As 2017 drew to a close, I saw something extraordinary quietly start to happen in Dhaka: Bookstores were opening and young people being drawn to them.
We've always had the venerable Zeenat Book Supply at New Market, with the ever-affable Faisal Bhai bending over backwards to get you whatever it is you desire to read. The Bookworm has been a beacon for many years for those of us who live in the northern part of the city, particularly if we have a taste for books in English. Boi Bichitra in Banani, Gulshan and Dhanmondi has over time evolved into more of a stationery store than a reliable source of your chosen books. And I have to confess that I have not been to PBS, although I hear good things about it, because it is a bit off my beaten track in this traffic-choked city.
And bibliophiles in the Gulshan-Banani area have seen a few false dawns: The spacious Et Cetera, the well-stocked and vibrant Words'n'Pages (ah, the long queues in front of that store when the Harry Potter books were being launched in tandem with the rest of the world!) and the small but elegant Books Express are all distant memories now. Given how few of my neighbours are in the habit of reading, I guess we got what we deserved.
But then something happened about three years ago: Out of the ruins of the Aziz Co-operative Market bookstore scene, Bizu SI's Pathak Shamabesh Kendra opened in the annex building of the Dhaka Museum in December 2014.
Out of all the small stores that traded in books catering to all sorts of esoteric tastes in the Aziz Market, the original Pathak Shamabesh always seemed a cut above: They genuinely seemed to love writers and their works. It was just a hole-in-the wall – barely over a hundred square feet – but you could sense their engagement and something told you they were in it for the long haul. And lo and behold, after all the other outlets turned to selling t-shirts and ornaments, Pathak Shamabesh has extended their footprint to the other side of the street, to what is now doubtlessly one of the best bookstores in the country. It is spacious – 4 ,500 sq ft – and caters to tastes both popular and eclectic, to readers of both Bangla and English.
Any year that begins with the sight of young people lost in the pages they hold open in front of them, in a public place with others of their clan similarly engrossed, can't be bad.
Then things started to happen in fits and starts. The gorgeous Baatighar opened in Chittagong which was a significant development in a city where I had not noticed any bookstores of note before. The first thing you note when you walk into that store is the atmosphere. There's a kind of stillness in there that just lends itself to reading. And it dawns on you how young the clientele is. You look upon the astonishing sight of young people sitting on the floor or on stools or leaning against walls, reading. An attendant told me they sold one lac taka's worth of books per day. Even if you take that with a pinch of salt, Baatighar's achievement in creating readers in Chittagong is singular.
And the trickle started to approach something like a minor flood in 2017. The bookstore Charcha opened in Mohammadpur – again , I have not been out there but have heard good things about it. Book sharing sites started to appear. And Razia Rahman Jolly, wife of Faisal Arefin Dipan, the publisher and proprietor of Jagrity Prokashoni, who was so tragically and brutally murdered in October 2015, paid tribute to her late husband's memory in the most fitting way possible: By opening Dipanpur, the beautiful bookstore and gathering place for literature lovers, in Elephant Road.
Towards the end of the year, the dazzling Bengal Boi opened in a three-story building in Dhanmondi with the top floor dedicated to children's books and different food offerings on each of its floors. If the selection there still doesn't match up to that of, say, Pathak Shamabesh, the sheer amount of space they have gives this establishment the potential to be the best bookstore in the land. And again, if you walk in there, any fears you may have that millenials are not readers will be assuaged. The few times I have gone, young people were lodged at every available crevice of the place with a book in hand.
To usher in the New Year, we now have a sparkling new branch of Baatighar in Dhaka at the Bishwa Shahitya Kendra centre. Complete with an ornate (if somewhat over-the-top) Mughal motif, the place boasts a spacious floor chock-full of Bangla and English books of every description, places for browsers to sit and sift through items, and a lovely balcony that was shining with wintry sunshine of molten gold the one time I visited there.
Even at the office building where I work, there is good news to be had: The Bookworm is opening a new branch, sharing their premise with North End Coffee Roasters, who offers surely your best caffeine fixes in town. This Bookworm outlet is going to be far larger than their original store, and the proprietors have always been a very responsive bunch to their patrons' needs. And in the basement of the same building, there is a cafe called the Nerdy Bean, complete with a fake fireplace, quaint table lamps, a red chandelier and several shelves filled with an assortment of books, with plans to double as a lending library. My cup runneth over.
I have a good feeling about 2018. Any year that begins with the sight of young people lost in the pages they hold open in front of them, in a public place with others of their clan similarly engrossed, can't be bad.
Tanvir Haider Chaudhury spent most of his career as a banker and is now running a food and beverage company. He is unabashedly opinionated and avowedly Bengali.