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Mahfuz Sadique on the Ekushey Boi Mela

I can’t help but hearing this complaint regularly: we are a nation that is becoming devoid of joy. What does that mean? No, seriously. Not even a week passes that we find ourselves rejoicing en masse on the streets, in our homes, and even in offices over some national issue. Be it Bangladesh’s win over Sri Lanka, or the first rain of Baishakh. Last Tuesday, another such celebration swept through Bangladesh. The faces of men, women, children in the Prabhat Feri, or moving to the Shaheed Minar, held a gaze that stretched far beyond Ekushey. They are rejoicing the Bengali way of life. We might not have all our ‘Baro Mashe, Tero Parbans’ (‘thirteen festivals for twelve months’), but we are a nation reinventing itself every day. And in the process, we are not just finding new joys, but rediscovering old ones.
The Boi Mela was quite subdued last week, except just Tuesday. While publishers kept up a constant stream of titles, the eagerness with which readers, or even just observers, came to the Mela saw a dip. It’s typical. The hype is over. Now, the final few days will find the ‘real’ readers rummaging, literally, through the stalls.
I bumped into one the other day. An early starter, the middle-aged man with greying hair (the absence of a thick glass disappointed me though) had a hand-written list in his hand. With the ease, and confidence, of an inner-city bus conductor, he was oblivious to the throngs whizzing past him. He stood at a corner of he stall. An attendant listened to him intently as he recited the name of books — a dozen of them — that he wanted from that particular publisher. He knew exactly the year of publication, the author, and at one point was even guiding the shop assistant by describing the cover of certain rare titles. How I felt: envy!
And while on the subject of serious readers, a disturbing observation has come to notice. As publishers, writers and even readers all seem to stack their entire year’s book-enquiries for just the Mela, the Ekushey Boi Mela sees nearly seventeen-hundred
titles published. Some estimates
put it at nearly half, if not more, of the total output of our publishing
industry.
While this might be all rosy for the Mela, the trend is not good. Books are riddled with typos, pages go missing. And the most alarming is this: in the rush to catch the Mela, even major writers, and poets (very disturbing!), fill pages with what can barely be called ‘creative endeavours’. Though almost blasphemous to say during the Mela season, but maybe publishers should put a break on the number of titles published just to catch up with the Mela. I am pained at the thought that our readers are given books filled with pages which were merely ‘produced’.
Scruffy beard, tangled-up long braids hanging over an equally greasy fatua, or punjabi, and, invariably partaking in high-pitched conversations filled with word-pairings such as ‘class-consciousness’, ‘petty-bourgeois’, ‘parallel movement’.
Welcome to the Bohera Tola, or also known as the ‘Little Mag Corner’. The names of the stalls, usually bearing an identical title of the Little Magazine that its organisers bring out, are also as refreshing as they are ‘alternative’: Shaluk, Mangal Saanyha, Lok, Shukkurbarer Adda, Trishan, Kabitar Dokan, Gandib, Shuddha Swar. Centring on the Bohera tree adjoining the Burdwan House, this corner is the frontier between commercial publishing and the ‘never say die’ alternative groups of mostly young literary activists. Their subject and medium choices though have waned in their variety. Most are obsessed with the critique and discussion on either ‘imperialism’ or ‘cultural identity’, and their only medium of choice seems to be essays.
But Little Magazines were much more vibrant even a decade or two ago. Short stories, poems, interviews that no major publishers or newspapers dared to carry, these vanguards would boldly publish them. Some attribute this decline to the ‘hungry tide’ of commercial publications and the almost unbearable pressures of conforming to their ways. But despite all their constraints and declines, Little Magazines are a genre that is needed. Even more so today, as every other voice in mainstream media, literature seems to sound ‘pre-packaged’. Maybe they are not supposed to thrive, for in their constant struggle, in their dilemma of remaining ‘little’, they bring out the best of whatever originality we have to offer.
Joy: I started with it, and I shall end with it. You have probably heard this criticism many a times, and even indulged in it yourself (I know I have): the mass-hysteria, the crushing crowds to get the autograph of a favourite author. But as I tried to cross one such clog in between stalls at the Mela last Tuesday, the joy and excitement of the restless at finding the creators of the ‘magical worlds’ they read about, just a few yards from hand is an exhilaration no less than a little boy suddenly receiving a big red balloon.
Two teenage girls were screaming, jumping, and almost out of their minds, as they came out of the hue and cry of the crowd. They each
had an autograph of Humayun Ahmed. How do you define this joy? What conjures up such feelings of exaltation?
Visit the Mela this week, the last one. Brave the crowds, and those autograph-hunters. You will not regret it. As I was saying, we are a nation reinventing itself. To know its dynamics, to feel its pulse, its frustrations and joys, a visit to the Ekuhey Boi Mela is a must. It holds the strides of a nation that is slowly gaining the confidence to speak up, to say what it feels. It is a nation that is celebrating both the future, and the spirit it imbues within itself.

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