Bangladesh may not be the first place one thinks of when the topic of books comes up in polite conversation, but that’s where the world’s longest book fair is being held, and it’s being acclaimed as.
the largest congregation of (Bangladesh) citizens in a single space.
The annual Amar Ekushey Boi Mela is an event of such nationwide importance that the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, will personally oversee the opening ceremony and present the Bangla Academy literary award.
This year’s event is bigger than previous incarnations, and security is high. Three years ago an author and publisher was hacked to death as he left the fair, and with tensions still high every effort is being made to ensure writers attending the event feel secure.
Dhaka Metropolitan Police Commissioner Asaduzzaman Mia said every preparation had been made to ensure the safety of visitors.
There will be CCTV cameras, watchtowers, metal detectors and archways as part of security measures. “If any writer or publisher feels insecure, law enforcers will provide special security for them.
Other security measures have raised concerns, as when the police moved to try vet books at the fair, fearing some titles might inflame religious intolerance.
DMP ommissioner Asaduzzaman Mia asserted,
No books can be sold at the fair that ‘hurt the religious sentiments’ and disrupt ‘communal harmony’. We have asked writers and publishers not to release books that might offend people’s ‘religious sentiments’ at the fair.
While well-intentioned, the move has been widely condemned
The Director General of Bangla Academy Shamsuzzaman Khan responded,
We oppose any form of censorship and the clamping down on freedom of speech and expression. Also with the volume of books that are released at the book fair, it is impossible for anyone to actually review all of them.
Similar controversy arose in 2016 when the Bangla Academy banned five publishers for two years from participating at the fair and reduced the stall size for 15 others selling books that were reportedly critical of religion.
But it’s not all controversy and condemnation. For publishers, authors and readers, the excitement is almost palpable.
The Bangladesh Daily Star effuses,
The month-long book fair is every Bangalee’s favourite fixture and to this effect, organisers have decided to extend fair timings till 9 pm every day.
And reporting on the reception from publishers and authors:
We eagerly await the Ekushey Boi Mela every year; the feeling of watching books being sold, and writers, publishers, and readers interacting on the same ground, is indescribable,
said an enthused Shahadat Hossain, director of Bangladesh Gyaan O Srijonshil Prokashok Shamity.
Writer Emdadul Haque Milon said,
I hope this year’s Boi Mela outdoes the previous such events. Every year I look forward to this event with excitement.”
Three thousand new titles are being released at the event.
One publisher said that,
despite the number of new books from promising and renowned writers, the late eminent writer Humayun Ahmed remains everyone’s favourite, whose reprinted copies fly off the shelves and into the homes of readers.
A reminder that, in countries where bookstores are fewer and further between than we are used to in the west, and where the Big 5 ebook retailers are nowhere to be seen, book fairs are where booklovers head.