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Bracing for a challenge from e-books

Shihab Sarkar | October 11, 2019 00:00:00


The assertive words of National Professor Anisuzzaman that there are little scopes for printed books to be replaced by e-books have definitely made traditional book-lovers feel upbeat. As he has observed, due to amazing progresses made in the publication and book marketing fields, there is no reason to think that the future of age-old books is bleak. The professor was speaking at the inauguration of a book fair organised by RAOWA (Retired Armed Forces Officer's Welfare Association) on October 4 at Mahakhali in the capital.

There have been murmurs for quite some time in the country that online publications, under the term of e-books (electronic books), are poised to make their triumphant entry into the Bangladesh publication industry. Gossip circles were rife with talks that like in many advanced countries, the e-books one day will start weaning readers off printed publications. Ironically enough, shops with their shelves stacked with normal books continue to line the roads at bustling malls in lots of big cities overseas. They, however, have corners selling e-books or enlisting the names of subscribers. Professor Anisuzzaman appears to have referred to the optimism of a section of readers pinning great hope in the e-books. He did not mince words to say that despite the tentative rise in popularity of e-books among the enthusiasts, there has been no remarkable decline in the number of the readers of paper books. To elucidate his point, the professor referred to the growing number of people at the country's book fairs, the Ekushey Book Fair organised by Bangla Academy every year.

The history of books printed in manually operated presses in Bengal dates back to the mid-18th century. Prior to this period, reading materials in this land used to reach people in the forms of scripts written on palm or various other leaves. The first-ever printed book was, in fact, a book on the rules of Bangla grammar. It was written by a British Orientalist and grammarian named Nathaniel Brassey Halhed. Most of the book's pages contain English texts explaining the basic rules of Bangla grammar. Bengali passages were also there serving as examples of a rule. The Bengal Presidency at that time had a handful of printing presses. The book by Halhed was printed at a press in Hoogly near Kolkata in West Bengal. One of the early books written and printed completely in Bangla language was 'Vasudeva-Charita' by Ishwarchandra Bidyasagar. The themes of the early printed books in Bengal centred round themes from Christian and Hindu religions. The Bangla Bible also occupied a major segment in the period's publication activities.

However, depending mainly on Mahabharata and Ramayana, the Hindu religion-based Bangla publications drew mostly on mythological stories contained in these two epics. Bidyasagar, the foremost among the writers who had chosen a lucid style of Bangla, was later considered one of the stalwarts credited with laying the foundation of modern written Bangla. Apart from Bidyasagar's many literary outputs, he will remain immortal in Bangla's development for introducing punctuation to the language. Before him Bangla used to be written without any punctuation marks. It was Bidyasagar who pioneered the use of comma and full-stop (darhi) in Bangla.

Few of today's frenetic advocates of introduction of Bangla e-books do not seem to be aware of the turbulent times the richest Eastern Indian language had to pass through over nearly 1000 years. It sounds incredible that Bangla was once considered an 'enemy' of its root-language Sanskrit. During the evolution of the language, it was viewed with a veiled disdain by the conservative Hindu scholars of the time. In short, Bangla continued to exist as a language of lower strata of society. Had it not for the direct and strong influence of the contemporary tongues like Shouraseni and Eastern Prakrit, we might have been completely deprived of this language --- and thus the independent Bangladesh, the birth of which was based on a popular struggle for keeping the honour for Bangla. Amazingly, the British colonial power held the language in high esteem. However, it became evident that the colonial Bangla enthusiasts' love for Bangla stemmed mainly from a pragmatic thought: spreading the message of Christianity among the natives through the medium of a lucid Bangla. Moreover, they soon began printing Bangla translation of the Bible on improvised and manually operated printing machines.

In the process, the British-born priests and the clergy began discovering the grand beauty and the future prospects of written Bangla. It was mainly this aspect which had prompted many of them to go deeper into the magnificence of the language. Besides the British preachers and church-based scholars, those from other European countries residing in West Bengal, India, were also drawn to the patronisation of Bangla. It really sounds marvellous that the maiden Bangla fiction was written by a young lady born in the then Calcutta to a Swiss father and a Dutch mother. They had been in Bengal spreading the message of Christianity.

The fiction in question was written by Hana Catherine Mullens, and printed in 1852. It was titled 'Karuna O Phulmonir Bibaran'. The credit for publishing the first ever Bangla novel thus goes to this Swiss-Dutch woman. Bankimchandra Cahtterjee's 'Durgeshnandini' came out in 1865. Although it is now acclaimed as one of the forerunners of Bangla novel for its poeticised narration and Western form, 'Phulmonir Biboron' also deserves a distinctive place. Its pioneering role in the publication of full-length Bangla fictions is carved out as a significant event in the history of Bangla novels. The roots of Bangla-language poetry date back to as early as the formative stage of Bangla. Scholars have taken nearly a century to unanimously recognise 'Chorjapad' as poetry written in the earliest form of Bangla.

On the other hand, the eastern part of Bengal entered its era of printing with a press established in the Rangpur district in 1847. A weekly called 'Rangpur Bartaboho' began coming out from that press. After nine years, in 1856, the second newspaper the 'Dhaka News' came out from eastern Bengal. It took 60 long years for the printing press to reach Bengal's eastern part from the then Calcutta. Given these facts, the printing presses in Bengal could be said to have experienced an arduous journey.

Should the new-generation authors and publishers remain impatient about Bangla e-books and keep bubbling on the dream of sidelining the age-old printed publications, it would be sheer dishonouring the roots of Bangla books. It's because, few of them know the logistic and infrastructure-related impediments both the Bengalee and British authors had to put up with during printing and publishing the Bangla books. Only one and a half century back, people in Bengal knew no other forms of handy reading materials except the scripts written on palm or other leaves. Setting up and operating printing presses was a highly challenging task. The gruelling job of Bangla type-casting using molten lead on hot humid days, pioneered by the likes of eastern Bengal's Panchanan Karmakar, cannot be downplayed. While embarking on the era of e-books, the formative days of the very book publication endeavours deserve to be kept in the foreground.

As part of the newer trends of time, electronic books may not lag much behind printed publications. But the impatience seen among a section of readers seems quite premature. It happened to almost all kinds of inventions that range from modern paper to multiple copies of a single book. The invention of paper eventually phased out clay tablets, scrolls and sheets of papyrus. The journey, though protracted, has continued through the Sumerian writing scripts of the 4th millennium BC to the Mesopotamia of the 3rd millennium BC. It finally stopped with the publication of paper-bound books in the Middle-Ages. The mass use of e-books is set to become a reality. But printed publications will also have a significant place in the world of books. For like in the British-ruled India, production of books and their readership at the formative stages elsewhere have similar challenging stories to tell. E-books or other advanced shape of books cannot forget their indebtedness to their predecessors. That will be like disowning their past, whatever humble that may be.

shihabskr@ymail.com


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