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Mahfuz Sadique on the Ekushey Boi Mela…
Bashanti (saffron is closest in colour, although far from romanticism of the Bengali connotation), red and in keeping with the times, black defined the past week of Ekushey Boi Mela — the month-long book fair. Phalgun came to Ekushey, as usual, on February 13, the first day of Bengali spring.

Fair ladies, in their saffron saris, Marigold garlands clinging desperately onto their black cascading hair, lit up the evenings at the fair grounds, Teachers-Students Centre and the campus beyond. With bedazzled lovers in kurtas, timidly holding their hands, the book fair greeted the season of love with poetry.

Poets churned out an endless stream of musings. Shamsur Rahman, Al Mahmud, Syed Shamsul Huq, Rafique Azad, Belal Chowdhury, Mohammad Rafique, Mahadev Shaha, Nirmolendu Gun, each had several titles of poetry published.

Yet prose, especially the novels, saw some of the best additions to the fair. Hasan Azizul Huq’s Agun Pakhi and Shaheedul Jaheer’s Mukher Dikey Dekhi are two worth mentioning.

Tipped off as one of the best works of fiction, Hai’s only work this year crudely points towards a fundamental flaw in the ceaseless output of writers and poets, especially of those who have something worthwhile to give. Quantity seems to have taken such a strong foothold, that quality wanders like an orphan between stalls of profit-hungry publishers.

Should we consider ourselves lucky that every single year, noted novelists and poets produce, like literary tadpoles, multiple titles? Or should we feel doomed? Poetry that comes as easy as bread crumbs, novels in triplets, are signs of literature/culture that feeds by skimming off the surface of society.

Or maybe this is just a question that should be asked every February, and then forgotten? Remember Elias. That distant mountain of Bangladesh’s fiction where wild flowers once smiled, Akhtaruzzaman Elias. No self-respecting author, who knew him or have read his work, would tell you that he didn’t write enough. But in the long labour of fiction’s birth, Elias gave us just five books of short stories and two novels. And yet in their course, he has redefined and expanded the scope, depth and dream of Bengali fiction. Now isn’t that how it is supposed to be? The latent Khoabnamas, or Chiley Kotha’r Sepoys, are getting diluted in multiple novels on, well simply, nothing!

As a befitting chorus to the crescendo of nature, cupid had his day at the fair too. Valentine’s Day found the mela filled to brim with couples. Adding to their already red hot sales, popular fiction writers had a field day. Emdadul Huq Milon signed so many autographs — with probably as many ‘sweetened’ words as in his novels — that as evening drew close, he turned around and commented: ‘Love can be a pain. My hand is aching from scribbling so many sweet words of love. But I guess, for one day, it’s worth it.’ Some publishers gave out a rose to each of their ‘beloved’ readers on the day.

At the exit, an entire block of stalls have more or less remained same, for many years, at least in their nature and variation, just changing names every five years. While the past five years have seen ‘Zia’ somehow embedded into these stalls’ names, and novice oil portraits of Ziaur Rahman, Khaleda Zia, and their son, the previous five Februarys found equal, if not more, number of stalls with Bangabandhu and every possible combination that could come with him. In retrospect, though these stalls have occupied the Nazrul Chattar, a lucrative location, their position at the rear end of the Mela probably gives the best indication to the ‘vision’, or ‘content’, of their publications. The masses, naturally, rush past these stalls with the same enthusiasm that they flood into the fair with. What ignominy! But would they realise it, if ever?

Black was the other significant colour last week. Like an annual celebration of the essential symbol of the urban bohemian, Himu, Humayun Ahmed’s seminal character, came alive in another book. But Himu’s yellow punjabi, and bare feet, were not the prime attraction this time. Holud Himu Kalo RAB (Himu in yellow, RAB in black) starts off with Himu’s latest eccentricity: selling tea and coffee in flasks. Every policeman’s nightmare, he however falls into the hands of the dreaded Rapid Action Battalion, as a suspected suicide bomber (recall the suicide flask-bomber in Gazipur last November).

Not to spoil your pleasure, the interesting aftermath of the book’s publication (50 young men and women — Humayun calls them Himi — paraded the grounds in yellow t-shirt) was that on Sunday, according to a Bengali daily, Samakal, there was a top-level meeting.

Chaired by our very vigilant ‘looking-for-shotrus’ Lutfozzaman Babar, in-charge of the home ministry, was given not just a copy of the book by the battalion, but also a report on its content and possible effects on the public image of the ‘dark overlords’ of instant justice. Now that’s vigilance!

The lights of the Mela had been turned off. It was a little after 9:00pm. While coming out, at the gates, in all the rush, a father had let go of his toddler’s hand. The little boy strolled a few feet, his tiny fingers were stretched out, and for balance was about to tug at the trouser of a member of battalion, deployed at the gate.

With reflexes, that would even put Jonty Rhodes to shame, the father snatched his son back into his arms. As I passed by, a fleeting whisper caught my ear, ‘Orey shona, kalo rab! bhoy, bhoy!’ — Sweetie, that’s black RAB, beware!

So much for real-life anecdotes, I leave you with fiction. An old Bengali folk-rhyme that Himu improvises on, at the RAB Headquarters in Uttara, in Holud Himu Kalo RAB…

‘Chhele ghumalo, para juralo
RAB elo deshe
Shontrashira dhan kheyeche
Khajna debo kishe?’

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