The promise and challenge of Bangla in the digital age
Every Ekushey, we renew our pledge to the language martyrs of 1952 that we will ensure that our beloved Bangla continues to flourish. To redeem this pledge, we need to remember a critical fact: The continued survival of a language depends on how well it adapts to the changing technologies of the age.
Where is Bangla headed? Can we feel secure in the knowledge that Bangla will not only survive but also thrive in the digital age?
The digital age offers both enormous promise and challenge. Language and culture flourish under complex social and political circumstances. Having said that, there are historical moments when technological innovation becomes a game changer.
Consider German printer Johannes Gutenberg's invention of movable type, circa 1450. This quantum technological leap completely changed how printed material reached the public. Books and periodicals, once the domain of calligraphers, were no longer limited to an extremely small elite. Mass publications led to exponential growth in dissemination of ideas.
Bangla had to wait over three and a half centuries until the 18th century, when Christian missionaries introduced printing. Contact with Europeans at this time resulted in an intellectual efflorescence of upper caste bhadralok Bengali Hindus. With the founding of Fort William College in Kolkata, and a robust exchange of ideas with a newly enabled culture of books and periodicals, modern Bangla was born. A variety of factors led to the rebirth of Bangla, but the introduction of printing provided the key impetus.
Fast forward to the final decades of the 20th century. The digital age is another quantum technological leap that was a global cultural inflection point. Digital technology and the Internet revolutionised language and communication. Its most significant contribution was to offer universal access to the printed word. Once limited to a chosen few who could type, now even a first-grade kid could write her school report on a laptop at home.
As the digital revolution spread all over the world, it became disturbingly clear that all languages are not created equal. Affluent, technologically advanced nations adapted to new digital changes with alacrity, while languages like Bangla (and other South Asian languages, for example) fell way behind. Although Bangla did not wait as it did for the printing press, it was definitely a latecomer to the digital party. It faced serious setbacks in the beginning. There wasn't a user-friendly Bangla word-processing software, so it was very difficult to type (this led to the God-awful use of "Banglish"—typing Bangla in Roman script). In the beginning, a gaggle of players developed Bangla software, but there was an amateurish, boutique feel about the efforts.
The advent of the Web presented its own set of problems. There was no standard for Bangla font. Web pages had different installed fonts, which could show up as junk text on anybody's screen. In desperation, some designers displayed Bangla text as graphic files. In such circumstances, a Web search in Bangla was a fool's errand.
Bangla has come a long, long way since then. Mass usage of Bangla on the computer is comparable today with any other developed language—a breathtaking achievement since the bad old days. How this came about is a quirky story. It was in Bangladesh—where official usage of the language is ubiquitous—that the need for professional Bangla word-processing software was most deeply felt. Amid a number of abortive attempts, Bijoy word-processing software came to rule the roost. The software became—and still is—the industry standard in Bangla publishing in Bangladesh. But mass usage was still a pipe-dream because Bijoy came with a catch. It had its own Bangla keyboard. A user had to master a separate keyboard in addition to the traditional QWERTY Roman keyboard of the computer.
So while Bijoy brought Bangla up to speed in the digital age, its socio-cultural effect was regressive. The need to master a separate Bangla keyboard proved too onerous for the general computer user. Only a select few whose profession demanded it—typists and print industry people—mastered Bijoy. All of this was reminiscent of the pre-digital era when access to the printed word belonged only to a chosen few who could type or set type.
It was not long before a remarkable new Bangla software stepped into the breach. The true credit of universal usage of Bangla in computers must go to the Avro word-processing software. Avro's masterstroke was to take a page from the word-processing rationale followed by languages like Chinese, Japanese and Korean. Word-processing in these languages present a difficult challenge. Chinese and Japanese, for instance, have thousands of characters. How does one design a keyboard for it? Software designers came up with a brilliant solution. Instead of using keys to represent script, why not use the QWERTY keyboard and spell out the words? In other words, use the Roman keyboard and spell the words phonetically in the Roman alphabet. This spared the user from mastering a separate keyboard. Anybody who used a computer was familiar with the QWERTY keyboard anyway.
To be sure, Avro was not the first phonetic Bangla software. But Avro had two things going for it. It was free and it was open source. What that means is the public-spirited designer made the source code freely available for further innovation. This has led other public-spirited software designers to constantly update and embellish it so that today it is a sturdy, extraordinarily user-friendly software that can be used on Windows, Mac and pretty much anywhere else.
As a Bangladeshi, I feel proud that Avro is the overwhelming favourite software for Bangla all over the world (I have no statistics, but my guess is Google input tools may be a distant second). Universal access to Bangla on the computer has led to prodigious Bangla content on the Web, and with acceptance of Unicode font as standard for Bangla, it is possible to search the Web in Bangla. The Bangla Wikipedia page is a growing resource.
However, universal access to Bangla on the computer is a means, not an end. The broader goal is to use this extraordinarily powerful digital technology to promote Bangla publishing. One critical area where Bangla has missed a trick is in the field of eBooks. An eBook is a version of the printed book that can be accessed on the laptop, smartphone or tablet or a specialised device expressly designed for the purpose of reading books, for example, the Kindle eBook reader made by Amazon.
According to the American Association of Publishers, 234 million eBooks were sold in the US in 2018 (this is 13 percent of total sales of a whopping 1.8 billion books sold in all formats). Given the dire state of the Bangla publishing industry—the average print run of a Bangla book is a paltry 300 books in Bangladesh—eBooks offer an especially promising avenue (the publishing industry in West Bengal is considerably more robust, but I worry about stagnation when I see authors who were in their prime several decades ago, some deceased, still on current bestseller lists).
The initial costs of publishing eBooks are minimal; storage, shipping and subsequent production costs are negligible, and its reach is global. Bangla readers, it must be remembered, are spread out all over the world with substantial expatriate communities in the US, UK and the Middle East. Yet, eBooks have an appalling record in Bangla publishing. None of the leading publishers in Dhaka or Kolkata published Bangla eBooks until last year, when Ananda Publishers in Kolkata, the heavyweight in Bangla publishing, launched eBooks on its customised app. In Bangladesh, Bengal Books was the only leading publisher that attempted a short-lived effort to publish eBooks, and now, only Adarsha Publishers publishes eBooks. Its website mentions a booklist of 157 books, but it's not clear how many are available as eBooks. In West Bengal, relatively smaller boutique publishing houses like Parul, Guruchandali and Srishtisukh publish eBooks. The size of the booklist is modest.
Why have Bangla eBooks failed to take off? Is this a chicken-and-egg problem? Is it Bangla publishing that is reacting to reader apathy, or are readers scarce because a culture of reading Bangla eBooks has failed to develop due to the lack of eBooks? Are Bangla readers too old-fashioned to adopt the new technology of reading books online?
The Facebook group BoierHut offers a stirring rebuttal to naysayers. The group, launched in 2012 by an Atlanta-based Bangladeshi expat bibliophile, has grown into a global family of Bangla book lovers. A group of administrators from Bangladesh and West Bengal screen over 500 posts each day to maintain the Facebook group, which is dedicated to discussions exclusively about Bangla books and literature, exclusively in Bangla. It has over 165,000 members, drawn from West Bengal, Bangladesh and pretty much all over the world, and provides access to over 40,000 online Bangla books put up by members. Administrators say massive numbers of books are downloaded, though obviously the fact that a book is downloaded does not prove that it has been read.
BoierHut founders readily concede that making all these books available is an ethically grey area that raises copyright issues. However, BoierHut has never made a cent on this, so the whole effort is towards promoting Bangla books and literature. The stunningly positive response from Bangla readers has apparently generated enough goodwill to soothe the qualms of publishers, because BoierHut is on excellent terms with publishers in both Dhaka and Kolkata. Last year, BoierHut took another historic step and started publishing Bangla books on Amazon's Kindle. There have been scattershot efforts before this, but BoierHut is the first to do it in a professional way. It registered as a company in the US and officially signed up with Amazon. It signed contracts with authors and publishers, pledging a commission on sales.
All told, there are currently over 70 titles with authors from Dhaka and Kolkata. Of course, it's a long, steep, uphill climb, and total sales are quite modest—around 450 eBooks.
This makes BoierHut's efforts all the more laudable—this is obviously far from a get-rich-quick scheme. Instead, BoierHut represents one of the loftier Bangladeshi traditions epitomised by organisations like Chhayanaut and Bengal Foundation—it is dedicated to the broader goal of promoting culture. There are caveats. Amazon supports purchases in India but does not support purchases in Bangladesh, so readers in Bangladesh have to find a workaround (the same titles are available on Google Play). Even more galling, Amazon does not support Bangla—although it supports Hindi and Gujarati. Bangla books, therefore, are in a grey area.
All of this goes to show that Bangla eBooks still have some ways to go. However, we can take heart from the fact that in the initial days, Bangla had a rough time entering the computer age, but ultimately weathered the challenges quite well. With hard work and dedication, a concerted effort is the need of the hour to build Bangla eBooks as a robust outlet for Bangla publishing.
Literature is the cradle of our culture, and it draws sustenance from the vibrant exchange of ideas made possible by books and periodicals. It is the essence of our identity, and its promotion is the most meaningful way to honour the memory of the martyrs of 1952.
Ashfaque Swapan, an Atlanta-based writer and editor, is contributing editor for Siliconeer, an online South Asian publication.
Select web resources on Bangla literature and culture
This is a closed group on Facebook for Bangla book lovers. You can also go to Amazon.com and search "boiherhut"—over 70 titles will show up.
An archive of over 5,000 Bangla books from both Bangladesh and West Bengal, freely downloadable at Amarboi.com.
Library of Congress recordings of Bangla writers
Audio recordings of some of the giants of Bangla literature reading from their own work, including Humayun Ahmed, Shamsur Rahman Sunil Gangopadhyay and Nabaneeta Dev Sen. Other writers include Selina Hossain, Mahasveta Devi, Nirmalendu Goon and Sankha Ghosh. Link: https://www.loc.gov/acq/ovop/delhi/salrp/bengali.html.
Songs by numerous artists, and short stories, novels, poetry, essays, etc of Rabindranath Tagore at tagoreweb.in.
Liberation War Archive
An astonishingly rich archive of books, documents, essays, audio and video on Bangladesh's Liberation War in 1971 at liberationwarbangladesh.org.