Turning The Pages

The Reading Circle . . . five years on

The Reading Circle is only five years old. It first met at Words 'n Pages on February 20, 2006 with just three members: Farida S. Enayet, Nasreen Kabir, and Niaz Zaman. In these few years its members have read 60 books. Of course not all of them read all the books and they were not always present at the second meeting there were only two but together, as a group, TRC can be proud to say that its members have read so many books for pleasure. This would not have been possible if TRC did not have dedicated readers, supportive book stores and coffee houses, quality Bangladeshi publishers and perhaps, most importantly, the support of institutions like Independent University, Bangladesh, the Indira Gandhi Cultural Centre, and the Goethe Institut. There are
other book reading groups in Dhaka, but I do not know whether they have met as consistently.
Since that first meeting in February 2006, the TRC has met regularly once a month. There are no office-bearers though there is a liaison person and no membership fees. Anyone interested in reading a good book is welcome to attend. Books are chosen by mutual consent.
Because TRC wanted to read books that were readily available, the first choice was Syed Waliullah's Tree Without Roots, the writer's own translation of Lal Salu. Tree Without Roots had been published just a few months ago in August 2005 by writers.ink. The three books read subsequently were also published by writers.ink: Syed Waliullah's Night of No Moon, translated by Afia Dil, Bengal Raag by Durdana Soomro and Ghazala Hameed, and Galpa: Short Stories by Women from Bangladesh, edited by Firdous Azim and Niaz Zaman. In a way this marked the beginning of the association of TRC with publishers such as writers.ink initially and subsequently with The University Press Ltd. and lately, to a lesser extent, with Adorn. One of the reasons for this is that locally printed books are easily available and, moreover, at a discount.
The day TRC discussed Galpa, we also discussed Three Girls by Carl Bloom. Bloom, an American academic, was then located in Dhaka and had self-published his novel. Up to now TRC had read only novels, but with Politically Incorrect Poems by Nadeem Rahman, TRC branched out into the genre of poetry. Politically Incorrect Poems was also published by a local publisher, Academic Publishers and Library Ltd. Shawkat Osman's Laughter of a Slave, translated by Professor Kabir Chowdhury, one of our later books, was published by Adorn.
Over the years TRC members have read a wide variety of books written by authors ranging from America to Brazil, China to Turkey, Hungary to Columbia, and published by international publishers: The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hossseini, The Zahir by Paul Coelho, Birds Without Wings by Louis De Bernieres, The Collector's Wife by Mitra Phukan, My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk, Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry, Fire of Bengal by Rózsa Hajnóczy, translated by Éva Wimmer and David Grant, The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, The Last Mughal by William Dalrymple etc.
While the choice of books ranges freely the only criterion being it should be a good book The Reading Circle attempts to choose some books related to special events. Thus in February we try to read books by Bangladeshi writers, in Bangla or in English translation as we have foreign members as well who do not know Bangla. In March we try to read a book by a woman writer or a book related to the Liberation War which we also do in December. Similarly, in May, we read a book by Tagore, either in the original or in English translation.
We have had a number of problems. For example, when we were scheduled to do The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, copies did not reach till much afterwards. Nevertheless, the two members who had read the book gave the rest of us enough sense of the book to want to read it. Sometimes the books chosen were too difficult or slow-moving. Though we would like to expand our authors, it is difficult to get enough copies if the books have not been published in India or Bangladesh. Sometimes we knew we could not get enough copies of the book chosen, so agreed to discuss the author, leaving the choice of book to the members. Some very interesting discussions took place in this way, for example, on Khushwant Singh when different books were discussed by different members, and one member who had met the author narrated her experiences.
We have also had a problem about venue. Initially, we met at Words 'n Pages; for the last one and a half years, since May 19, 2009, we have been meeting at Radius Centre. The books we read while we were meeting at Words 'n Pages show a wide range of writers from different continents, Nobel Prize winners, Booker Prize winners or those shortlisted for prizes. Though we are fortunate enough to be able to meet at Radius Centre and though we have read some excellent books at the new venue Amitav Ghosh's The Sea of Poppies, Rabindranath Tagore's Gora, translated by Radha Chakravarty, Barack Obama's Dreams from My Father, Yann Martel's Life of Pi, Mani Sankar's Chowringhee, and Jostein Gaarder's Sophie's World there is a problem. Because Radius Centre is not a book store, and because we no longer have the support of a book store, many of the books chosen have been prescribed university texts, such as Doris Lessing's The Grass is Singing and Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, photocopies of books, or books that are easily available not because they are necessarily the best that could have been chosen. TRC has not yet solved the problem of books, though in the partnerships which it has started some of this difficulty will be removed except that the choice of books will then depend greatly on the partner institution. For example, the Goethe Institut recently gave TRC several copies of Bernhard Schlink's The Reader to be discussed in March.
We have been fortunate to have writers and translators read from their writings at our meetings. Shazia Omar was present on the occasion of the TRC reading of her book Like a Diamond in the Sky. Dr Radha Chakravarty, who was in Dhaka for a few years, was also present on a number of occasions to discuss Bodymaps, her anthology of women's short stories and her translations of Tagore's Gora and Shesher Kavita. Foreign writers whose visits to Bangladesh have been initiated by TRC are Aruna Chakravarti, Amitav Ghosh, and Mani Sankar Mukherji. Aruna Chakravarti, well-known for her translation of Sunil Gangopadhay's books, visited Dhaka on the occasion of the India Bangladesh Festival of Books and Writers organized among others by the Indian High Commission and Independent University, Bangladesh. Amitav Ghosh's visit was occasioned by our reading of The Hungry Tide. Subsequently, TRC members saw The Bengal Tiger in the Sunderbans, a documentary directed by Razia Quadir and also visited the Sunderbans with Amitav Ghosh.
Similarly, Mani Sankar Mukherji's visit to Bangladesh last year was initiated by TRC. As on previous occasions, Independent University, Bangladesh hosted him. Apart from a workshop with IUB students in the morning of October 22 and an open lecture later that evening on the IUB campus, he attended a reception co-hosted by TRC and the Indira Gandhi Cultural Centre. On February 18, there was another joint event with the IGCC: a dramatized reading of Jasim Uddin's poem Nakshi Kanthar Math or The Field of the Embroidered Quilt.
TRC had been toying with the idea of visiting the Kolkata Book Fair and reading at the prestigious Oxford Books on Park Street. This January a few members of TRC along with a few members of Gantha made the trip. At the book fair, TRC members narrated their experiences as members of a reading circle. The highlight of the evening was the presence of Mani Sankar Mukherji, who spoke to the gathering, stressing the importance of readers for every writer. On January 28, Oxford Books co-hosted an evening for TRC with the International Book Club. Apart from briefly telling the audience which included among others, Bhaskar and Amita Mitter and Ruby Pal Choudhury about TRC and the books we have read, we also had some members read from books published in Bangladesh: Salma Karim, Shahruk Rahman, Raana Haider, and Jackie Kabir. Noorjahan Bose, a member of Gantha, read an excerpt from her memoir Agunmukhar Meye.
Reading is a solitary occupation, which threatens to become even more solitary with the emergence of e-books and e-book readers. But, for our generation, there is still nothing like the pleasure of books, of book fairs where there is scope for readers and writers to meet, and literary festivals where new authors can brush shoulders with older ones and meet their readers face to face, and, above all, book stores which provide space not only for books but also for readers. During his visit to Dhaka, Amitav Ghosh commended the relationship that Words 'n Pages then had with The Reading Circle. What could be better for a writer than to have dedicated readers and a book store that stocks his/her books and encourages the reading of those books by launching new books and hosting book clubs?
Despite all the difficulties in getting books, problems with venue and traffic jams, TRC has survived. We couldn't have done so without the determination of our members and the generous support we have received from individuals and institutions. But I do not know how much longer we can really continue if book stores with space large enough for reading addas cease to exist.

Prof. Niaz Zaman is one of the founding members of The Reading Circle.


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