Like seen in many other sectors, the novel coronavirus pandemic has left its debilitating impact also on the country's socio-cultural activities. Due to relentless involvement of scores of social activists and volunteers in relief operations targeting the hapless Covid-19-hit people, the philanthropic selves remained alive. The direct victims of the pandemic's outbreak are still in need of different kinds of social support. The resumption of normal urban activities in Dhaka and the other cities after 5 long months has caused worries to many. Social experts in Bangladesh have become used to calling the situation 'new normal', presently a globally used term. Compared to the social plain, the people involved in cultural activities have been in a virtual 'deadlock' since early March.
The doors of cultural centres still remain shut. The arrangement of several large cultural events has become uncertain. A few of them are annually participated by personalities from abroad. The organisers, however, are hopeful about arranging the events on normal schedules. As they view the prospects, it is the degree of corona prevalence which will decide the fate of these annual assemblages.
The month-long Amor Ekushey Grontho Mela (Ekushey Book Fair) is a little over five months away. For many regular fair-goers, the time is still too long to feel edgy over the corona pandemic. However, for the authors and publishers time is ticking away fast. The coming February will be the last month, before Independence Day on 26 March, 2021, on which completes the birth centenary of the supreme independence leader of the country Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (born 17 March, 1920). To mark the historic event of the 'Mujib Year', the publishers are racing against time to complete the printing of the books set to come out on the Father of the Nation. A large number of them are earmarked for appearing at the stalls of different publishers.
This time around in the previous years, book-related circles get engaged in their respective jobs as part of the basic preparations for the fair. The persons include authors, book sellers, and wholesale buyers --- and, of course, the book lovers. Many seasoned and prolific authors complete writing more than half of a fiction by September-end before starting a new one. This was the routine work for Humayun Ahmed et al. The over-serious novelists remain busy researching on a particular subject that constitutes a fiction's story. A few of these writers may require even 5 long years to finish writing a fiction. They are not considered book fair-focused writers. But the publication of fictions and story collections by these writers at long intervals turn out to be memorable events. These are not parts of the mainstream events of the Bangla Academy Ekushey Book Fair. In fact, the fair is a book-related occasion filled with elements of clean pastime. People visiting this fair do not expect to spend their time in crass merry hours like that encountered in fashion or glamour fairs.
In the meantime, a published book being a completely different item requiring combined efforts of many, the author being the prime one, it has to pass through phases of preparations. This fact necessitates the start of preparations for a book quite early --- the earlier the better. In February 2021, the Bangla Academy Book Fair is feared to remain beset with the bogey of the fraught times, caused by the corona pandemic. It was experienced by the whole world, Bangladesh being a tiny component, in 2020. Due to the stark unpredictability of the scourge's behaviour, all other global cultural events scheduled for this year are feared to be overshadowed by the pandemic. They include international book fairs like the one in Frankfurt, the cultural festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, globally participated film festivals like that in Cannes, and scores of other fests. The future is uncertain everywhere.
The case is almost similar in Bangladesh. Although the country's largest book fair is still months from now, the decision, in principle, and the rough detailed planning ought to start without much delay. It's because the possible changes in the fair's structure, the duration and the number of participating publishers have to be in conformity with the pandemic's intensity. The Bangla Academy authorities are learnt to be fully prepared to organise the fair, even with necessary changes if required by unforeseen developments.
Meanwhile, the silent but vibrant activities by enthusiastic participants are underway. Besides the senior authors' engrossment with their new publications, the younger poets and fiction writers are already seen frantically searching for their loose printed works. These scattered pieces published in different literary supplements and periodicals will finally take the form of a manuscript. The book lovers remain busy making list of the publications they failed to collect last year. Some others increase or cut down their budgets fixed for purchasing books.
The scenario this year is, however, still unclear. With the Covid-19 pandemic still showing few signs of subsiding completely, lots of book lovers and publishers are feared to remain hesitant over joining the much-awaited fair unlike in the previous years. Habibullah Serajee, the Director General (DG) of Bangla Academy says he is quite hopeful of organising the fair this year like in the past years. It needs to be mentioned that nowadays the Amor Ekushey Book Fair is organised and supervised by Bangla Academy in collaboration with the Gyan O Srijonshil Pustak Prokashok Samity (the Association of Publishers of Creative and Scholarly Books). Elaborating, the DG said they were mentally prepared to arrange the fair. However, they would have to wait for the final nod of the higher authorities. Moreover, in the case of the book fair being organised with the weakening corona pandemic still surviving in some pockets of Dhaka, the Academy might squeeze its radius. Due to urgency, the length of the event could also be reduced.
The first ever open-air book fair, a radical idea at that time, was spearheaded by Chittaranjan Saha, the owner of the publication house Muktadhara. Comprising over a dozen old and new Muktadhara creative books displayed on a mat, it was held on a grass-covered space near today's Nazrul Mancha. The day was the 21st February, the 20th year of the martyrdom of Bangla Language Movement heroes, later known as the Language Martyrs, in 1972. The day marked the first observance of the Amor Ekushey in independent Bangladesh. A poetry and musical session had just been over. People, mostly the youths of Dhaka University, assembled around the book display organised by Muktadhara. The spectacle was quite new to them. All of the youths were curious to why the books had been on display in that improvised way. Few of them had the faintest idea about what kind of plan Chitta Saha had in his mind regarding the unusual display of literary books.
The same Bangla Academy venue witnessed the similar spectacle the next year, this time Saha himself selling books at incredibly reduced prices. The number of book lovers marked a spectacular increase as the word spread fast about this unconventional event. In a few years, the book fair was seen being joined by a few other publishers. The open-air sales of books were replaced by small tin-roofed stalls with walls of sliced bamboo encircling them. This scene prevailed in the first 2/3 years of the fair. The character of the event was amateurish, and largely disorganised. It had been supposed to be in place for long. Amazingly, the fair prevailed. Under the patronage of Bangla Academy, its area eventually expanded. Newer publishers came in numbers to become active members of the publishers' community.
By the 1980s, the book fair at Bangla Academy came to be recognised as a full-fledged outlet for publishing and bringing before readers the new creative books. The authors included both established and younger poets and prose writers. From that decade onwards, the popularly known Boi Mela continued to witness the unabated increase in the number of both publishers and book lovers. After Bangla Academy began playing more active role with the passing of years, it formally recognised the fair as its own. Eventually, the Ekushey Book Fair came to be known as Amor Ekushey Gronthomela. The book lovers are ardently waiting for the Ekushey Book Fair 2021 to take place for one long month, its usual length. The spontaneous rush of readers to collect their favourite books represents their national ethos. It cannot be dampened. But necessary measures to fend off the corona panic should also be in force. These are expected to make the fair-goers feel reassured.