The changing nature of Ekushey Book Fair

Shihab Sarkar | Published: February 16, 2017 20:14:24 | Updated: October 23, 2017 12:53:57

The vastness and neat arrangement of the Ekushey Book Fair this year has surely made the book lovers happy. At the main fair opposite the earlier venue at the Bangla Academy compound, dust no longer is an obstinate nuisance. Ample space for movement of people, the planned setting up of book stalls, and the jostling-free entry and exit create a feel-good mood as one sets foot on the fair ground. In the past years, unease and annoyance would readily grip people as they entered the fair premises. The overall view of the much-awaited fair this year is apparently professional. This may have prompted it to shed its characteristic amateurism. Evidently, it has led to the month-long event's being shorn of a few long-indelible features which made it distinct from many other popular assemblages in Dhaka. One of these features is the general readers' silent joy at the very sight of their favourite books. It is a unique kind of delight awakening within, which makes book fair visits memorable.
To a lot of book lovers, the Amar Ekushey Gronthomela 2017 marks the formal start of a complete book fair in the country. From this year on, the fair is likely to meet its prerequisites one after another. Maybe, the fair in the near future will get the coveted recognition of an international one. Meanwhile, the Bangladeshi book lovers might have to brace for the times when the chiefly literature-focused character of the fair will begin fading out. The symptoms have already started emerging. The usual vibrancy and the permeating warmth stemming from the presence of pure book lovers is not as distinctive this year as it was in the past. At the massively remodelled fair, book lovers are found being outnumbered by fun-loving crowds.  Now that the ambits of the Ekushey Book Fair have been expanded spectacularly, a redefinition of it may not be digressive.
 The book-related event is the largest and longest one in the country. With this year's month-long fair stepping into its 17th day today, the visitors may not fail to identify the signs of changes in its nature. The new character of the mega annual book fiesta is not one of the Ekushey 'boimela' of the earlier times. Strikingly gone are the camaraderie and gossipy evenings of the writers and their admirers. In the last couple of years, regular visits to the fair by book lovers have been cut down to 1 to 2 days. In the earlier years, people would spend whole afternoons or evenings for several days to pass time with books.
 Books and other types of publications are fast becoming secondary to the pomp and pageantry of the new fair. In place of an elegant commotion around books which should have been the normal scene, what we see now is a feverish rush to the fair. Accordingly, the stir over the fair has eluded the very books --- and the pleasure latent in them. Now people go to the fair, like those selling cheap, glitzy consumer items. They do not go to the books. In the age of social media and the other ICT-related wizardry, the centre-piece of the book-fair craze turns out to be something not related to age-old books. This year is no different from the recent ones.
A common scenario at the book fair this year is: young men and women move about the fair ground, taking snapshots of selfie or engrossed in gossip at convenient corners. Not long ago, walking comfortably around the fair ground at the Bangla Academy compound was veritably an absurd proposition. The fair space was too narrow with miscellaneous crowds overwhelming it. At the large Suhrawardy Udyan venue, passing a couple of hours browsing books and buying the ones by the favourite authors comprise some happy moments. Roaming the fair is now a nice pastime with little urban pollutions. No matter whether one is a reader or not, books do offer a soothing view. As part of leisure, many people can pass long hours just gazing at the cover-pages of books, reading the flap texts or leafing through a few pages randomly. These days, a section of idling people visit the fairground almost every day. They are found seated or standing at different points, watching people come and go. They do not enjoy books, haven't read one outside their textbooks. They have their smart phones on their palm, with statuses and photographs flashing constantly.
 The month-long book fair has begun drawing to a close on February 28. The youths would say adieu to each other expressing hope to meet again the next year. These visitors have for the last 2-3 years been adding to the increase in the length of the queues at the fair entrances. Most of them being educated, their presence at the fair in groups remarkably contributes to an air of dilettantism. The flipside is some of them love to be close to books, but do not go through them.  When it comes to purchasing books, these youths are clearly averse to it. Alongside them, a lot of other people, too, including families, lone people, teenagers, and couples, are found spending pleasant times at the fair venue. They visit the fair to buy books. If the day is the 1st of the Bangla month of Falgoon, or spring, or the Valentine's Day, young couples or male-female pairs might feel like buying a collection of love poems. These people are generally prone to pick the wrong books, ones lavishly printed but written by novice authors.
 Dedicated to the martyrdom of the 1952 Language Movement, the Ekushey Book Fair has passed forty-four years since it opened in 1973. The fair has emerged as an occasion to celebrate Bengali literary creativity and scholarship, eventually taking the form of a yearly overview of literary and intellectual activities in Bangladesh. Few among today's regular book fair visitors are aware of the fact that the event began just as an exposure of books. Back in the early 1970s, its organisers never viewed the event to be anything more than the retail sale of books by publishers. For almost a decade since its start, the book fair offered the spectacle of people buying the books written by their favourite authors. Most of those were books published earlier. The readers had to wait until the 1980s to ceremonially purchase newly published novels, collections of poetry, etc., at the fair. It took a few more years for the book fair to become a festive occasion for publishing and buying 'new books' only. There seem to be few people around to explain to the fair-goers that books are ageless. The notion of 'new books' is a misnomer. A particular fashion or brand could be termed new -- not books or paintings. True books remain fresh and new as long as their pages last, or they are found online.
Nowadays, the Ekushey Book Fair ranks among the great festivals of the nation. To many people, publishing books and purchasing them befits a festive occasion. A few may disagree, arguing that books cannot be linked to festivities. A festive occasion prompts people to cast their look outward. Festivities are akin to jubilation and revelry which have all along been in clash with the authors' world. Books prompt readers to look inward; whatever jubilation is made to be tagged to books is of a unique nature. It's the writer's own, an experience he or she celebrates privately. Interested readers are generously invited to this inner world of unexplainable beauty.
Despite the supposed predominance of books reflecting the present character of Bangladesh literature at the fair, many stalls these days are found catering to popular taste. Performance of a number of them appears to be below par. A few lately emerged publishers print books indiscriminately. They put as much emphasis on books by the major writers as on publications by obscure or self-styled authors. As has been seen in the book fairs over the last few years, many readers visiting the fair cannot tell a book with literary value from one having none. It's an irony that not commensurate with the increasing glitz and glamour of the fair, the number of genuine book lovers is getting thinner.


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