A long queue of spectators every day in front of the Suhrawardy Udyan clearly indicates that the month of February has begun. Like every other year, people from different strata of the society are joining Amar Ekushey Book Fair, the longest book fair of the world (one-month long). They are thronging together, visiting different stalls, buying new books, meeting with their favourite authors, clicking photos and selfies and collecting autographs. Some of them are arranging reunion of old friends and becoming nostalgic remembering their college and university days. Parents are bringing their children to the book fair to introduce them with the joy of buying and reading colourful books. History of Amar Ekushey Book Fair is associated with the spirit of Ekushey February. To commemorate this spirit of Shaheed Dibosh, Bangla Academy has been arranging a month-long book fair in its premises every year since 1978. Immediate after achieving the independence of Bangladesh, on February 21, 1972, Chittaranjan Saha, owner of Muktodhara Publishing house started selling books with a little preparation under the banyan tree in front of Bangla Academy. Later, other publishers also joined with him. In 1984, it was named ‘Amar Ekushey Book Fair’ officially. Gradually it became the most popular book fair of the country.
This year the 34th edition of Amar Ekushey Book Fair began in the Bangla Academy premises and at Suhrawardy Udyan on February 1. A three-day long ‘International Literature Conference’ was also held after a long gap of 43 years at the fair venue. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurated both the book fair and the literature conference. A total of 409 publishing houses, government, non-government, autonomous and socio-cultural organisations are participating in this traditional book fair. A total of 663 stalls have been set up in the book fair. Besides, 15 pavilions have been allocated to 14 publishing houses, including Bangla Academy. Of the total stalls, 549 have been allocated to 329 publishing houses at Suhrawardy Udyan and the remaining ones to 80 publishing houses at the Bangla Academy premises. Moreover, there are some snack shops, food corners and washrooms inside the fair ground. A special area called ‘Shishu Chatwar’ has been established for the children. The authority has also arranged wheelchairs for the physically challenged and aged persons.
The fair remains open for all from 3:00pm to 8:30pm on the working days, while from 11:00am to 8:30pm on weekends. On February 21, it will remain open from 8:00am to 8:30pm. It is mentionable that, there is a one-hour break due to lunch and prayer on holidays. Bangla Academy conducts a seminar at the main stage of the fair at 4:00pm every day. Academy proclaimed special days (February 6, 7 and 27) and schedule (11:00 am to 3:00 pm) for women and children for the first time ever to avoid crowds and associated hassles. A three-tire security measure has been taken to make the book fair secure. At least 250 night vision cameras have been installed and around 3,000 uniformed and 2,000 plain-clothes policemen deployed throughout the venue.
Most of the visitors expressed their satisfaction about the price of the books and ambience of the fairground while some other visitors complained about pirated books, incomplete and unorganised arrangements. This correspondent found children visiting different stalls and many of them buying different types of books including fairy tales, rhymes, ghost stories, puzzles, alphabets, cartoons and comics. Six-year-old Adeeb Mahmud came to the fair with his father and bought several books published by Bangladesh Shishu Academy. He was happy by getting some new books while his father was happy with the price and content of Bangladesh Shishu Academy’s books. Shaheeb Mahmud, father of Adeeb, shared, “The quality of the content and print of the children’s books published by Bangladesh Shishu Academy are better than books published by others and the price is also reasonable. If all publication houses maintain the minimum standard, the buyers would feel relieved as it is the question of children’s future.”
Around four thousands of books are published every year in Amar Ekushey Book Fair. Besides eminent and promising writers’ books, a large number of books written by the new authors are also published. But the readers often claim that they are deceived by the poor quality of contents and print of the books. Most of the time, it seems that the contents of the books are not checked properly. Roni Ahmed, a visitor at the fair, said, “Last year I bought some novels of the new writers along with established ones, but I was disappointed as the language of a few books were very poor. I knew that all publication houses have a panel of editors. They check the writings before publishing. So, I was sure about the least standard. Later, I found that I was wrong. I became surprised when I heard that there is no editorial panel in many publication houses. In that case, Bangla Academy should examine what kinds of quality books are coming every year.”
Like the readers, authors also have many complaints about the overall established norms regarding the book fair. Journalist and writer Mahbub Morshed shared, “We are still unable to build up a society that encourages reading books. We want to publish books only ahead of the book fair or during the book fair, as we do not have enough readers. It seems that we read books only in this month! As a result, we do not have big investments in publication business. The authorities try to release books in any way. They don’t care about proper editing or review by experts. In the process, many low quality books are also published. This type of carelessness is also found at the time of fixing price of the books. They hardly consider about the royalty that should be included with the net price so that it can be paid to the author. Moreover a new burden has been added recently - the undeclared censorship by the law enforcement agencies. It will directly hamper the process of expressing writers’ thoughts. If there is any element which seems controversial, anyone can present counter-discourse but banning the books or restricting the authors’ free flow of thoughts is not a wise decision at all.”
Publishers are also irritated about this unexpected censorship. Robin Ahsan, publisher of Srabon Prokashoni, said, “The writers are being forced to go for self-censorship. So, free thinking will be stumbled. The most ludicrous part of the decision is that the law enforcement agencies will select the books, which can enter in the fair. This is not a duty of police to decide about the contents of the books. There is no such example available in any country. There can be a separate panel to monitor such things. If any book is found controversial by that panel or committee, they can call the police, but how can police control the contents of the books? It is absurd in a civilised society. We condemn this decision.”
When asked about the overall environment of this year’s book fair Mazharul Islam, publisher of Anyaprokash, replied, “We have brought many books of the young and famous writers as well this year. The crowd usually increases from the middle part of the fair. This year people are coming from the beginning, which is a good sign, but the arrangement is not satisfactory. An inexperienced event management company has been given the responsibly and they have failed.”
We asked him about royalty of the writers. Mazharul Islam stated, “We pay royalty regularly in a transparent way. Our writers don’t face any problem. But, there are allegations that some publication houses don’t pay their authors properly. These are really unfortunate. Bangla Academy should take proper steps to confirm the payment of the writers.”
In the previous years, book fairs were dedicated to late writers and poets. For example, Amar Ekushey Book Fair 2013 was dedicated to novelist Humayun Ahmed and the fair was dedicated to writer Justice Habibur Rahman in 2014. Though Bangladesh lost three potential poets and writers Rafiq Azad, Shahid Qadri and Syed Shamsul Haque in 2016, but this year’s book fair is not dedicated to any one of them. Even Bangla Academy is not exhibiting the portraits of these distinguished poets with a view to remembering them!
However we definitely feel satisfied for being a part of the longest book fair in the world. And Amar Ekushey Book Fair is not merely a book fair to us. It is the celebration of a pride, as we are the only nation of the world who sacrificed lives for establishing the honour of mother tongue.
Centering this book fair we can spread the proper practice of Bangla language throughout the year. It is also a platform for the upcoming writers to meet the readers, get inspiration, understand their expectations and implement those in their following creations. But some questions pop up in our mind. How many quality young writers are publishing their books in Amar Ekushey Book Fair every year? Are they screened out based on their potentiality by the publishers or Bangla Academy? Do they get deserving royalty for their books? How many of them can publish their books without spending money from their own pocket? Without searching the answers of these questions, a book fair every year can meet the commercial aspects of the publication industry, but will never be able to connect with the spirit of language movement.