The little joys of reading

For Bangladeshis, their language revolution, their political struggle, their fetish with poetry have all lent to their pulsating spirit of little magazines, writes ASHIS DUTTA

Little magazines available in Dhaka. PHOTOS BY AUTHOR

Abu Sayed wears his chips lightly. It is easy to underestimate this young man, unpretentious in demeanour, unless you let him speak. And then his boundless energy and insight start to erupt like an ignited godown of fire-crackers. I met him at Ekushe Book Fair in Dhaka at the behest of Bangla Academy, which organises the fair, named after the historic language movement.

Abu chaperoned me through the maze of book stalls, big and small, and finally we arrived at a section of the fair with lines of stalls, each one a tiny desk-space. “This part is dedicated to Little magazines,” said Abu.

Abu, who has a day-job of leading the content management team at a largely circulated newspaper, edits and publishes a Little magazine with the unique focus on Bhasha Andolan — the language revolution which led to the formation of Bangladesh by splitting itself away from the draconian grip of Pakistan. And his story is synonymous with the trials and tribulations of little magazines in Bangladesh. “There are more than 500 publishers of little magazines in different parts of Bangladesh, not just in Dhaka,” said Abu. Then added with a tinge of pride, “This time, the Bangla Academy has accommodated 200 among those publishers in this fair.”

I am accustomed to book fairs in different cities. Having 200 Little magazine publishers in a main-stream book fair is remarkable by any standard. And I was eager to dive deeper into the world of Bangladesh’s Little magazines. It turned out like peeping beneath the skin of the society itself. A young society stirring to express.

 

Making ripples

Little magazine, by genesis, is the voice of the grass-root. Marginalised? Not necessarily, but it embodies the perception of the unrepresented. And in this way, each is a whisper, carrying within the potential of a collective roar.

“Most Little magazines are started by some die-hard groups of three to seven young people. You can say, five is the statistical mode,” said Abu with a smile. “This core group revolves around a single or two leaders, bonded by a common passion.”

The word ‘passion’ kept coming back like a yoyo in conversations on little magazines over the next days. How else would you account for students saving that tiny morsel from tiffin allowance and bus fare to pay for layout design or printing?

Bonding over food

Next day, biryani proved to be a better prod for conversation than coffee. This was Dhaka of the famed Kachchhi Biryani — the moist biryani with the most succulent mutton I have tasted anywhere. The five of us around the table realised that we were from divergent perceptions relating to little magazines. Me, a serial failure as publisher and editor of Little magazines during my college days. Saqina, who has been writing consistently for a couple of little magazines, has just finished her master’s in literature and started teaching in a reputed school. “I just love to write,” she said, “and so I never wanted to get into any organisational chore of editing or publishing.” She continued, “This helps me to keep writing on divergent genres, like poetry and short stories and social and historical essays.”

“Are they all for the same magazine or publisher?” I asked.

“No, at any point, I have been writing for four or five Little magazines. One of the magazines, unfortunately, closed down for good. A very fine one, on literary criticism.” This plunged us straight into the cauldron of sustainability of little magazines. “Yes, the struggle to sustain,” spoke out Moidul, the young supervisor of a garment factory who comes home exhausted every night only to brace up to start his second life, that of publisher and editor of two Little magazines. “Yes, it is my second life. Not like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,” he said laughingly, “but the chasm between the two are quite as deep.”

Our discussion veered into the political landscape, how little magazines in Bangladesh influence and are influenced by political and cultural relativism. In these matters, Little magazines here are no different from those anywhere in the world where there’s a bubbling little magazine culture. But I presumed, for them in Bangladesh, their language revolution, their political struggle, their fetish with poetry, all these have lent to their pulsating spirit of little magazines,” wrapped up one of them.

As my flight took off from Dhaka, the city spread itself below, with few open spaces and teaming mishmash of buildings. I could sense thousands of Abus and Moiduls, stubbornly emerging through those jumbles of concrete, sprouting like green banyan stems determinedly cracking through rockface, articulating their thoughts, anguish, hope and romance. With their large hearts and little magazines.

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