I have to start this piece with an event I want to forget the most. Whenever I discuss or write about publishing, I am overwhelmed by the remembrance of that moment. But as much as I wish to erase it from my memory, I cannot. The day was Saturday, 31 October 2015.
The year 2015 was a terrible one in Bangladesh. Writers and bloggers were brutally attacked and hacked with machetes by radical Islamists. Writers published by Shuddhashar were being killed. I lost friends. I received one threat after another for championing and publishing challenging works, and was forced to live an indescribably turbulent life. For protection from possible attack, I broke my routine and changed my pattern of communication. I lodged complaints with the nearby police station and requested repeatedly that officers provided me and my writers security, but in the end, we had to face the inevitable.
Now in my middle age, I look back. I remember my friendship with books: when and how my interest in reading began. I grew up in Sylhet, my hometown in Bangladesh. As a child, I had limited access to literature outside of textbooks, but I read newspapers. I was the youngest in my family. My siblings moved out, found work in other cities and settled with their own families.
One day, when I was in class 7, I found a pile of books in a cupboard. From then on, I remember reading Jawaharlal Nehru’s Glimpses of World History, Abul Mansur Ahmed’s Amar Dekha Rajneetir Ponchash Bochor (The Fifty Years of Politics I Witnessed), Shankar’s Chowrangi, Falguni Mukherjee’s Shap Mochon (Elimination of the Curse) and an English version of Das Capital, the title emblazoned on the cover in blue on a white background, and many others. I read books that I did not always understand the content. My interest grew. I remember being disappointed when movies did not reflect the original work they were based on. During the first SAARC summit in Dhaka in 1985, many movies from South Asian countries were shown on Bangladesh Television, the government-owned TV channel. Watching the film Shap Mochon was disheartening for me because it did not match the book.
While in class 8, I saw a notice about a book fair in the VIP gallery of Sylhet Stadium where stalls would be allocated to different schools in the city. Students were asked to bring books from home for display. With great enthusiasm, I brought in a bunch without informing anyone. In fact, I submitted the largest number of books. Even though my school had a good reputation and financial resources, it did not have a library during my days. Our school was the first to organise a book exhibition competition.
I arrived on time for my first book fair. I noticed that the books had been sealed with the school’s name. I remember being very worried. What would I tell my parents? Next to the gymnasium were stalls selling publications by several Dhaka-based publishers. From one of them, I bought a collection of essays on the poetry of Borhanuddin Khan Jahangir. Although I cannot remember the title, I do recall that the structure of the essays was complex. That work became part of my growing personal collection. I kept my books in an old trunk I found in my parent’s home.
When I look back on those days, my whole being is filled with a strange feeling. My family was like any other conservative family in Bangladesh, so this experience with literature was a doorway to entering new worlds. Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence and Khelaraam Khele Ja (Keep on Playing, Khelaraam) by Syed Shamsul Haq introduced me to writings on sexual desire and encounters. Once I finished reading those, I did not know where to store them. It was unlikely that my parents would open my trunk or drawers. But I was worried, so I burned the two books. I thought a lot about how I reacted, about my mental make-up at the time. I thought about the social pressure that prevented me from keeping those in my collection. The socio-religious taboos that left me scared.
Before finishing school, I published a ‘wall’ magazine with friends. It was sheets of paper stuck to the wall with poems, jokes and other forms of writing. It was named Basanti because it was published in spring. I could not release one for every season, because of school administrative obstacles. When I moved to college, I learned about ‘little magazines’. This took me into an entirely different world, opening doors for me to explore new ideas. Little magazines provide a useful platform for young writers and readers to understand and analyse works from politics and philosophy, outside of the regular partisan and academic publications. On the one hand, it is a platform for experimenting with forms and genres, and on the other, it enables writing without censorship. My personal and political sensibilities were reshaped and broadened. I freed myself from restrictive religious beliefs. I studied monotheism, transcendentalism and blind faith. I can only describe this particular period in my life with this line, from a song lyric by Rabindranath Tagore, ‘My liberation is radiance in the horizon.’
In my first year of college, the idea of a little magazine got into my head like a restless bee.
In fact, I was looking forward to meeting like-minded people to share ideas and thoughts. Although there were countless little magazines published in the city where I lived, none of them would publish pertinent issues.
In this way, the first issue of Shuddhashar (Free Voice) was released in December 1990. This was right after the fall of the military ruler General Ershad. It was a time of great socio-political upheaval, and the youths were inspired to imagine change in every sphere. For a few of us, writing became a vehicle to make sense of our world and believe in change. We call it the Little Magazine Movement, like a school of thought, with a strong commitment to people, justice and equality. This feeling, this commitment, eventually inspired us to publish books under Shuddhashar.
At that time, not many publishing houses in Bangladesh were interested in promoting books that criticised religious bigotry and social taboos. Shuddhashar took up the challenge of releasing controversial works by emerging writers, and this trend eventually spread to other publishers. Shuddhashar also published translated books which were warmly accepted by discerning readers. For us, this was a continuation of the anti-establishment Little Magazine Movement. At the February 2004 Ekushey Book Fair, organized by Bangla Academy, Shuddhashar made its debut as a book publisher.
I set foot in the world of publishing without any formal education or training in this field and with only an instinctive sense of what to do. I realised that others had started the same way. In Bangladesh there was no formal way of learning about publishing and, even today, there are only a few basic courses offered by private initiatives. There were no guidelines, no regulations, no official publishers’ associations, no standards for editing or translation, only chaos and corruption.
This was the anarchy of the publishing world in Bangladesh, where I was trying to find a place for Shuddhashar and to promote experimentation and critical thinking. In this challenging environment, Shuddhashar was revolutionary. From 2004 to October 2015, more than 1,000 books—including novels, anthologies, nonfiction, translations—were published by Shuddhashar, by both young and established writers. Many books won awards. Avijit Roy’s book Homosexuality was the first book of theoretical discussion on homosexuality in the Bengali language, and this connected me to the queer community—a community I had not understood well until Avijit’s writings opened new doors.
Shuddhashar was gradually becoming a promising publishing house, thinking outside the box. Between 2013 and 2015, we decided to specialise in publishing political and critical books. It was a period of political unrest in Bangladesh, so I was waiting for the right time to start. We didn’t realise that our plans would need to be realised somewhere else. We knew that our work was not acceptable to everyone—this was expected. But never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that we would be persecuted. In the aftermath of the 2013 Gonojagoron Moncho movement, a youth movement that demanded the death sentence for Jamaat-e-Islami members who had actively taken part in acts of genocide during the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war, many unbelievable things started happening. With the public announcements in newspapers of a list of ‘atheist’ bloggers, the targeted killing of writers began, one by one. Avijit Roy and Ananta Bijoy, two writers of Shuddhashar, were killed. Many were forced to isolate themselves in the face of threats.
I remember the afternoon of the fateful day, 31 October 2015. The day itself had seemed lazy and stagnant. I had a light breakfast. I didn’t know at the time that my wife had cooked lunch for me and my friends, Ranadipam and Tareq. My friends were often invited to meals at home. Before my wife could speak to me, she received a phone call from one of my office staff informing her of the incident. There were synchronised attacks on the offices of two publishing houses, Jagriti and Shuddhashar. Faisal Abedin Deepan, proprietor of Jagriti, was killed while I survived with serious injuries. It was the presence of two friends at that time and their resistance that saved me from the same fate as Deepan’s. My friends were also seriously injured while trying to save me. My world turned upside down.
When I regained consciousness, I found my head and face bandaged. I was in a hospital bed, surrounded by faces. My family and friends at home were anxiously waiting for me. I vividly remember telling them that I would not stop publishing. Soon I was interviewed by reporters, and some of my utterances were quoted on TV talk shows at the time. Those words still echo in my mind. After coming back from the brink of death, one thought continuously prodded me: how to continue Shuddhashar’s activities and promote ideas of cultural diversity, equality, democracy, free thought and free expression. While in hospital, I was convinced I would find a way to keep these alive in Bangladesh. I was determined not to give in to the fear and violence that threatened these ideals, and with every fibre of my being I was convinced that it was Bangladesh—its youth, its budding intellectuals and its diverse people—that needed this most of all. It was also in Bangladesh that I felt most alive; I understood the complicated systems of this society and its politics, the norms and expectations of its people—the pressures and anxieties and hopes and dreams.
But I became more aware of police officers standing outside my room, and I realised the limitation of their protection. It dawned on me that not only was I still in danger but so was my family. I knew there would be no bodyguards in our daily lives when I would go back to work, my children to school, and my wife to run errands. So, my family convinced me to leave the country. That was one of the most difficult decisions I took in my life, but they were right, that it was impossible for me to continue to live in my own country.
The incident of 31 October 2015 forced Shuddhashar to stop its activities in Bangladesh. Jagriti and other publishing houses were censored and prevented from publishing controversial books. The situation for freethinkers, secularists and anti-establishment writers grew complicated for other reasons as well. After 2015, people became suspicious of ‘atheists’ who wrote strongly against Islam and speculated that their real intention was to seek asylum in other countries. In my case, and in the case of Shuddhashar, this speculation could not be further from the truth. In a yearly reunion of authors, readers and well-wishers, hosted by Shuddhashar (at the Bengal Gallery, Dhanmondi, Dhaka, in 2011), at a time when it was not dangerous to publish books about anti-religious and societal taboos, I gave a welcome speech that is relevant here.
If you look at Shuddhashar’s booklist, you will see that Shuddhashar has been carrying huge risks from the very beginning in the world of increasingly competitive publishing. The slogan ‘to inspire, not to impress’ has been adopted by Shuddhashar not only for its embellishment but also because we are literally working to awaken the minds of a large population in Bangladesh.
The huge task of national awakening may not be fully accomplished through the mere publication of books, but Shuddhashar is fully aware of its responsibilities. So, from 2004 to 2011, the book fair has tried to set a standard through 325 books published by Shuddhashar. Shuddhashar selects each manuscript based on progressive ideas of a democratic, non-sectarian and modern society and country. Shuddhashar does not believe in providing any ‘quota facility’ for young writers, but Shuddhashar wants to say with pride that young writers are the main authors of Shuddhashar due to their writing abilities. In the past few years, Shuddhashar has published some books on sensitive issues like religion, philosophy, sexuality, etc. which have already become favourites among the knowledge-seeking readers of the country. Shuddhashar is overwhelmed by this and at the same time aware of the challenges ahead.
It is true that I did not actually see the magnitude of the challenges ahead. In 2011, I could not imagine the deadly events that would follow. In those days I did not really consider Shuddhashar such a risky venture. Maybe I failed to gauge the dangers lurking ahead.
When I left Bangladesh, I took my dreams and goals with me. I took Shuddhashar with me.
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