The annual book fair, or the Ekushey Boi Mela, takes place every February in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and it was one of the biggest events of my life from 2004 to 2015. In a sense, for me, the annual culture and practice of publishing new books was kick-started by this book fair. Each year, the breathless preparations for this event started around November-December. This period was like a festival to all of us involved in publishing. Excitement, anticipation, agony, and endless chaos were all part of the celebration. For nearly twelve important years of my life, I have been deeply involved with books, book publication, and the book fair. Consequently, all the events around these activities have had a profound effect on my thinking and mentality. But since those years, February is now just a distant blurry memory I look back at through a dusty windowpane. The month of nostalgia.
The book fair of February 2015 was my last book fair. It was going on like every other year: publishing new books, reprinting old books, meeting authors, hanging out with friends; that’s how it always was.
Meanwhile, writer and blogger Avijit Roy told me he was coming to Bangladesh. Shuddhashar was publishing his book, Shunya Theke Mahabiswa, written jointly with Meezan Rahman that year. The veteran writer Mizan Rahman unfortunately passed away a few days prior to the book’s publication.
I met Avijit Roy through blogging. Despite having his own blog site, Avijit regularly wrote on other blogs and commented on other people’s writings. That is how he became a close friend to several Bengali blogger groups. Avijit ‘s courtesy and generosity were incomparable. He would politely invite friends and acquaintances to write on his blog, and he even encouraged them by opening an account for them on the blog. His love and warm cordiality inspired many young people who were involved with reading and writing.
Just as the blogging culture began in Bangladesh, Avijit Roy started regularly writing blogs on homosexuality and queerness. One day he expressed an interest in writing a book on homosexuality and asked if Shuddhashar would be interested in publishing it. I immediately agreed to publish the book. Back then, I did not know that Avijit had two other books that had been published by a well-known and established publication house. Later, he told me that before asking me, he had asked his other publisher to publish the book on homosexuality, but they declined. It was a surprising incident because at that time in Bangladesh, anybody could publish anything they wanted. Due to the lack of any standard regulations regarding book publishing, there is an unrestricted opportunity for anyone to become known as a writer and publisher in Bangladesh. But I agreed because I was interested in promoting freedom of expression and diversity, and I was committed to building a platform that would let us speak outside of the conventional societal and religious structures. Shuddhashar’s publication work was like a socio-cultural movement, and we believed that awakening people’s conscience and independent, logical thinking was more important than any standard measure of success. We also began incorporating bloggers, some of whom had interesting and provocative ideas, with mainstream writing. However, since the killings of Avijit, Ananta, Dipan, and the attack on Shuddhashar in 2015, all publishers – professional, amateur, and sham – have consciously avoided publishing any writings critical about religion or religious practice or other potentially controversial topics.
Avijit had an extraordinary talent for inspiring the younger generation. He used to encourage youth to expand their scientific knowledge, to question and challenge religious and societal prejudices, and he helped them by providing reference books and other sources. He inspired them to form their own opinions through writing. Sometimes he would even work with some of them as a co-writer. Several new authors’ books were published by Shuddhashar because of Avijit’s recommendation and encouragement.
Avijit was always excited about his own and other people’s writings. Whenever he finished a manuscript, he wanted to get the book published as soon as possible. He was impatient like a child, like an excited new writer. The more I asked for more time to edit, the more he would grow impatient. Sometimes Avijit would be playful. I once told him about a book on editing, and the next time he brought it to me as a gift. The last time we talked, before he came to Bangladesh, he said he bought a bottle of rum for me.
It was Shuddhashar´s tradition to launch new books right in front of our stall at the book fair by unveiling our new additions. These ceremonies were informal but full of life. Shuddhashar provided traditional local Bangladeshi snacks — naru and moa – to all those present for the celebration. Even on the last day of the fair, we would invite all our writers, friends, and well-wishers to our stall to enjoy moa and nadu. For the 2015 book fair, we set February 26 as the date for the launching ceremony of new books. Before this date, we had the launching ceremony for the collection of poems called Rupankti by Rupban Group. Many members of the Rupban Group gathered in front of the Shuddhashar stall that day.
After arriving in Bangladesh, Avijit had gone to the fair on two separate days. I could not meet him then as I wasn’t at the fair during those times, but we were in contact regularly over the phone. We even arranged a meeting on February 27th to plan some upcoming books. Avijit himself set the date and time. He said that he would come to the launching ceremony on the evening of 26th February. He had some other program to attend that same evening, which I was not aware of. Everything was proceeding as normal for our busy schedules during the book fair. On the morning of February 26, I went to the office as usual. At ten or eleven o’clock, I got a call from Avijit requesting to have the meeting that day instead of later. He gave me an address, so I called my wife (Runa) and told her that Avijit wanted to meet and to come to the office as soon as possible. After Runa arrived, we went to the address given by Avijit around noon. We were there for about three hours. We talked a lot, and we also planned a lot for the future.
The book launch program was scheduled for 6 p.m. Many people were already present by that time. Avijit and his wife Bonya were a little late, but once they arrived, the program went quite well. After closing the stall – just like every day – a few of us were walking towards Shahbagh, the district near Dhaka University, where many booksellers had their shops. While having tea at Chobir Haat (opposite the Art Institute) near Shahbagh junction, a person from Ganajagaran Mancha (a protest movement in 2013 that opposed Islamists’ influence on politics, among other things) called me and informed me that Avijit had been attacked. He didn’t know more details. We immediately stopped drinking our tea and went to Shahbagh. A few people were there, but nobody could say anything for sure. We started calling journalists we knew, and it was confirmed that Avijit was attacked. I rushed to Dhaka Medical College Hospital. As soon as I arrived, I saw Bonya covered in blood on a stretcher in the balcony. Bonya hugged me and told me to save Avijit with whatever it would take. I left Bonya with Runa and entered the emergency room. Upon entering, the doctors told me it was all over. Avijit ‘s frozen body lay silently on the trolley in front of me.
Seven years have passed since the evening of 26th of February 2015. That evening has revealed the real faces of many people. It has shown the two faces of the intellectuals, activists, and political leaders who dominate the media. I have also seen the helplessness of the law enforcement once political decisions are made. We have seen a so-called trial of Avijit´s brutal murder. A “justice” that could not guarantee the right to express one’s opinion freely, or to criticize freely. Scattered to different places, we are still waiting for that type of justice.