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    Volume 9 Issue 29| July 16, 2010|

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Cover Story

Inside the Labyrinth of Books

Tamanna Khan
Photos: Zahedul I Khan

Imagine walking in a half-lit labyrinth having walls stacked with textbooks, novels, biographies, and what not; the air filled with the typical smell of paper, floors streaked with dust and the peculiar mixture of a thousand voices and countless rickshaws' and vans' bells, hauling past you leaving you completely lost, given it is your first visit to Dhaka's own “College Street”- Bangla Bazaar.

Old Dhaka, a settlement that has grown over 400 years along the bank of the river Buriganga, is home to a curious mix of wholesale markets. For books it is Bangla Bazaar, the street stretching to about half a kilometre with a couple of narrow alleys on both sides. Right at the entrance is a modern building, Mullick Tower belonging to one of the oldest bookshops of Dhaka, Mullick Brothers.

Shahidul Hasan Mullick, the present owner tells the history of the shop. “Our shop was on 55 College Street, Kolkata, opposite Presidency College,” he says. “In 1946-47, my grandfather and uncle came and established the shop in East Bengal at the place where the Mullick Tower now stands.”

Islamia Library, however is the oldest bookstore, established as early as in the 1920s-30s in Islampur where all the bookshops were amidst hundreds of mainly, clothing stores. After the partition of the Indian sub-continent in 1947, trade grew in the newly formed East Pakistan and Islampur began to take the shape of the wholesale market for clothes; thus the bookshops moved to the Bangla Bazaar area. At the same time many publishers began to migrate from Kolkata, that served as the Bengali book-publishing nucleus in the British period for the whole of Bengal.

A typical book-market in Bangla Bazaar.

Eftakhaer Rasul George, proprietor of Nawroze Sahitya Samvar, one of the oldest publishing houses for literary books in Bangla Bazaar says, “In my childhood, there were few book shops here and mostly utensil shops that sold white-brass items. I have seen only 11-12 book shops, now there are thousands.” Retracing the history of the organisation, Rasul says his father, renowned children's littérateur, Mohammad Nasir Ali, had started “Nobojug Library” in Kolkata before Partition. Later, with inspiration from the revolutionary poet Kazi Nazrul Islam, he expanded the shop and named it “Nawroze Kitabisthan” in partnership with his friend Ainul Haque, relocating it in Bangla Bazaar after Partition. In 1984, the partnership was dissolved giving birth to two separate businesses, Nawroze Sahitya Samvar and Nawroze Kitabisthan. Khan Brothers, another old publishing house, established in 1966, is reputed for its legacy of upholding Bengali nationalism in the face of Pakistani oppression in the 1960s and 70s. K M Firoze Khan, proprietor of Khan Brothers, says, “To endorse the concept of Bengali nationalism, we started promoting young poets immediately before and after liberation.” At that time, Khan Brothers took the risk of printing poet Nirmalendu Goon's first poetry collection Premangsur Rakta Chai where there was a famous anti-Pakistani poem 'Hulia’. Other books published by this organisation that inspired the Bengali youth of the 70s include Bangla O Bangali and Swadesh Onwesha. Khan states that after liberation, the need for such literature has diminished; moreover, progressive writers like Akhteruzzaman Illiyas, Ahmed Sofa and Sawkat Osman have not come up from the new generation. The birth of Bangladesh, nonetheless has given rise to readers, who are more interested in reading books by Bangladeshi writers rather than books imported from Kolkata. As a result, Bangla Bazaar has been continually witnessing the rise of new publishing houses, so much so that the half a kilometre street now has five to six book markets cramped with four to five thousand shops. Muktadhara, the publishing house that initiated the Ekushey Book Fair deserves the credit for the development of this sector.

Jahar Lal Saha, Director of Muktadhara, relates how it all happened. His brother- in- law Chittaronjon Saha was in the guidebook publishing business in the Pakistani era. His interest towards publishing creative works started in 1971 when Pakistani atrocities had driven him and many other writers and intellectuals to Kolkata. There they met and started Muktadhara, publishing 32 books on the liberation war of Bangladesh. In 1972, Chittaronjon Saha started selling books on the Bangla Academy premises during the seven-day long Ekushey programme arranged by the institution. Later in 1974, it first put up a 8ft by 8ft stall under the banyan tree, thus leading the way to the conventional stall size. “In 1975, a few more publishers joined in,” Jahar says, “Ahmad Publishing House, Khan Brothers, Chalantika and Nawroze Kitabishtan were among them.” At that time, the fair was arranged jointly with Bangla Academy and Bangladesh Book Publishing and Selling Association, headed by Chittaronjon Saha, the former taking full responsibility in later years.

Saha thinks that although satellite and mobile phones occupy the youth of today to a large extent, this has not resulted in a decline in their interest in books. Rather, he says, that the number of readers of fiction and poetry has definitely increased over time. He believes that the print and electronic media now play a positive role in book promotion, which was absent in the 1970s and 80s.

“Even before the book fair starts, the electronic media is filled with news of books,” says Saha. He believes that media has made a huge contribution in creating readers of Bangla books. Back in the old days the readers remained oblivious to the arrival of new books. Now this problem has been solved but the book industry enjoys this promotion only during February, he adds. According to Mujibur Rahman Khoka, proprietor of Bidya Prakash, established in 1984, the media is responsible for making the publishing of literary works dependent solely on Ekushey Book Fair. He says the print and electronic

Mujibur Rahman Khoka, Executive Director of Bidya Prakash.
Eftakhaer Rasul George, Proprietor and Chief Executive of Nawroze Sahitya Samvar.

media take no interest in book publicity during the rest of the year. Allowing advertising at discounted rates can change the scenario. Saha provides an estimate of advertising costs in newspapers reflecting that it becomes very difficult for publishers to spend approximately Tk 5,000 for a single book only for a day. On the other, hand the Ekushey Fair provides an entire marketing package for a whole bundle of books. Although the highest number of literary books is sold at the Ekushey Fair in Dhaka, interestingly, book sales increase outside Dhaka after the fair. Monirul Haque, proprietor of Ananya, another well-known publishing house of recent times, says, “We want to publish books all through the year but readers only want to buy books in February, thus the writers also target this month.” He suggests that a fair like the Ekushey should be held in other districts of the country throughout the year and that will definitely create more readers.

For a market where lanes are so narrow and lines of shops so congested, Dhaka's inherent traffic jam is the biggest menace for the publishers and bookshop salespeople. One of the staff of Agami Prokashani says Bangla Bazaar was once in the heart of Dhaka but as the city expanded, the area has been shoved to a corner. It is a nightmare for people from Gulshan and Dhanmondi to come to this side of the city. Thus much of the activities related to publishing such as cover and graphic design have shifted to Arambag and Purana Paltan. Liakat Ullah of Student Ways informs: “The time it takes to bring papers from Nayabazar to this area is much more than if it is taken to Purana Paltan.” Although the location of Bangla Bazaar being near Sadarghat launch terminal and Fulbari bus station and also amidst some of the well-known and age-old educational institutions of Dhaka, was once very favourable for the book industry, now the uncontrollable traffic in the narrow roads of Old Dhaka makes movement almost impossible.

The fluctuating paper price has been identified as another major problem by Bidya Prakash's Mujibur Rahman Khoka. He says in the publishing industry huge investment needs to be made but the return comes slow. Under such circumstances, the uncertainty of paper price adds to the risk of doing business.

Despite its shabby and crowded look, the publishing business in Bangla Bazaar continues to thrive. As expressed by Shahidul Hasan Mullick of Mullick Brothers, this place with its low labour cost even has the potential of becoming a publishing EPZ. All it needs is a little attention from the government, making policies that are business friendly. Freedom fighter Eftakhaer Rasul George who has grown up with his father's legacy Nawroze, still believes that there is hope for the third generation of publishers as long as events like the Ekushey Fair, organisations like Brac with its 600 libraries all over the country and endeavours like Biswa Sahitya Kendra's “Enlightened Bangladesh” continue to make a market for books, breathing life into the narrow streets of Bangla Bazaar.

Shahidul Hasan Mullick, Partner, Mullick Brothers.

Fading Beauty Boarding

Beauty Boarding premises.

One thing that has changed drastically about Bangla Bazaar over the years is the writer-publisher rendezvous at the Beauty Boarding. This old motel-cum-restaurant situated at the end of the Bangla Bazaar street, on the verge of Paridas road, once was the hub for creative and progressive tête-à-tête. The sales person of Ahmad Publishing house who has been working in this area for a long time reported seeing even Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman coming to Beauty Boarding for its famous adda (chitchat). Currently the place is managed by Tarok Saha and Somor Saha, sons of Prohallad Saha who was killed in 1971 along with 17 other staff and boarders of the place. They inform that before liberation, this place was frequented by creative people from various fields - writers, artists, film directors, politicians, singers and composers. Nowadays a group of writers arranges a get-together once a year in memory of that time. Mohammad Liakat Ullah, owner of Student Ways, established in 1951, cites the menacing traffic of Old Dhaka as the sole reason for loss of that culture of Bangla Bazaar that had developed centring Beauty Boarding. “Poet Nazrul used to come to 14 Bangla Bazaar, then there was the office of Begum magazine and writer Nasir Ali used to sit at Nawroze,” he says, “as a result, this place had automatically become a hub for writers.” Munirul Haque of Ananya however, feels that there is no longer need for such a gathering, as writers do not need to come to the publishers for submitting their works or proof reading. With the advent of technology they can do those things from their home. Rather, he finds coming to Bangla Bazaar just for chitchat, a waste of time.

Textbooks: The Blame Game Continues

On the ground floor of 38 Bangla Bazaar market, only a few shops are open with hardly any customers. These shops belong to the textbook sellers, who have recently lost their business to the government's decision of distributing the textbooks for free. Pointing to the closed shutters at the further end, Shafiqul Islam Bacchu, chairman of the market, informs that one single decision of the government produces a ripple effect on the entire industry, since a book travels through 19 sectors before it reaches the ultimate consumer. Free textbooks mean that booksellers, distributors, binders, packagers as well as the publishers will lose a major business. Similarly, due to the frequent change in the curriculum, the books they had printed earlier have become obsolete. Bacchu informs that after the scandalous textbook crisis, the government has decided to call an international tender and this time publishing houses from India and China are going to publish the textbooks. He blames the corruption and bureaucracy of the National Curriculum and Textbook Board (NCTB) and the greed of some of the printers in Bangla Bazaar for this situation. Bacchu implores the government to legalise the publishing of note or guidebooks since they no longer have the business of the textbooks. “The government had banned notebooks saying it was detrimental to quality education. However, by banning note/guide books they have opened the option for coaching centres to develop,” says Bacchu. He asserts that publishers of the country could have solely depended on the novels, fiction and other creative writing, but the advent of the satellite culture has stolen away one of the major buyers of literature, “the housewives”. Owners of the nearby shops gather around Bacchu and express their grievances, requesting the government to include all the stakeholders before imposing its decision on any particular group.


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