In search of books in a South Asian city
‘A crisis in South Asian reading’ was my first headline for this piece, until I picked up the main English daily and saw a picture of a bus burning, furious protestors on the march, opposition leaders arrested and imprisoned. As if to hammer home the point, the British papers led with stories about the eurozone being ripped apart at a cost of €1 trillion. Put in perspective, the lack of people wandering the streets of Dhaka with their faces buried in War and Peace or Tagore’s Gitanjali hardly constitutes a crisis.
Still, this is a tough place to be a reader. Once the excitement of the Ekushey Boi Mela subsided, I was left to scavenge for scraps off other people’s shelves. When I asked a friend whether there were any English novels in her house, she replied with a cheerful ‘Oh no, we don’t read books.’ It’s a statement I’ve heard echoed more than once, and yet it’s as ridiculous a generalisation as ‘I don’t listen to music’ or ‘I don’t like films.’
Nobody should have a problem with statements along the lines of ‘I’m not really into Lady Gaga’ or ‘Coldplay have about as much genuine emotion and creativity as a baked potato’, but who could dismiss every piece of music ever written, from Johann Sebastian Bach to Justin Bieber? Books, like music and movies, are simply not a homogeneous category, but it’s hard to build an accurate picture of what’s out there unless you spend some time reading, just as it’s hard to get an impression of the music scene by flicking the radio on and off a few times every day and hearing snatches of Bollywood songs.
Still, there are plenty of people here who don’t read books. Syed Badrul Ahsan, writing in The Daily Star (the Dhaka version, which can be easily differentiated from the English version by the marked absence of half-naked women from its pages), reports that Dhaka is a city ‘where books are going out of fashion and bookshops are being pushed through something euphemistically called downsizing.’ ‘The intellectual poverty’, he writes, ‘is overwhelming.’ And that sense of intellectual poverty isn’t limited to Dhaka: he singles out Islamabad as another example of an impoverished city.
Does Ahsan have a point? His argument is taken up by Asad Badruddin, relying on anecdotal evidence in a way that suggests his copy was written in a hurry, perhaps half an hour before a deadline:
‘…here in Pakistan we have no culture of reading. A story vividly illustrates this. I was at JFK airport catching a flight back to Karachi from New York.
Reaching the terminal where the planes headed to Pakistan were located (you could tell because the terminal consisted of fidgeting people being entirely of South Asian descent with announcements being made in Urdu). One thing set this group apart from other terminals in every airport I have visited so far – not one of these people was reading a book!
I’m not even talking about great literature; not even cheap fiction or romantic wish wash! They all seemed to be either students studying at colleges or professionals from a variety of ages. It was hardly the case that they were not educated enough or did not have the financial resources to invest in books.
Go to any airport or board a train in any Western country and you will see people reading books. And I don’t mean school textbooks or study guides or cheat sheets that seem to proliferating around bookstores in the country. Why is this so in Pakistan? It’s probably a combination of a lack of curiosity, indifference, and an attitude that perhaps assumes knowledge of all answers to questions. ‘
‘The West’ is hardly a Utopia for book lovers, but it’s true that a fair amount of people still read on trains and in airports. What I’ve seen since arriving here does offer some support for Badruddin’s rather sweeping dismissal of an entire nation’s literary culture. Having copied a vast chunk of Badruddin’s opinion piece, I’m on a slippery slope regarding plagiarism, so I’ll try hard not to add arrogance to the list of charges against me. I’ve been in Dhaka for just over three months, when three decades would probably be needed to come to an assessment of the cultural scene. Nevertheless, I’ve noticed a few cultural differences which may or may not contribute to the ‘intellectual poverty’ which Syed Badrul Ahsan claims to see all around him:
1. Real poverty
Frankly, who gives a damn about intellectual poverty when the real thing is waiting to greet you (and ask for ‘just 10 Taka, boss’) each time you step out onto the street? Books shouldn’t be a priority in a country where thousands of people have no homes to go to and can barely afford a bowl of rice. Disposable income is a distant dream for the majority of people here, and books could easily end up being identified with a greedy elite: perhaps Joyce, Shakespeare and Dickens are simply shibboleths –secret passwords spoken to gain admission to a society of cultural imperialists.
When columnists bemoan the intellectual poverty of Bangladeshis, Indians, Pakistanis, they’re referring to wealthy Bangladeshis, wealthy Indians, wealthy Pakistanis. It’s the burgeoning middle classes who, they feel, should be reading more widely and more often.
2. The results-driven approach
Around the world, Asians are regarded as being a bit obsessive about exams (to put it mildly). Earlier this month, the BBC reported that researchers in The Lancet have identified a staggering rise in eye problems among Asian school leavers, with ‘up to 90%’ suffering from myopia. That barely-believable percentage was attributed to ‘working very hard in school’, which sounds unfathomable until you realise that, here, even primary school kids go for after-school tuition and are placed under enormous amounts of pressure when it comes to end-of-term exams.
One of the long-term consequences of that approach, apart from (arguably) creating a society of joyless drones, is to foreground a ‘means to an end’ approach to learning. When everything is geared towards exams and exam results, everything is assessed in terms of whether it can ensure academic success. ‘Learning for learning’s sake’ is no longer a viable option. Why read Hamlet when you can get as good a mark by looking up the plot summary on SparkNotes?
‘The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it immensely. All art is quite useless,’ wrote Oscar Wilde at the end of the preface to Dorian Gray. In that case, thinks the hard-pushed South Asian student, why bother? Bizarrely, the relentless focus on academic achievement becomes responsible for the deterioration of intellectual culture.
3. Space/time conundrum
In almost all cases, reading is a solitary activity. You shut yourself away from the world for an hour or more, and it only works if you sit in complete silence – reading aloud irritates the hell out of just about everybody in close proximity. In Bangladesh, it seems a lot harder to find time and space to yourself: even when I was ill in the first week, the ‘domestic staff’ (essentially a euphemism for servants) crowded around to watch me throw up.
There’s a Bangla word for almost every member of the family, from mama (mum’s brother) and chacha (dad’s brother) outwards, and family units are much closer than they are in the UK. You’re expected to spend time with every family member who comes to call – and they call frequently. With long working days and evenings dedicated to family life, where do you find the time to read? Where do you find the space?
4. Commodity fetishisation
Perhaps reading simply isn’t cool anymore. Generally, two topics have dominated conversations since I arrived in Dhaka: religion and money. More than most Westerners, South Asians are fascinated by big brands. Early on, I was informed – with a great deal of patriotic excitement – that BMW had sold more of its cars in Bangladesh than in any other Asian country last year. At a slightly more affordable level, people here are particularly keen on Apple products, and it’s not unusual to see someone thumbing their iPad as they walk unheedingly past another beggar.
Commodities become status symbols. It’s an obvious point that the man in Gulshan who has 30 cars in his garage owns them not because he needs 30 cars, but because he needs everyone else to know just how powerful he is. A well-stocked library might reinforce your intellectual status, but people are more likely to be impressed by laptops, smartphones, designer clothes… any number of things which are instantly recognisable as ‘cool’.
For that reason, it seems likely that the short-term future of reading may lie with Kindles and e-readers, while the bookshops are left to ‘downsize’ one by one.
I’m completely aware that this piece contains a number of dangerous, ill-considered assumptions, and many of the same problems exist in Europe and North America. Still, I can’t help feeling that book lovers face a unique set of challenges in this part of the world, and it’s not impossible that we’ll end up with a generation of ‘lost readers’.