Book fair: a memorable affair

For Bengalis, the site of the Ekushey book fair lends itself to real nostalgia. Photo: Prabir Das


For Bengalis, the site of the Ekushey book fair lends itself to real nostalgia. Photo: Prabir Das

“The book (The book)” was an ambitious project by the 19th century French poet Stéphane Mallarmé. He thought of an extremely flexible structure for his “ideal book” which would both contain and reveal “all the relationships existing between everything”. the other books and experiences. Therefore, his project included the details of printing and production, presented as a spectacle. I think the same can be said of a book fair – particularly of Amar Ekushey Boi Mela.

A book fair is a happy meeting place for writers, readers, and book lovers, where they all come together to celebrate the words written and published. It offers a wonderful opportunity to discover new writers while recognizing old ones. The new experimental writers sting boldly like wild orchids the foliage of the tree trunk of the writers who define the orchard of the classics. But what distinguishes the Ekushey book fair from other international or regional book fairs are its sentimental attachments, its cultural heritage.

For Bengalis, the site of the book fair lends itself to real nostalgia. Visiting the fairground after laying wreaths at the Central Shaheed Minar on the morning of Ekushey (February 21) is a ritual I grew up with in Dhaka. The feeling of being with a host of shared interests was emotionally fulfilling and intellectually satisfying. As visitors, we were keen to listen to intellectuals share their thoughts at Nazrul Handle under the famous banyan tree. During the anti-Ershad movement, there were many street performances and distribution of free reading books and pamphlets which spiced up our jhalmuri or fuchka. The fair was a ground in which you wished or tried to avoid meeting familiar faces, according to your companions. Displaying the books I bought after a huge survey of available discounts was a source of guilty pleasure, despite the scolding that awaited me from my mother, who would worry about accommodating the new purchase.

From 1972, over the past 50 years, the fair has become a habitus of our cultural landmark. It had a humble start with the owner of Muktodhara publishing house, Chittaranjan Saha, taking the initiative. The Bangla Academy officially started hosting the fair from 1978, and in 1984 it was named after the martyrs of the language movement. The inauguration of the fair by the Prime Minister and the awarding of the Bangla Academy Prize for Literature added extra weight to this event.

In retrospect, it’s hard to believe that new variants of the coronavirus nearly chilled this year’s celebration. Last year, publishers suffered financial losses due to restricted mobility at the height of the pandemic. Putting all doubts aside, the fair once again became a successful affair. If Facebook is any indicator, there are plenty of new writers getting their first posts this year. It would be interesting to have academic research to find out how these pandemic-related closures have contributed to creativity and the creation of new writers. Along the same lines, one can also explore how social media’s “what’s on your mind” mode has created a writing space with a “friendly” audience. Normally, publishers or book/literary publishers are the gatekeepers of any culture – they decide who is in it and who isn’t. But on a digital platform, anyone can gauge the interest of their target audience in their writings. I’m not surprised that many of my Facebook friends have compiled their daily compositions to compose their creativity. Approvals from their “friends” encouraged them to publish. The hypertext becomes text, and ends up being supported at the carnival. These are the wild orchids that don’t need to be rooted in the soil of old publishing houses; they can find sustenance in the air shared by their virtual readers.

The nature of the festival is therefore changing. It’s much more democratic and participatory. For a long time it was dominated by bourgeois civil society in general. To be specific, by the cultural middle class who buy books to read and keep at home. This group was made up of writers, readers and editors. The dynamic changes. We have already seen that the holding of the international literary festival in the premises of the Bangla Academy has introduced a different economic class into the fairground. The nature of show management has changed due to the process of osmosis that has taken place between national and international events.

One of the aims of the fair should be to encourage and improve children’s visits to the event. Visiting the book fair gives children the opportunity to develop their reading preferences. This year, the fair will end on National Child Day, the birthday of the father of the nation. Can’t we dedicate a day only to children or to those accompanying children during the book fair? Different schools may be invited to organize field trips that day.

At a book fair, we’re spared the task of rummaging through every bookstore in town or combing through countless online catalogs to find the book we don’t know we need or want. However, with the growing popularity of e-books and online portals, there may be a day when physical book fairs lose their current appeal. We could lose the chance to go to a fair to find all the bookstores in one place, and the people behind them.

The fear of losing contact with the physical showman is not without mistrust. Publishers await the Ekushey book fair throughout the year. They hope their investments will pay off during the month-long event. The survival of publishers and authors largely depends on this fair. To minimize investment risks, the fair should be spread throughout the country; it should not be centered on Dhaka. Coordination at the national level is necessary to integrate the fair into our annual calendar. More importantly, steps are needed to strike the right balance between the virtual and the physical.

Doctor Shamsad Mortuza is the Pro-Vice-Chancellor of University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB).

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