Mohammed Abdus Salam, never quite believed in the formula of “getting a degree and getting a job.” True, he did not receive any university degree, but ask him any fact from history, geography or anthropology - you will be surprised to discover the depth of his knowledge. Neither a set of degrees nor Google helped him acquire such wisdom. He gained it through his overpowering interest in stamps.
MA Salam, as he is commonly known, a passionate philatelist, established the Bangladesh Philatelic Society in 1972.
“Whatever I have learnt from stamps, I bet no degree in history or geography could teach me that. I firmly believe stamp collecting is not a hobby, it's a science and also a continuous learning process, where you learn spontaneously,” says Salam contentedly.
Salam started collecting stamps when he was only seven. Born in Dhaka's Narinda, he was inspired by his elder brother to pursue this hobby. “I used to be amazed by the treasure a tiny piece of colourful paper held,” he reminiscences. “In our times, we did not have computer games or video games. Rather we used to derive joy from meaningful hobbies like philately.”
“I remember one day I got a stamp written in English letters, but the letters were arranged following a strange pattern,” he recalls. “Some of them were upside down; I showed it to everyone around but no one could decide which country it was from. Then an uncle of a friend brought me a stamp book from where I came to know that it was a Bulgarian stamp.”
As a child, Salam would spend hours with the atlas. Whenever he got a new stamp, he would dig into the map to know more about the country, continent, its culture and history. “Pen friends also helped me to collect stamps from different countries. Through exchanging each other's stamp, we used to exchange our culture too.”
“My siblings were established in their respective fields. My father asked me what I wanted to do. I thought of setting up a book store in Farmgate,” he says. In 1962, that's how he started his career as a businessman by setting up his bookstore called “Books and Books”. He dedicated a nook of the bookstore for stamps only. But after a few years of the shop's establishment he thought of transforming the entire store into a stamp centre. In 1970, he set up the first stamp store in Bangladesh called 'Salam Stamp Centre,' which was inaugurated by the post master general Farid Uddin Ahmed. Established 44 years back, ‘Salam Stamp Center’ is still located in 68 Kazi Nazrul Islam Avenue, Farmgate. “With age comes wisdom and also a heap of diseases,” says Salam with a laugh. “So my youngest son S.B. Salam Tuhin, is taking care of the family business.”
“Beside stamps, the store also offers a large array of coins, paper money and different rare documents. My siblings living abroad also help us to improve our collection by sending many rare pieces,” continues the junior Salam.
Even though Salam's physical condition does not allow him to look after the store, he cannot keep himself far from stamps. In 2002, he built the first and only non-government museum of stamps in his home calling it the Salam Mini Museum. The walls of this museum allow us a glimpse into the dazzlingly beautiful world of philately. Each of the corners is adorned with many exotic, rare and historic stamps, FDC (First Day Cover), stamped envelopes, post cards and post marks. Right after our independence, different stamps would carry the word Bangladesh in different styles. Salam has all these stamps in his rich treasury. He has visited around 96 post offices across the country to collect those historic stamps. He has the world's first stamp called Penny Black, the first Bangladeshi set of stamps issued during our liberation war, the first leather postcard of the world and a number of odd stamps in various geometrical shapes of circle, octagon, and hexagon, in his private collection. He also has a collection of books on philately in his museum.
Engaging in voluntary services is another dimension of his personality. He has always had a passion for rendering voluntary services not only in Bangladesh, but around the world. “I find peace in participating in different voluntary camps,” he says. Going to different countries as a volunteer and being a member of the Red Cross has also helped him enrich his collection.
In 1962, as a Service Civil International volunteer from Pakistan, he went to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to help the stream of pilgrims climbing the Adam's Peak (also known as SriPada). His bravery and dedication for 3 long months brought him the attention of the Ceylon media. “Ceylon Observer reported a special column on my visit to Sri Lanka,” says Salam showing us the paper cutting that he has preserved for all these years.
Throughout his life he never hesitated to serve his country when it faced misfortune. In the cyclone of 1970, when the tidal waves took thousands of lives in East Pakistan, Salam joined a relief works camp for post rehabilitation programmes by Red Cross and used to spend days distributing food, clothes, medicines and registering the name of the cyclone affected people. “Other than collecting stamps, another thing that truly makes me happy is serving humanity. That completes the purpose of my life”, says the man.
This 74-year-old stamp aficionado epitomises the generation which spent their leisure in activities that would stimulate the intellect and appease the soul. It is a pity that the science of philately and the hobby of stamp collecting is on the decline with the new generation of youngsters spending their time on modern technological pursuits. “Today's generation is so busy with their smartphones and internet that this hobby is fading out quickly,” says Salam regretfully. “But there is good news for those who are still interested in philately. Nowadays, collecting stamps has become much easier and more accessible than in earlier days. If you have the money, you can go and buy any stamp. But what I would like to advise today's young philatelists is that don't become a stamp album filler. It's more important to study each of the stamps attentively rather than posting them on the stamp books.”
Stamps have given him a lot, believes this simple living stamp enthusiast. “Whenever I come to know about any rare stamp I rush to get it with whatever money I have in my hands. Whenever I heard of any international philately exhibition I tried my best to attend that. I know I spent a lot on this hobby, but I have no regrets. Stamps brought me respect, love, recognition and knowledge. Whenever I feel down, I flip through my stamp books or stroll through my mini museum and I start feeling good at once,” ends Salam with a smile.
In 1837 the world's first stamp was issued with Queen Vitoria's head on it. This is known as the Penny Black. For the next sixty years of its issued date, Queen Victoria's head kept appearing in all British stamps.
Great Britain is the only country that prints stamps without its name on them. This is also the country who invented the stamp.
A 1993 stamp of the rock singer Elvis Presley is considered the most popular US postage stamp sold over 120 million copies.
Can you imagine a stamp that sings? In 1973 Bhutan actually issued a group of postage stamps that were also phonograph records. These stamps could amuse the collectors with native folk songs which were recorded on one side and could be played on a record player.
Even half a century back, self-adhesive stamps were not invented in the world. Sierra Leone issued the first set of self-adhesive stamps in February 1964. In fact our philatelist Salam used to stick rice on the back of the stamps to paste it on his stamp book when he was seven years old.
Philately is a world where errors hold significance too. “EFO” is the term that refers to evey possible mistake that can happen while producing postage stamps. EFO means "errors, freaks, and oddities". It includes stamps with great design and spelling errors to stamps that are just off-color printed. Interestingly “EFO” includes some of the most demanding and expensive of all stamps, and considered as one of the most valuable collections to the philatelists.
Salam has made quite a few records in the world of philately, here is a glimpse on some of them:
He is the first person in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) to own a shop dedicated to stamps called “Salam Stamp Center” in 1962 at Farmgate.
He is the only philatelist in Bangladesh to have two solo exhibitions on his rare stamp collection. He arranged his first exhibition in Curzon Hall in 1975 and the second one in 1982.
He happens to be the only philatelist from Bangladesh who was invited from the UNPA to participate in an exhibition.
He is the first person from South Asia to be conferred with the World Postal Certificate by the United Nations postal organisations for his interest in promoting UN Stamps.