The books we read as children have a much stronger influence on us than the ones we read as adults. When I was little, my only goal was to finish one book and get started on the next. I probably wasn't mature enough to think too deeply about the underlying themes of a book - until I read Alor Pakhira by Shahriar Kabir. The book shows the friendship between a Muslim and a Hindu boy, during a tumultuous time of communal riots.
I went to a missionary school with kids of all religions, and I had never seen anyone being discriminated against solely because of their faith. Alor Pakhira burst my utopian missionary school bubble. Kabir says in the introduction of a Kishor Shomogro that he thinks that young readers can handle heavier themes like communalism and politics. He finds it important to talk about certain issues in these books, because it might just have a positive influence on kids. While many of his books are deeply influenced by leftist ideologies and 20th century politics, he has also written lighter memoirs, short stories, mysteries, and thrillers. I read all of it when I was young, and every one of his stories was an experience in itself.
Very few writers manage to bring diversity into their work - be it in terms of character, story, themes, or background. Most of Kabir's protagonists were boys, but he says in the introduction of Kishor shomogro 4 that once he noticed this, he tried to incorporate more female characters in his novels. Quite a few of his books, such as Rajprashad e Shorjontro and Ratneshwarir Kalo Chhaya have strong female characters - something that Bangladeshi writers get wrong or fail to incorporate even to this day.
Shahriar Kabir once mentioned that he wanted to write original stories that Bangladeshi readers had never read before, and I think he was one of the first people in the country to successfully write young-adult (YA) novels which had in them a sense of novelty. One of his most famous works, Hariye Jawar Thikana, came out in 1976. My mother loved it back then, and made me read it when I was a teenager. The book explores into communism and glimpses of young love. The storytelling is masterful, and I would recommend it to any young-adult who loves to read.
I grew interest in travelling to Europe because so many of Kabir's novels are set in places like Poland, Romania, Germany, etc. The book Bavaria'r Rohosshomoy Durgo put Munich's Oktoberfest on my bucket list.
The first book I had read by Shahriar Kabir was a little novel called Nicholas Rozario'r Chelera. I was in primary school then and I had just joined a girls' scout programme called “Yellow Birds” at school. In my daily hunt for old books around my house, I found a torn copy of this book that belonged to my aunt. The first page had a note from my dad - he'd bought it for his sister from the Ekushey book fair in 1989.
Every time I found a book with a note in it, I cherished it a bit more. I still treat these books as family heirlooms. So, I read that torn book with a wonky cover illustration, and I was amazed to see that there were other people in the world who experienced all the strange rules of missionary schools and participated in scout activities. The book remained a favourite throughout my childhood, and I've read that same copy so many times that the spine has fallen off by now.
Kabir himself went to St Gregory's school in Dhaka, and his experiences are reflected in many of his stories. He has a memoir called Shadhu Gregory'r Dingulo which is funny yet insightful. I had never read stories set in a place that was almost exactly like the school I went to, and I was delighted to find something so relatable.
I tried sharing these books with my school friends, but none of them wanted to read them. Kabir was never the most popular author among Bangladeshi millennials, with most of his works being released in the late 60s to the 90s. But his old works are still there, and they're beautifully written, so why did people forget about them?
It could very well be that there were other more popular authors like Humayun Ahmed and Muhammed Zafar Iqbal who had multiple books release every year, so no one ever went back to books from the 20th century. This is quite unfortunate for readers, because they are missing out on some of the best books ever published in Bangladesh, in my opinion.
Every year, I see multiple articles lamenting Bangladeshi readers' affinity towards Indian writers, saying how this is hurting our country's publishing sector. Yet we fail to remember some of the best writers our country has produced. Parents should pass on their favourite books to their children, and school libraries should encourage kids to borrow books because we must keep some works alive. A story can only live as long as readers remember it.
The writer particularly enjoyed Shahriar Kabir's description of food. She has found that only expert writers can make readers salivate with their descriptions of soup and bread. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.