In the early days of Shuddhashar, there was excitement around new ideas, different ways of looking at the world, and information that challenged our societal assumptions. Day by day, our mentality shifted because we were opening up.
Some subjects are very difficult to write about. There are so many scattered events, contexts, and emotions that it is difficult to know exactly how to start. This is what happens when I talk about the story of a book that was published by Shuddhashar. When speaking about the beginning of Shuddhashar, I have such mixed feelings. Sometimes I feel the excitement, I feel like I’m back in those early days. Other times fatigue descends like a heavy and deep cloud in my body and mind. My eyes see only darkness, and I can’t remember anything beyond the floor floating in blood.
When considering the entirety of Shuddhashar – its origins as a part of the little magazine genre, its book publishing activities, and its several functions – what I see as its motto or consciousness is activism. It is activism to inspire, to raise awareness, and to foster a commitment of responsibility to society. Through all the stages of publication – from experimenting with writing forms, reviewing manuscripts, encouraging creative aspirations, editing, and promotion – this desire to break social norms and foster cultural change is the essence of Shuddhashar’s activity.
Shuddhashar’s solidarity with the LGBTIQ+ group came to the fore in 2009 with the publication of Avijit Roy’s book Homosexuality. It is not that the book was published with much planning. However, it was a natural step in a longer process of opening up to new ideas and perspectives. As I am sure happens to many people in Bangladesh, I had noticed since childhood that there are various kinds of mysterious ideas prevalent in society regarding homosexuality, the hijra community, etc. And those societal ideas were overwhelmingly construed negatively. When I tried to learn something for my own interest and curiosity, I didn’t find much to read. However, I got enough information to develop some common sense ideas about the subject. Note that at the time of my growth, in the 90’s, the omniscient Google did not exist.
The spirit behind Shuddhashar was, and continues to be, to try to change people’s thinking and psychology. For Shuddhashar, this is real, genuine change. Although the state, laws, institutions, and people’s actions can be forced to change through structural chains, you cannot force people to change their perceptions or feelings of responsibility. Shuddhashar’s point of view is that reading is the greatest means for changing one’s mind. This was true for me as well. In the early days of Shuddhashar, there was excitement around new ideas, different ways of looking at the world, and information that challenged our societal assumptions. Day by day, our mentality shifted because we were opening up. At that time, there were no LGBTIQ+ people in our circle.
The idea to make a book came about in 2008 when Avijit Roy’s blog about homosexuality came to light, and I became acquainted with him. Actually, Avijit wrote only two or three blogs when I got the idea that his work needed to be published and more widely shared. Judging the Bangladesh book market, it was definitely not a lucrative business idea to publish about homosexuality. But the Shuddhashar book publications were a kind of socio-cultural movement, so we often were not motivated by financial success. As such, Shuddhashar took the initiative to publish Avijit’s book. I later learned from the author that while he was in discussion with me about the book, he began to request two big publishers in the country to publish the book. They refused his request. The first edition of the book was published and celebrated at the Ekushey Book Fair in February 2009, and it was the only complete Bengali-language book on homosexuality between Bangladesh and West Bengal till then.
Homosexuality was not a hot seller. But the book was able to generate interest among serious Bengali-speaking readers. Moreover, the book gave the relatively unorganized LGBTIQ+ population of Bangladesh the logic, courage, and language to respond to the conventional propaganda against them. In this way, the book became a central character in breaking the prevailing religious and social taboos against gender diversity in Bangladesh. As a publisher, I have received many negative criticisms and comments since the book was published. Many of the comments were embarrassing, offensive, and threatening. But invisibly, the book created a huge backlash among devout Muslims and those who do politics and business with Islamists. We see the direct manifestation of this with the rise of Hefazat in 2013. At that time, we noticed that Avijit Roy’s other books, including the book Homosexuality, were removed from the online list without consulting Shuddhashar, the only online bookseller at the time. In protest, Shuddhashar stopped giving all their books to the online sales company. Everyone knows his subsequent history. Avijit was killed on February 26, 2015 when he was returning from Shuddhashar’s book launching event at the Ekushey Book Fair. One by one, Ananta, Neel, Babu, Dipan, Xulhaz, Tonoy, and many others were killed. Shuddhashar’s office was also attacked. I accidentally survived.
I was introduced to a few other members of the LGBTIQ+ group through book publishing and other activities. One writer (permission was not taken, so I am not mentioning the name) gave a short manuscript to publish. I read the manuscript and gave suggestions for editing. I was introduced to Roopbaan Group in 2014. For the 2015 Ekushey Book Fair, Shuddhashar published a collection of poems by members of this group. Another time, when the entrepreneurs of Roopbaan faced some problems while publishing the second issue of Roopbaan Magazine, I was able to help them. I used to receive some email updates about Roopbaan’s activities. I attended one of their iftar parties at Xulhaz Mannan’s house. Some foreign diplomats were also there.
I believe that publication is essential for a healthy contemporary society, but I never thought that publishing was a very courageous act. A man who sees and resents socio-political injustices, inconsistencies, human rights violations, and socio-economic inequalities but does not have the political-administrative capacity to address them – to him, publishing a book is just a soft participation. I know this is what I have tried – and continue to try – to do through publication. Discussions, debates, arguments, analysis about the diversity of humans and cultures; helping to develop humanity and pluralism; promoting a sense of responsibility, care, and empathy towards people. These feelings and needs are the reason why Shuddhashar’s platform continues to discuss and work for LGBTIQ+ rights. With time and persistent collective effort, all over the world, including in Bangladesh, the political and social misconceptions and prejudices about LGBTIQ+ will come to an end, and the rights and dignity of every human being will be established.
Ahmedur_Rashid_Chowdhury is the publisher and editor of free speech website Shuddhashar. He survived an assassination attempt against him by Islamist extremists and currently lives in exile. He is the winner of the Shahid Munir Chowdhury best publisher Award 2013, Pen-Pinter International Writer of Courage Award 2016, The Jeri Laber international freedom to publish Award 2016, International Publishers Association (IPA), Freedom to Publish Prize Finalist, 2016, International Publishers Association (IPA), Prix Voltaire Short List 2018 and Ossietzky Prize 2018.