Bangla Academy has added a charm to this year’s book fair. Alongside the month-long Ekushey Boi Mela, this time it has put together a three-day international literary conference, the beginning of which coincided with the Mela yesterday at the same grounds.
It should come as a refreshing bit of news for Bangladeshi writers as here’s another opportunity to interact with their kindred spirits from home and abroad. Today poets from Germany, Austria, Puerto Rico, Russia and China will share their produce with those from Bangladesh. Also, Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay and Swapnomoy Chakraborty will team up with Hasan Azizul Haq and Zakir Talukdar in discussions on Bengali fiction. The conference ends tomorrow with a panel discussion comprising poets from Bangladesh and India.
Writers, readers and publishers eagerly wait for the arrival of Mela as it benefits them all. We journalists welcome it as it visibly injects new life into the scene of writing and publishing, not to mention the boost it gives to reading Bengali literature and history. Due to its increasing popularity, it has gradually spilled outside the grounds, now expanding into the bigger space of the Suhrawardy Udyan. Number of new books is increasing considerably every year. All good news and we hope the Mela continues to spread its wings.
But the Mela’s success will be tainted if the promise of quality books remains unfulfilled. If anything, quality should be the only guiding principle behind selecting or rejecting a book. Better cut the production by half and ensure quality. By quality, of course I mean the primacy of editorial review. But I also mean the “quality of a quality book”. Bibhutibhuson Bandyopadhyay’s Pother Panchali is a quality book, but when a publisher reproduces it s/he either gets it composed afresh or collects a soft copy. In either case, the book has to be formatted and then thoroughly proofread, otherwise countless errors would remain and make one of the greatest Bengali novels look like a trash. That is called the “quality of a quality book” -- the proofreading and corrections in the pre-production process.
Some of my recent encounters with these errors would give you a better idea of the damage they might do to readers. One of my colleagues, sometime in 2013, made a denigrating comment on Aktaruzzaman Elias. Referring to Elias’s Khoabnama, he said Elias did not even know how to write correct Bengali. I was shocked. The same person had showered Ahmad Sofa with praise just a few weeks back which was when I had suggested he should read Elias too. I know one might like Sofa and still dislike Elias or it could be the other way round. Or one might as well like them both, like I do. But his references were not to the different stylistic choices they made or to their ideological inclinations. He was talking about correct Bengali, the ability to write it. Since Elias did not know how to do it, he explained, the discussion should end then and there. He rendered me speechless.
I took his copy and brought it home. I skimmed it through till page 40 and from page 45 onward, I started scanning looking out for errors that would make Elias a bad writer. If not on every page, there were errors of some kind or another, every two or three pages. On top of misspelled words, which were frequent, there were lapses in the constructions of verb or noun especially when they were modified. Such lapses in Elias’s case make things very difficult as his sentences are often very long. Just one little lapse in the sound or use of a noun, in addition to rendering the sentence incorrect, may make the sense falter, leaving cohesion under strain.
It was a 2013 (fourteenth) edition, collected from the Mela that year, published by Mawla Brothers. On page 50, at the beginning of the last paragraph, the word “mouno” (silent) was wrongly put. It was intended as a noun but appeared as an adjective: “It irritates Sharafat Mondol that Abdul Quader's silent is not compliance” whereas it should read: “ … that Abdul Quader's silence is not compliance.” It was just the tip of the iceberg.
I bought Shawkat Ali's Dakkhinayaner Din:Troyee Uponnyas (Bidyaprakash) from the Mela last year, though the printer’s line mentioned it was a 2010 (fourth) edition. The spate of mistakes started a bit early in this book. I remember having marked some proofreading errors while reading. The first one came on page 15 (which is actually the sixth page of the novel) and the second one on page 19 (second line, third para). In the second instance, the word should read “chhute” to mean “run towards” in place of “chhuti” which means “recess”. Now one might start questioning Ali's Bengali writing skills as well.
It is outrageous to question Elias or Ali’s ability. They've written some of the best Bengali novels ever written in this language. But poor works of proofreading are leaving their marks, causing readers to form misguided verdicts. It is one thing to say you didn’t like the choices Elias has made but quite another to say he did not know how to write correct Bengali. Such big writers deserve better and so do our readers.
I scoured my shelf for UPL publications of Elias and Ali: They were impeccable. I found several other books by Mawla: The first and second parts of Elias’s oeuvre, Nasrin Jahan’s Urukku, Shahidul Zahir’s Dalu Nodir Hawa and Onyanyo Golpo and Imtiar Shamim’s Danakata Himer Bhitor -- all of them are quality editions and their proofreading was neat. I wondered what could have gone awry during the stand-alone edition of Khoabnama?
There were other fine examples too: The books by Bangla academy, Sahitya Prakash, Prothoma, Jagriti, Ittadi, Bengal Publications, Samhati, Pathak Samabesh and Kagoj, among a few others, are usually good in terms of editing and proofreading.
Producing fine books is not the usual picture, however. Most publishers think nothing of pre-production and in the months preceding the Mela, they churn out as many books as possible in order to increase sales, compromising even the minimum standards. That’s how you get books like Prasanta Mridha’s Karjon Somporke Prashongik (Oitijjha) and Mahasweta Devi’s Hajar Churashir Ma (Hawladar Prakashani). Oitijjha is somewhat recognised but the latter is little known and a copyright violator too. Both of these books are so full of errors on every page that you’d be forced to put them aside and start another book.
The truth of the matter is there’s no authority in Bangladesh to address these issues. In the capacity of organising the Mela, the Academy reserves the right to check all the books to be displayed in the fair and either select or reject them on the basis of high standards. In order to make a qualitative leap, instead of a quantitative one, the Academy must exercise its monitoring right and ensure no badly edited or proofread book slips through the net.
Rifat Munim is editor, Arts & Letters, Dhaka.