THE book lay there for someone to pick up, on the stack of used books, old, scribbled, dog-eared, with spines loosening off, un-covered, moth-eaten and with drench marks drying off. There were several columns of used books varying in height on a large piece of polythene sheet, with a man standing a while away, chatting with a fellow, leaning against a push-cart, at Paltan, once a famous hangout for used book hunters, now losing its shine.
A few steps past the books, I turned back and picked up the one that caught my eyes, a cover that I have been familiar with since I was in junior classes in school — Galpa Yakhan Bhasha Niye, or stories of languages, or even ‘Stories on language’ as it is printed on the copyright page of the imprint that I have, written by Atwar Rahman and published by Muktadhara, the household name of the formal Swadhin Bangla Sahitya Parishad, which Chittaranjan Saha founded and, perhaps, failed too.
Muktadhara that time used to print a translation of a sort of book titles on the copyright pages. It almost became customary although it is gradually falling out of custom and I do not know why. I have a few books having the Dewey classification numbers printed on the copyright page. This is usually the case in almost all books published in the west, not the Dewey numbers but the relevant ones. It gives librarians, even small home librarians having to manage a few hundred books, an advantage of stacking the books on the shelf in an order, if intended, and saves them the hassle of having a degree in library science.
The cover, designed by Hashem Khan, with the title and writer’s name in black and white on a red background, with letters of different languages in a pale shade of red, is exactly the same as the one I still have since my school days. The difference is that this one, the first print, is hard-bound, which the book describes as ‘board binding’ for Tk 8, and printed on a good paper stock and mine, the second print, is paperback, which the book describes as ‘cheap edition’ for Tk 11 (the board-binding, good-paper stock print then sold for Tk 18) and printed on newsprint stock. The second imprint that I have is of October 1980 and this one is the first imprint, which came out only hard-bound, of April 1976.
It was a marketing technique to publish the book, first, on better paper stock with good binding and then have a cheaper imprint on low-quality paper stock without the hard cover. The practice of letting readers buy the quality of books according to their means is hardly noticed now. The publisher would make some money from the first print, in hard cover, on better paper stock and then publish a cheaper edition a few years after for people not able to shelve out much of the money.
I bought the ‘cheap edition’ at a shop called Dinajpur Book Mart on Munshipara Road, in the district town, which was known for book shops lining along, almost, both sides of the road that time. Many of the shops have now disappeared; some were taken over by trades that return more money. But the number of book shops along the road were five to six times the number is now.
In the 1980s, people hardly had money to spend inconsiderately. Book reading being a non-essential aspect of ordinary life, such a large number of book shops along one road that time easily speak volumes of the reading habit of the time. Now many of the book shops have gone when people, at least many of them, do have some money to spend on books. It indicates a fast declining reading habit in society and reading not being an option in life.
The book, Galpa Yakhan Bhasha Niye, offered, at least for me, a tour of the lanes and bylanes of linguistic development of the world. The book is so well written, especially for the young boy that I was in the early 1980s, that it encouraged me, during my later years, to study linguistics in details.
The book kept me engrossed for months, trying to figure out how languages developed and how they are different from one another and how they are related. I read it almost like a textbook then. When I was in university, I knew that some bits of information that the book gave were either not the way they were given or generalised to the point of looking so. Yet it offered me an insight into the wonderful world of languages.
The writer, not being a linguist or a student linguistics as he claims in the preface, in 17 chapters spanning 140 pages could write well enough on what defines languages, why people prize languages the most, how languages evolved, how languages live and die, how they are written down, how languages are related to countries and nations and languages of Bangladesh for children to explore the complex world of language.
After I grew up enough, I could know that Bangla is not the only language spoken in Bangladesh. There was English all along. And growing up in Dinajpur, I knew that there was Urdu too. Now I know that there are about 40 languages that have been in use in Bangladesh. Yet, when I open the book at page 128, I know that I then knew that there were at least 18 languages that were named by the writer being in use in Bangladesh. I wrote down the names of the languages at the beginning of the chapter, probably because either it would help me to remember the names easily or that time I learnt to write notes in book margin as I learnt the word ‘marginalia’ then.
Knowing that there are more than one, two or three languages in use may not help much, but it creates inquisitiveness of a kind and instils in mind respect for other languages, which has been largely at play behind the shaping of thoughts about languages of a child. While reading a chapter of the book on ways to fight language barriers, I first came to know of constructed languages, especially Esperanto, which I have tried at several times but failed to make any progress worthy of name. But the idea pushed me into devising two scripts, one using Chinese characters to write English and the other, a constructed script, to write Bangla. I could use both the scripts to keep my thoughts secret until I forgot to use them in later years.
Akash Yara Karla Jay, or those who conquered the sky, a translation of Quentin Reynolds’s landmark book The Wright Brothers, by Mohammad Nasir Ali, on the account of the boyhood and early manhood of the pioneers in American aviation Wilbur and Orville Wright, was another work that Mukadhara brought out around that time. It was another Muktadhara title that engrossed my mind for months when I was young. There are many others of Muktadhara titles, especially for the children, that defined how we should understand the world. And they did.
But sadly, Muktadhara, which brought out so many books for children, has now lost its glory, almost. Or, to put it in other words, a generation that time grew up engrossed in books published by Muktadhara, where the founder Chittaranjan Saha, who started holding book fair on the occasion of Ekushey February, put his profits here that he had made from his other enterprise, Puthighar Limited, which used to publish notebooks or solutions in the form of summaries of textbooks designed to save teachers and students the hassle of toiling. He spent the money that he earned from Puthighar Limited on educating the nation by bringing out books that could shape people’s mind, young and old. Muktadhara, in view of this, was a noble and bold initiative but in the years before his death in December 2007, it was said that Muktadhara had thousands of book dumped unsold in its stores. With him failing to keep his health, the initiative fell through. The vision vanished in the death of the visionary.
World Book Day, which is today and every April 23 since 1995 by way of a UNESCO endorsement and meant for celebrations of reading, readers and writers, should be no less important a moment to acknowledge what the books and Muktadhara had on offer for us. Yet what beats logic is that so many days pass through every year, heaped in marketing hullabaloo and development hypes, but World Book Day has never got off the ground in the real sense.
Almost everyone, mostly, buys new clothes and other trinkets on occasions of religious and national festivals — Eid, Puja, Christmas or Pahela Baishakh. Families hardly buy books on World Book Day. Schools celebrate many of these occasions, but World Book Day mostly remains out of the academic calendar. Reading, or buying books, is not only meant for World Book Day; it is for all the year round. Yet buying books, even if a single one and even if a small one, with all doing it together on a single occasion, could make a big change, in reading habit, for the better.
Abu Jar M Akkas is deputy editor at New Age.