We have no shortage of books, but do we have intellectual freedom?
The basic idea behind the Ekushey book fair is one thing that we, as a cultural and national ritual, have gotten right. Come rain or shine, you can count on the fact that every February, the Bangla Academy premises will be full of new books, crazy crowds, and a general good cheer.
Boi Mela’s format does spur creative and intellectual activity -- that much credit must be given. It’s wonderful to see that so many people are actually writing, and it’s nice to be able to anticipate a deluge of new books coming out from all corners of Bangladesh -- novels that revitalize the imagination, and monographs and essay collections that critically examine the burning issues of our day.
But it is heart-breaking (you knew this was coming) to see that while the whole set-up is there, and that in theory we have a most intellectually stimulating atmosphere, something is amiss. This intangible something-in-the-air sucks the joy out of looking forward to new literature, and sometimes makes bold new thinking impossible.
This is because even our Ekushey book fair is not free from the looming shadow of thought policing. We have seen enough publishers getting picked up by the police, enough writers getting stabbed on the streets, and enough bloggers getting murdered. Conversely, we have not seen enough being done to assure or protect would-be publishers, writers, and bloggers.
The Ekushey book fair, consequently, has to tread carefully. No author, publisher, or book lover wants to see a stall taken down due to the allegedly offensive contents of some book or other. Such actions mar the festivity, and leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. It goes against the sense of community and solidarity the organizers of the book fair work so hard to foster.
Solving this problem is quite simple. Let intellectual disagreements play out in their own space. If a reader does not like what is written in a book, he or she can decide to not buy it.
Or maybe they can buy it just to take it home and toss it forcefully at a wall.
If they wish, they can write a scathing review of the book, and put it up online or send it to a newspaper such as this one. If a government minister, preacher, or high ranking official for some reason takes ire at a book, it is their prerogative. But if a religious leader values his own freedom to sermonize to his congregation, then he must respect the freedom of a young writer to voice an opinion as well.
Otherwise, why do we bother writing books? Why do we bother with the book fair in the first place?
My point here, sadly, is not too sophisticated. These are the ABCs of free speech, but that is where we are. Some may feel that there is a need to protect the people against speech that hurts our sentiments, or against harmful ideas, but if we’re really so concerned about the welfare of human beings, why don’t we put our money where our mouth is?
The toxic air in the country is making an entire population sick, our public sector is broken and corrupt, and our roads are so badly managed, every day we incur colossal losses while commuting, be it with lives, time, or money. Those are the things that need fixing, not the so-called bad attitude of some writer.
Ekushey February is just around the corner, and as expected, the book fair at this very moment is brimming with novels that are seeing daylight for the first time. What a hopeful, life-giving idea.
The word novel literally means “new.” That is why a good novel must dare to go to unexpected places. It must venture into the unknown, and so too must the book fair. Otherwise, amidst all the superlative talk of our economic growth, the casualties will be our mental, spiritual, and creative growth.
Abak Hussain is Editor, Editorial and Op-Ed, Dhaka Tribune.