are named after the popular novels of Indian writers. Some Bangladeshi publishers legally publish the work of Indian writers, yet the number is small compared to the sheer demand of their books.

The Ideal Fair
The supreme sacrifice made by the language martyrs would be aptly honored if Ekushey Book Fair got the international exposure. I hope everyone will soon understand Februrary 21 is no longer a Bengali event and Ekushey book fair should be a meeting point for writers and publishers from all over the world.

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From → Analysis, My Thoughts

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