The Bangladesh Bible Society stall at the Amar Ekushey Book Fair in Dhaka. It was the only Christian stall out of 663 at the largest annual book fair in the country. (ucanews.com photo)
Every year, the Bangla Academy, the state-run language and literature institute in Bangladesh, organizes Amar Ekushey Boi Mela, a month-long book fair in February in the capital city Dhaka.
It is Bangladesh's biggest literary festival and commemorates the Bengali language heroes, who were killed by police on Feb. 21, 1952 while protesting a plan from the then Pakistan government to make Urdu the state language instead of the local Bengali. The fair has a nationalist focus as the movement led to independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan after a brief, bloody war in 1971.
This year, the fair featured 663 bookstalls, 409 publishers and showcased 4,000 newly published books and thousands more in reprint, drawing millions of visitors.
However, there was only one Christian publishing house out the ten in Bangladesh who had a stall at the fair: the Protestant-run Bangladesh Bible Society. The scenario is no different than other years.
Pratibeshi Prakashani, the publishing wing of the Christian Communication Center missed out for the seventh consecutive year. Bangla Academy requires a publishing house to have 50 original books published in the past three years to claim a space. With 26 books published during this period, the country's only Catholic publisher fell short of the criteria.
Visitors at the month-long Amar Ekushey Book Fair in February in Dhaka. Bangladeshi Christian writers have decried the decline of Christian literature in the country. (ucanews.com photo)
A golden legacy lost
In Muslim-majority Bangladesh, Christians account for less than half a percent of country's 160 million people. There are an estimated 600,000 Christians in the country and the majority are Catholics.
Despite being a minuscule minority, Christians are highly regarded for their outstanding contributions in education, health services and development activities especially for poor and disadvantaged people.
Moreover, Christians are also credited for enriching the Bengali language and literature, albeit centuries ago, not in recent times.
"We consider Pratibeshi Prakashani a traditional powerhouse of Christian literature and writers but its failure to publish 50 books in three years shows a serious cultural and intellectual poverty," said Theophil Nokrek, an indigenous Garo Catholic, rights activist and author.
"Pratibeshi celebrated its 75th jubilee and boasted that it has created many writers but they failed and continue to fail in making a nationwide impact. There are Christian authors who write in dailies, magazines and online but they are not interested in publishing books because they don't realize that books denote the maturity of a writer," said Nokrek.
This year, Nokrek published two books — a travelogue and a collection of poetry — taking his tally of published books up to seven.
"Christians claim they are intellectuals in the community but I cannot believe it considering their poor performance in the fields of language and literature today," he added.
Lack of enthusiasm and patronage
Soumitra Shekhor, professor of the Bengali department at the University of Dhaka, said that it was difficult to determine the reasons behind the decline of Christian writers.
"There is a lack of enthusiasm among Christians for creative writing. This might be because they were not very serious about writing from the beginning. While some still try to publish books, they lack high standards and also suffer from lack of patronage as well," he said.
If Christians can still make outstanding contributions in education and health, it is possible for them to excel in literary fields as well, he said.
"All they need is proper care and patronage. If they are ensured such support, I'm sure good writers will emerge from the Christian community," Shekhor added.
The case of the Bangladesh Bible Society highlights how patronage can push improvement.
The society has published more than 100 books in the past three years, mostly religious books. These were displayed at the fair and drew much attention.
"We feel proud that the bible society has found a place here amid an upsurge in communalism and religious intolerance globally and in our country. Lots of people, mostly non-Christians, visited our stall and expressed interest in Christianity and the Bible. We have also made good sales," said the Rev. Shourabh Pholia, secretary general of the society.
The Rev. Pholia said that there were some weaknesses in the Christian community that held back creative writing.
"Christian publishing houses mostly publish religious books; not literary items. Moreover, they often depend on foreign funding to keep going rather than local resources. There are highly educated people in the community but not people with expertise on literature and language. There is also a lack of patronage for individual authors," he said.
Father Augustine Bulbul Rebeiro, director of the Christian Communication Center said that the Christian community faced challenges from the beginning that were unfavorable for writing.
"To write creatively, one needs to be solvent and influenced by an ideology. In the beginning Christians were not solvent, so they spent whatever they had on the education of their children and they never considered or dreamt of taking up writing as way of earning a living," he told ucanews.com.