February 1972 was a momentous spring; in more ways than one. If not for anything else, for the first time in living history, spring smelled of freedom. When Chittoranjan Shaha laid his solitary course at the vicinity of Bangla Academy in February 1972, it was history in the making. Thirty eight years and still on, Amor Ekushey Grontho Mela has now evolved as the melting pot of print, paper and thought; it has culminated as the torch bearer of our identity, it has become the reflection of national creed.
“February seems incomplete without a visit to the Boi Mela. I don't consider myself a bookworm but the atmosphere is exhilarating and inviting. Walking around the Academy precinct, I spend quality time with friends and sometimes in solitude”, says Tamanna, as we caught her browsing through new books of Shumonto Aslam in front of a kiosk.
“I have childish notions about books. I simply love the smell of pages, bound in a volume, fresh out of the stand. I often buy titles that attract me but more often that not, I simply gaze through the cover, read a few pages and leave it back on the table. Boi Mela offers me the freedom to buy what I like, and most importantly, provides the opportunity to go through titles on myriad subjects- poetry, philosophy, history, art and culture.”
As we were talking, a young lady with a palette in her hand offered to paint Tamanna's face. Tamanna stood in front of the artist while she brushed red and white alphabets on her cheek. We encountered more painters like Dilruba Zaman dotted across the Academy premises. They spoke of the celebratory aspect of Boi Mela, which in recent years have predominated the image of the fair.
“Although I have read mixed reactions regarding the designated hours especially for children on selected days, to me it seems like a good move.
My affinity for Boi Mela, or liking for books developed at an early age when my father used to bring me to the Academy. Those February afternoons were chilly but it felt like summer inside the fair. The crowd used to be big. And if I remember correctly- rowdy! But that phase is over. Boi Mela is now a fair sans the roving eyes and eve teasing.”
It has been a common complaint against publishers that adequate attention is not given to new blood. But the pouring titles that are added to the fair every day state otherwise. “This is after all a publisher's fair. Every year new additions to the fair have enriched its image. But one aspect that I have not seen improve in the last one decade, despite the extensive coverage in the media, is proper review of the books that hit the stalls. Through lack of reviews, we are indeed judging books by their covers and often by writer's fame. This is often a hard blow for the aspirant breed of writers.”
Pointing to her most recent buy- a translation by Professor Fakrul Alam of poems by Jibananondo Das- Tamanna said “This book was recommended to me by a colleague. She was very impressed by the work and fully aware of my fascination for Das, she suggested that I buy it.”
Surveying a great portion of the fair, we came near the Nazrul Moncho where a book cover was being inaugurated. A small crowd had gathered around, anxious to see the occasion. A small speech was made before the cover was unravelled.
A few paces from the Nazrul Moncho, a seminar was being conducted. A regular feature of the Grontho Mela, the discussions on topics of art, literature, culture and contemporary subjects, attracts a sizeable audience. It is one of the most significant aspects of the fair.
“Last year there had been a heated discussion as to whether non-publishers should be allowed to participate in the fair. With stalls by paper manufacturers and commercial banks the debate still continues. But I believe having an ATM booth at the stall is not too bad an idea. But having a bank just to have their leaflets distributed hampers the spirit of the fair.”
As we moved out of the Academy precinct, we browsed through the selection of books offered at kiosks lining either sides of the road leading to Bangla Academy. “There has been a lot of discussion whether Boi Mela should go global. I am not too sure if it should. Although I would simply love to see publishers like Random House, Oxford University Press or Bantam Books come to the fair, I would also like to see Boi Mela retain the warmth and emotion. Ekushey is dear to us, and Amor Ekushey Grontho Mela has a place in our hearts. Nothing should be done to spoil the flavour of the fair.”
Almost nine, the fair drew an end to a day's activity. About half way through, the Boi Mela still has a lot in store for book lovers like Tamanna, despite her antipathy in being called such. The journey of Boi Mela, which began in 1972 has been paved with success. It has, and from what it seems, will remain as the most significant, recurring event in our lives as Bangladeshis.
By Mannan Mashhur Zarif
Photo: Sazzad Ibne Sayed