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A Feast for Readers: Eid Specials in Bangladesh

By Mahmud Rahman

The last morning of September, I learn that the Daily Star's Eid Literature Special has come out. It includes a personal essay from me, so I head out for a nearby newspaper vendor.

He's at Farmgate, fifteen minutes away. On my walk I notice many shops are shuttered. People are vacating the city. Dhaka has grown from a million when Bangladesh gained independence in 1971 to over twelve million today. Many who have moved to the capital from villages and small towns journey home for Eid, the Muslim festival that comes after Ramzan, the month of fasting.

Farmgate inherits its name from colonial days when there was a gateway here to a state-run experimental farm. The farm is long gone. Today Farmgate is a crowded intersection in the heart of Dhaka. Besides a major bus stop, there are dozens of schools, colleges, and coaching centers, a few clinics and hospitals, a movie theater, many stores and restaurants, and throngs of pavement vendors.

This morning the crowds are thin, the traffic light. My vendor pulls out a Daily Star, but there's no supplement inside. I try two other hawkers. No luck. I decide to check at the newspaper office. It's just a few minutes south in Karwan Bazaar, home to a large grocery market abutting commercial towers.

In the foyer, a sleepy guard thumbs through bundles of papers and confirms that the special has been printed. He directs me to a vendor next to the ETV building. No luck there either. Everyone has an early edition that didn't carry the supplement.

The morning's still pleasant, so I keep walking.

I pass the Sonargaon Hotel. The metal fencing that used to blot out the Begunbari Canal has been taken down. Now I see the water. I also smell shit. In this huge city, there are few public toilets. For the multitudes who sleep on the streets, there's no place to shit but some corner here or there, on roadsides or grassy patches. Thirty-seven years after freedom, we can provide the poor with neither food nor places to take a decent crap.

I pass by more shuttered shops. At Paribagh near the Sheraton Hotel, there's a new pedestrian overbridge to cross the road. Just before I climb the steps, I walk past a trio of beggars. Two young women hold up a third, an emaciated skeletal form, her naked breasts shrunken to her ribs, her head nearly bald. I've seen them before, but they're usually trying their luck in upscale Gulshan.

I've been coming across more beggars than one usually sees along this avenue. Many more destitute people come into the city during Ramzan, praying that anyone with money will part with some change during this time.

At the newsstand across from the Sheraton, the man says, yes, he has the special. With four copies under my arm, I jump aboard a moving bus headed back towards Farmgate.

Depending on when the Moon Sighting Committee declares they've spotted the new moon, Eid will come in the next one or two days.

It arrives two days later. There are no newspapers for four days. But those starved of reading material are not left dry—we can gorge on the literary specials that newspapers and magazines have been bringing to market for two weeks.

I had already acquired four others, those published by the English daily New Age, the weekly Shaptahik 2000, and the Bangla dailies Prothom Alo and Shomokal.

The Bangla specials are whoppers. Printed in magazine-size, they run over five hundred pages. Unfortunately the layouts are terrible. The print is so tiny you almost need a magnifying glass to read it. Features often come with photos and the fiction is accompanied by artists' sketches, but they lose impact since white space seems to be an unknown concept. The specials carry hundreds of ads, and I suspect the publishers mainly see them as cash cows for ad revenue.

The editors of the Bangla specials toil hard to net a wide mix of content. They feature short stories, poetry, novels, essays, memoirs, and travel writing, with a sprinkling of articles on art, sports, food, cinema, and television.

The English editions are smaller, but more tastefully designed. The Daily Star's is a tabloid, thirty-two pages, with ads only on the back. It carries both nonfiction and fiction, and each story includes a lovely black-and-white sketch. The New Age contains only fiction, spread out over 120 magazine-sized pages, interspersed with clusters of ads. Their graphics, also quite attractive, are in color.

The tradition of holiday literary supplements goes back to the early Victorian era when British magazines published Christmas specials as cheap reading material for the aspiring middle classes. The colonial conduit brought the custom to Calcutta, and after Bangla periodicals appeared, they launched special editions for Durga Puja, the major festival of Bengali Hindus. At the beginning of the twentieth century, when the emerging Muslim middle class began publishing magazines, they produced the first Eid specials. Some Eid specials did come out in the Pakistan period (1947–71), but it was only after Bangladesh became independent that they grew in number and size. By this time the Puja specials from Calcutta had become hugely popular. Bangladeshi authors pressed Dhaka editors for similar avenues to publish their writing; the publications spotted an opportunity and responded.

One reason I rush to get my Eid specials is that the popular ones sell out fast and some can be banned by the government.

Last year, Shaptahik 2000's Eid issue was banned for offense to religious sentiment. The fuss centered on a memoir by the poet Daud Haider. Daud was already familiar with a hostile response to his work; in 1973 he had published a poem that had also unleashed Islamists' fury. The government took him into protective custody, and he left for India soon after and later moved to Germany. The controversial memoir published last year was about his time in India during the mid 70s. In this piece, he recalled visiting Lucknow and considered going to a baiji house, a place where women dance in classical styles dating from the Mughal period. Daud wrote, "I have come to Lucknow, shouldn't I visit a baiji house? What will people say if I don't? If one travels to Mecca, can one avoid the Kaaba?" The Islamists took to the streets claiming he had called the Kaaba a brothel.

Soon after the controversy, Shaptahik 2000's editor was replaced. This year their special opens with religion-tinged articles. Meanwhile Shomokal struck a different tone, opening with essays against religious sectarianism. Most Eid specials do not worry themselves much with the religious aspect of the holiday, though there might be token articles offering tidbits from history or laments about commercialization. This year there seemed to be more Eid-related pieces, suggesting that publishers wanted to play it safe.

With so much to read, I first check out the memoir, travel, and short-story sections. The rest, including the novels—five or six in each issue—will have to wait. Over the years I've discovered in scattered conversation that many readers especially look forward to the memoirs and historical features.

It is no surprise that memory would be a favored theme. Writers and artists, scholars and activists often share stories from their lives within the pages of the specials. The memoirs bring swaths of history alive and unveil the variety and bustle of life in this country. Many times they can be dry chronicles, but when they come from skillful writers, they are a pleasure to read.

This year I read two from Hasan Azizul Huq, a prominent short-story writer. One is from his childhood in Burdwan, a district now in India. He recalls the awe with which he watched the religious festivals in his village. In the other piece, he reports on a recent visit back and registers his bewilderment at the present-day shabbiness of the place where he grew up. In language and descriptive details, his memoirs are delicately crafted.

I skim entries from the diary of the late folksinger Abbasuddin. He wrote them as he lay sick in bed, in the months before he died in 1959. He includes commentary on topics dear to him, such as music and religion. He recalls the joy he felt in his youth when he became close to a spiritual guide outside Calcutta, and he despairs at the religious narrowness he saw in the society around him. The issues that troubled him still surround us fifty years later—I find his observations quite contemporary.

The filmmaker Tanvir Mokammel remembers his time teaching at a college in Helsingør, Denmark. He reflects on the pitiful state of education in Bangladesh and seeks out lessons from the Danish folk high school movement. That movement was launched in the mid nineteenth century to provide a meaningful education for poor peasants who did not have the money or time to attend university. Today it provides non-formal, continuing adult education across Scandinavia. Combining memoir, travelogue, and political observation, Tanvir's piece seeks to offer some fresh thinking on social reform.

Meanwhile, the writer Abdul Mannan Syed has published excerpts from his journals. They mostly contain the trivial details of daily life. Such notes might interest a devoted fan, but why should others care? Was it that he didn't know how to say no when editors nagged him? I can't fathom the mind-set of the editors either. When they've got enough to fill hundreds of pages, must they publish fluff just to include a prominent name? Or once it's handed to them, are they simply too polite to reject?

Travel writing has long been popular here. Today Bangladeshi professionals journey widely. This year's specials include pieces on visiting Japan, the Andamans, Istanbul, Rome, Seattle, and Vancouver. Most are written from a tourist's point of view. I prefer pieces where the writers relate encounters with diverse people or muse over what they come across. I find such a piece from Moinus Sultan about visiting Lesotho. He's written fine pieces elsewhere about traveling through Laos.

The fiction includes translations, short stories, and novels and runs the gamut from the popular to the literary. The English editions carry several translated Bangla stories. They're mostly from contemporary writers. In the Bangla issues, I notice translations from Cervantes, Lucian, Conan Doyle, Luigi Pirandello, and Robert Benchley.

I leaf through mysteries and sci-fi stories. Most seem to be "transplant fiction," using plots borrowed from foreign sources, either transplanted onto a Bangladeshi setting or featuring characters from here. In some cases, the authors note that their stories are written "in the shadow of a foreign plot." One includes the title and author of the original. Transplant fiction grew here from one publisher's desire to provide a range of entertaining reading, especially for younger readers. Still, I wonder why Bangladeshi writers have yet to author much original mystery and science-fiction writing.

Among the other fiction, I am excited to find at least a few striking stories in each publication.

In a Bangla special, Faruq Moinuddin follows a laid-off worker who watches his neighborhood shops burn and convinces himself that the notebook with his debts has gone up in flames. In a story unpublished until now, the late Shahidul Zahir depicts a day in the life of a newly-married policeman whose duty involves putting down rebellious students. Ahmed Mostofa Kamal opens with the death of a child in an impoverished family and narrates a story with an ending that sideswipes gloom.

Among the English stories, Khademul Islam evokes a cyclone through a child's eyes and foreshadows the drama that will lead to Bangladesh's independence. Julie Reza has a sweet piece about a bangle vendor's crush on a schoolgirl customer. Rubaiyat Khan directs her eye at a Bangladeshi café worker in Penn Station, and Shazia Omar relates a Bangladeshi tourist's encounter with a waiter from her country at a restaurant in Malaysia. Our migrant workers labor in many countries, and it is good to see them showing up in fiction.

The English specials have only appeared in the last decade, and creative writing in English from Bangladeshi writers is still sparse. The literary editor of the Daily Star laments in his introduction that he can't find much nonfiction. "O, the truthful, wondrous tales we Bangladeshis could tell the rest of the world." Still he has managed to gather a number of compelling pieces. Farah Ghuznavi writes about accompanying Cambodian genocide-survivors to a Bangladeshi village. Shabnam Nadiya reflects on her experience with sexual harassment and recalls the impact of Taslima Nasrin's columns. She inquires into the toll of exile.

On Eid, Dhaka would almost look like a ghost town, but for the working- and lower- middle-class people who come out to decorate the city in bright hues. On foot and in rickshaws, girls and women swank their new clothes, in orange and yellow, purple and blue, red and pink. In a cityscape that's ordinarily marred by too many grim faces, today there are smiles everywhere.

Mine too among them. I rejoice that for over a century, Bengal's tradition of holiday literary specials continues to endure. One last thing I am particularly glad for: the specials provide many an emerging writer the opportunity to see print in major outlets.

Published Oct 23, 2008   Copyright 2008 Mahmud Rahman

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