Thursday, February 15, 2007

Lulling on Our Lack of Libraries

My brother got recently married and during Boxing Day, I watched how the happy couple enthusiastically paged through all the books they’d received as gifts. To them the books were as expensive as the next toaster or dinner set. My own immediate thought was “Wow. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to receive Sattyajit Ray’s complete Feluda series as a wedding present?!” But the art of gifting people with cherished tomes seems to be disappearing amidst a visual culture of television, DVDs and the internet. Where to put the blame for this trend? There are simply so many factors to the equation.

I grew up around books. We had cable TV as well, with shows my brother and I were addicted to like the next average kid. But our parents took the time to instill in both us a deep appreciation for reading. They loved filling up the shelves with their favorite authors and introduced us to the magical, transforming power of books – their ability to transport us beyond our puny lives and to shape the very texture of our personalities. But the equation didn’t end there. They also took us on frequent trips to the library based inside the Army cantonment.

In the equation of fostering a reading culture, a library acts as a compounding device, allowing a child to multiply the efforts of parents and the school, and providing the materials to make this process possible. Today, with books and movies more expensive than ever, and television entertainment free-falling to the lowest levels of stupidity, the library provides a place and an incentive for children to progress in reading. Public libraries are also where ordinary citizens with limited funds and knowledge can gain both access and equity. These days they also serve a vital social role as Internet access points for people who’re otherwise unconnected to the information superhighway.

I feel envious when friends and relatives abroad talk to me of neighbourhood libraries that function like a gathering place; where communities find themselves. The book discussions, readings and classes, the homework help after school, the nods and hellos people exchange when they see each other at the library for the second or fifth or twentieth time, the librarians greeting people by name, and even the artwork that reflects the talents and interests of the neighborhood, all contribute to the connections that bind people in a community. People may go to the library looking mainly for information, but they find each other there.

My brother Sakib, a PhD student at the University of Wyoming, USA, pointed out that without libraries, a culture of constructive, thoughtful discussions and sharing of knowledge and information among the young generation can’t take place. People, he finds, even in his generation, don't have the understanding that two plus two makes more than four if knowledge is shared among friends, colleagues and acquaintances. He says that from his experience, it always leads to a win-win situation. Public/private libraries play a big role in developing this kind of ‘intelligentsia’ which can shape and guide the nation to move forward positively in the future.

He also pointed out the quality of writers we, Bangladeshis, possess and demanded that could anyone tell him why we aren’t having writers like Late Shahidullah Kaiser, Late Munir Chowdhury, Late Syed Waliullah or Late Kazi Nazrul Islam. He exclaimed "Forget about Maya Angelou, Milan Kundera, Gabriel García Márquez, Dominique Lapierre, or Naom Chomsky. If you look around, we don't even have quality authors like Shomoresh Majumder, Sunil Gangapadhya or Sattyajit Ray, who are from our neighboring Indian state of West Bengal." He expalined how they played, and are still playing, considerable roles in shaping the minds of the youth, who later become conscious citizens, a crucial factor for a society to progress with the middle class or bourgeois community taking the lead. There is a high probability that a strong middle class can provide us with capable leaders, which a developing country direly needs. He made the wry comment, "Writers like Humayan Ahmed, sorry to say, won’t be able to play a role like this. I believe libraries inspire you to dream and to write, but the quality of our local libraries today can hardly provide such inspiration".

The presence of libraries in Dhaka (forget the rest of the country) is needless to say deplorable. At present we have only six major libraries in the city. There is the British Council Library with audio-visual and internet facilities, the USIS library which has an article-alert service including newspaper microfilms, the Indian Information Service Library and the Bishwa Shahitya Kendra Library, with its unique mobile library service. But the conditions of the two Public libraries of the city – the Armanitola branch, previously known as the Northbrook Hall Library or the Lalkuthi Library, and the Mahanagar Pathagar at the south-eastern corner of Osmany Uddyan – makes me want to cry. The collection hasn’t been updated since time immemorial I’m sure, and whatever there is, is falling to ruins.

Top officials from the government and business sectors should realize the immense importance of having quality libraries and do their part in helping to reverse the current situation. I came across a news of how developers of the Glendale Mall in Indianapolis, USA approached the Indianapolis Marion County Public Library officials with a lease proposal offering over 33,000 Sft of space for a branch library that would serve as an anchor store in the mall. The library has been very successful, helping to revitalize the mall.

The day I see one of the countless urban community development projects like Bashundhara City, Jamuna Future Park or Japan Garden City have included a library in their plans, I will keel over. Not from shock but with the joy of having more opportunities to page through shelves of books stacked into neat rows. Books that whisper of far away kingdoms with fantastic, ethereal creatures; of nerve-wracking mysteries and wild, reckless adventures led by handsome heroes and beautiful heroines; of tales of human triumph and failure; of wisdom, love, hope, fear, despair and every other human emotion there is out there. Books that whisper of life.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Penning Today’s Songs of Patriotism

Mora ekti phul ke bachabo boley judhdho kori…

Amidst all the chaos, confusion and disintegration of the past 30 years, patriotism nowadays is by far a very low-key word for one of the smallest nations of the world. The love for a language which resulted in the freedom and birth of our beautiful nation, now seems to be getting lost further amidst the so-called brainwashing tactics of the Western culture via the media. But is that really the true scenario?

The new age youth of today, regardless of which part of the globe they’re from, do speak out about the socio-political stance of their countries through the one channel or medium that has again and again shown it’s power in reaching the masses, touching the hearts of millions and making an irrevocable stance – music. Although it does remain to be seen whether all the members of the youth are on par with the subject, one only has to look at the recent examples of concerts like LiveAid and the Princes Royal Trust (both of which have been running for years now) to realize one undeniable fact – music can reach the mass public and trigger mass awareness; it can make people come together to celebrate with the music and in turn raise issues or help the needy.

Because of the amount of exposure and coverage bands and musicians get these days, especially due to the much-appreciated entrance of two FM radio stations, Radio Today and Radio Foorti, a lot of people might have the misconception that Cryptic Fate’s latest album “Danob”, with songs like “Danob”, “Raag”, and “Political” and Hyder Hussein’s now-famous number “30 Bochor” are the only examples of how musicians, especially those from the young generation, are expressing their feelings and frustrations about the country’s on-going socio-political status quo.

But be it mainstream or underground, harnessing the power of music to convey social dissatisfaction and political protest has been a trend amongst local bands and musicians for a long time now. Warfaze is undoubtedly the band which has been the most pro-active in this aspect. One of their notable numbers which spring to mind raising serious questions about the socio-political stance of the country is “Jibondhara”. The song, with the signature Warfaze sound of high pitched vocals backed up by loud instruments, claws away at the state of the our plight as the citizens of this country.

Though when they’d started out there were serious doubts how well their works were being conveyed to the mass audience, time and again bands like Warfaze and Aurthohin have raised these issues in their albums, and to this date they still do – with numbers like “Dinbodol” and “Notun Diner Michile” whose lyrics literally shout out about issues on patriotism and winds of change for the country. Miles, in their groundbreaking albums “Protisruti” and “Prottasha”, gave us songs like “Keno Ora Rajpothey” and “Shanti Chai”. Bongabdo 1400 by Feedback gave us two gems of a song called ‘Uchho Podostho Todonto Committee’ and ‘Shamajik Koshtokathinno’.

And the Blacks, Artcells, and Arboviruses are not far behind either. The youth of today are playing their respective parts in penning songs of protest and frustrations. Examples include the heart wrenching patriotic number “Cholo Bangladesh” from Cryptic Fate, RaaGa’s “Ahoban”, and “Ami Protibaader Kotha” in Fuad’s soon to be released album “Bonno”. Though how much these works have brought about any visible change in us – the audience – is a debatable topic, such efforts deserve praise. Young hearts respond most to music – a speech they won’t recall but a great song they will remember and spread around. The air of change lies in the hands of the very youth, and giving the youth the power to bring about that change is integral for any country to progress and prosper.

Tagore might have stated “Shatkoti Shontaner He Mughdho Jononi, Rekhecho Bangali Korey…Manush Koroni”, but one cannot deny the fact that rather than shying away, our youth are very much trying to show their ‘Jononi’ all the love they hold for her in their being, through the universal appeal of music.