For a perennially homesick expat living 10,000 miles away in Atlanta, February is a special month. It's that particular time in the year when Bangla lovers renew their pledge to nurture their language and culture.
For me, Ekushey is only nominally an occasion for mourning the language martyrs of 1952. It is also a time of celebration. The entire week around Ekushey is given to a joyous celebration of Bangla language and culture.
I still have fond memories of my youth when the Shahid Minar compound would be bedecked in anticipation of the big day with festoons of Bangla quotes from literary luminaries of yesteryear. As Ekushey approached, Art College students would drape the streets leading to the Shahid Minar with exquisite hand-painted traditional designs—alpanas. From midnight, people would walk barefooted to lay wreaths in deeply affectionate remembrance of the martyrs who laid down their lives in honour of our language.
A week-long slew of cultural events—poetry recitals, open-air plays—all open to the public, marked the occasion. The piece de resistance, of course, was the Ekushey Boi Mela, the book fair for which bibliophiles, yours truly emphatically included, waited all year.
Several decades later, the enthusiasm remains. I was impressed when I visited the book fair last year. It is no longer the small, cosy book fair of my college-going days that comfortably fit inside the premises of Bangla Academy.
The book fair has assumed gargantuan proportions, occupying a substantial part of a large public park, and I walked through, giddy with joy, browsing through different titles. My old favourite UPL was still there, and I also loved dropping into the elegant kiosk of Prothoma, with its array of interesting titles, all handsomely produced. I was particularly taken by an exquisite stall by Batighar, the Chattogram-based publisher. It was a rather small kiosk with only a handful of titles but I was struck with the sheer artistic beauty of its books as well as the kiosk itself.
However, as I walked through the length and breadth of the fair and took a thorough look, my feelings were decidedly mixed. For all the profusion of book stalls, the number of original publications was remarkably minuscule.
The fact of the matter is that publishing in Bangladesh is facing a crisis. I learned from insiders that a first print run of a new book today could be as little as 300 books—sometimes as low as 200! What a far cry from decades ago when the print run of reputed authors easily ran into at least 1,000 (This is partly to do with technology—in the old days the capital costs of a print run made anything less than that a dicey financial gambit).
But still, a 200-book print run? What a shocking indictment for a nation that prides itself on its language and its culture! Something is horribly amiss here. Of course, the cost of books has spiked with the means of the middle class falling way behind.
I also wonder whether the elite penchant for sending their kids to English-medium schools has played a role. Both my sisters and I grew up as voracious readers of Bangla books; none of my nephews read Bangla books. During my longer trips to Dhaka over the years I tried hard to engage them—to no avail. Their Bangla skills were not good enough, and they lived in a socio-cultural bubble divorced from the Bangla mainstream.
The state of Bangla publishing is like the proverbial canary in the mine: It's a flashing danger sign that all is not well with the state of the language. Books, periodicals are the lifeblood of a language and its culture.
Don't get me wrong, I am not advocating against English education. However, for the life of me I cannot understand why a command of English should come at the expense of an intimate understanding of Bangla. Some of our great litterateurs were scholars of English—like Buddhadeva Bose and his student, our poet laureate Shamsur Rahman.
It's over 30 years since I have moved to the US, but I read—and write—Bangla with equal pleasure.
So, start with something simple. Read a Bangla book. And ask others, especially school-going kids, to do so. I'm serious.
Dr Muhammad Shahidullah, a father figure in the world of Bangladesh's Bangla scholars, issued a trenchant warning in an article included in my high school Bangla textbook. He was writing about folklore, but it applies to Bangla as well. I paraphrase his admonition here: “All our efforts at promotion and preservation will be in vain if we do not have a heartfelt interest and engagement. It will all be just humbug, a hoax.”
This year, I have no doubt that Ekushey will be marked, to borrow a cliché from old BTV newscasts, “due pomp and solemnity.” Yet if we are to truly honour the sacrifice of the language martyrs, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that the language that they died to defend not only survives but grows and thrives.
As the nation pays homage to language martyrs, we would do well to remember the old sage's cautionary words.
Ashfaque Swapan is a contributing editor for Siliconeer, a monthly periodical for South Asians in the United States.