Literature beyond books: confession of a Bangladeshi kid from the 1990s

Abdullah Al Muktadir | Published: 00:00, Jul 12,2020 | Updated: 01:00, Jul 12,2020


The world of knowledge is a socio-psycho-cultural hierarchy where books belong to a ‘higher’ source of knowledge, thoughts and wisdom whereas texts from all other sources are usually considered ‘lower’. Abdullah Al Muktadir talks about the politics of reality and utility

BEFORE stepping into my teens, I loved to read everything but books. Beyond their pages, there were letters and words everywhere, far more attractive and less mandatory. Every morning it would start with whatever had been written on the toothpaste tube(s). Then I used to lean forward to read something new. The sources would vary — sometimes a medicine bottle or a box of biscuits. But my most favourite was, like others, black and white posters and colourful signboards.

To be honest, I could easily, spontaneously derive almost everything from those texts which I now intend to achieve after reading a literary piece. Nowadays, for me the feeling while reading poems is equal to going through an epiphanic pleasure. I was able to experience the same amount of it while reading the names of unknown people and places on political posters in my childhood. Like a history book, the labels of everyday products like soap, coconut oil or talcum powder was quite capable of providing me with knowledge and information, back in the 1990s.

And I always dreamed of visiting cities, offices and famous people whenever I gazed at a film poster, a postcard or a torn page off a magazine. Most importantly, they used to make me think. As those texts, even images, could perform all functions that a piece of literature can do now, my question is why should not I (we) appreciate them as literature, as something not less significant than books?

Though, obviously, I can never deny the contribution of printed pages to our life, the problem I am actually indicating at is a socio-psycho-cultural hierarchy where books belong to a ‘higher’ source of knowledge, thoughts and wisdom whereas texts from all other sources are usually considered ‘lower’. And to be particular, my intention is to consider the curious relationship between the latter and children.

We, the grown-up people, now share a certain type of anxiety. We are extremely worried about today’s children’s reluctance to read printed books. Necessarily, there are health concerns. Addiction to different kinds of electronic screens might result into eye diseases. But what about other sources of texts even beyond electronic displays? Do we ever encourage the youngsters to carefully read what is written on the can of coke or the box of ice-cream? If yes, do we inspire them to remember those words and letters? No, never.

Children are directly or indirectly instructed to forget those ‘unimportant’ texts as if human brain had a very limited space. And we should not entertain the luxury of remembering what is written on the metal body of a vehicle. And even if, on rare occasions, we are encouraged to remember, we are supposed to forget the importance of remembering them.  

Still today, I can recollect some shades and shapes of the painted letters in front of the buses I saw on my way to school. They used to include names of unknown, untrodden places. I desired I would visit them as soon as possible. Like lands from fairy tales, they used to help me escape the burden of always living in real places. 

The world of literature is expanding every day. But in Bangladesh, unfortunately, children’s literature is passing through the least prolific phase. Subject matters, possibilities, areas and genres are decreasing in number. A good number of so-called ‘conscious’ parents, teachers and guardians are against reading fairy tales. They believe these young minds should more concentrate on necessary historical facts and logical information rather than diving into fantasy. I am afraid they would never like to endorse anything but ‘real’ books as children’s literature.

Here comes the politics of reality and utility! We are creating and maintaining, both consciously and subconsciously, a hierarchy of most important ‘real texts’ and least important ‘unreal texts’ while, paradoxically, ignoring the texts from actual real life. Whatever we read outside the prescribed list is strategically declared insignificant.

We are allowed to be nostalgic but taught that nostalgia is nothing necessary. We are occasionally inspired to look back to our past but trained to neglect the significant contribution of the real life words and images from early years of our life.

Thus the ‘politics of reality and utility’ gives birth to another political stance. The people of our country always endorse a culture of forgetfulness. We love to replace one accident with another, a shocking incident with another more shocking. Eventually we prefer forgetting each of them. As we have to go through a never-ending socio-economic struggle, the question is, can we really afford indulging in being a ‘romantic adult’ with unforgettable memories? My personal opinion suggests the answer should be — yes, we can; we need to.

Learning is not always about gathering knowledge. And the process of learning varies from person to person, child to child. When I was growing up in a village in the last decade of the twentieth century, like other boys and girls, I had access to a limited number of books and newspapers. It was not unusual that as a new learner who was just introduced to Bangla and English alphabets, I had a huge thirst for readable texts. The books we had at home were not enough.

I can easily recollect memories from 1996. It was a unique year with two parliament elections, one held in February and another in June. I could hardly differentiate between parties and leaders. I rather used to collect each and every poster I came across and read them with utmost attention as if I had been reading pages from the most interesting book of the world. I believe I should never forget this valuable, pleasant memory. To reject to forget this sort of reading experience is my personal protest against the now-very-popular ‘politics of reality and utility.’ I would also like to remind you of a song I listened for the first time in 1996, during the campaign of the second election of the year, I hope you will be able to relate.

‘Aamake ekti doyel bolechhe / ei bon chhere gele gaan bhule jaabo’

(A singing bird has just informed me | If I leave this forest, I will have to forget how to sing)

Abdullah Al Muktadir is an assistant professor at Jatiya Kabi Kazi Nazrul Islam University.

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