Need for cultural enlightenment generally ignoredby Shahidul Islam Chowdhury
SUCCESSIVE governments have ignored the need for cultural enlightenment of the people in Bangladesh, says Biswa Sahitya Kendra president Professor Abdullah Abu Sayeed.
The prevailing political, social and educational system is also responsible for the general lack of enthusiasm for cultural enlightenment in general and developing reading habit in particular, Sayeed, who has founded the BSK with the motto of Alokito Manush Chai (We want enlightened people), said in an interview with New Age on Tuesday.
Biswa Sahitya Kendra was established 32 years ago to help create reading habits among people and develop a movement to promote enlightenment and progressive ideas. To what extent has the centre attained its goal so far?
We thought, after independence in 1971, that Bangladesh needed nation-builders — enlightened individuals of vision and values — to take the nation forward with effective leadership. We began a study circle and it was successful. We thought that, if we could replicate such a study circle in thousands across the country, it would help create enlightened people. We have tried to develop Biswa Sahitya Kendra with local resources as far as possible, because we are aware that any organisation, public or private, would generally seek to push the agenda of its financiers in one way or the other.
We are trying to create an environment that would help cultural development of the mind. We have lit a torch and are carrying it across the country. Whoever wants to take light and warmth from the torch can do so. I give emphasis on quantity, too. A process to be set in motion needs as many people as possible. The more people join in the more alive it becomes, creating a snowball effect.
I must say though that, in the beginning, the centre did not get its due importance. We got very little support from society. That is why we had to take time before going nationwide. A major reason for this was that we used to be an agrarian society. It is now becoming a bourgeois society. People who have earned or are earning some money talk about the importance of education and health services for their children. It is not only for the future of their children but also for the durability of their wealth, resource and fame — good or bad.
We did not want to rush, either. We tried to keep pace with reality although we were far advance in thinking. We believed in the strength of good thinking and warmth of people and resurgence of a literary movement that we had experienced in the 1960s.
I would not use the word ‘success’ to describe the centre’s progress. A thief or a fraud can become successful in their own way. I believe in contentment in work. I believe life is short and look out for merriment in my work.
The centre is evidently active in the capital, in cities and in big towns. Has it gone to remote areas to cater to the rural people?
We have gone to rural areas from the beginning. However, we are going to rural areas now on a bigger scale as the government has started to support the centre. At present, there are about 200,000 books at the centre. The programme is being implemented in 4,000 schools and colleges in 64 districts. The plan is to expand the programme to 8,000 schools and colleges in different areas, serving one million students by 2015. Forty-two mobile library units are currently covering 180 upazilas of 55 districts.
Did the government not provide support in the past?
There were hardly any. They have started to support the centre now because children of the persons those who matter in the government are the beneficiary of the centre. They feel changes in their children. The children now ask guardians to buy book to read. They have seen their children build small libraries at home over the years.
What changes you and the parents see in children?
Children who are in touch with the centre or its activities in Dhaka or elsewhere are becoming cultural minded. Their voice becomes soft and more humane.
What has prompted you to go to schools?
We want to reach all schools, public or private, across the country because the quality of education has fallen drastically in the past 40 years, yet enrolment of students has increased substantially.
The question of running this centre would not have arisen had the quality of education been good in the first place.
We are trying to develop and maintain a free and cheerful learning environment. I would not term it a non-formal approach because there is some kind of formality in the non-formal process.
What about higher studies?
Yes, we are now giving importance to higher studies for those who are preparing themselves for bigger challenges and responsibilities at the national level.
How about the use of music and films in the process?
A few years ago, while leaving the office, I saw a person enjoying classical music (at the centre). It was about 1:00am. I wondered who he was. What was he doing?
When I asked, he said he was a daroga (police officer) of Harirampur thana (in Manikganj). I was surprised. Everyone knows what people’s perception about a daroga is in our society. I knew a daroga could make people’s life hell if he was inhumane. So what’s wrong if we could ignite change in the mindset of a daroga? A relatively humane daroga can also be helpful to the person.
I believe music, film, art, and other cultural activities can reach deep inside the heart and mind of a person and can help people become enlightened.
Do you see any development in society?
It is difficult to sustain anything good in society as the country has turned into a hell. There is a saying that ‘how a temple or a mosque could be protected if fire breaks out in a city’. That’s why we have been looking for ‘God’ in people.
Have poor people not remained deprived of services of the centre?
Initially, we started working in towns as it was easier to cater to the students in relatively well-managed schools. I, however, believe
talent in a child does not come seeing the wealth of his or her family. Talent comes
from nature. Now we provide services in residential areas in cities and roadside crowded areas in remote areas so that anybody can
access the service. Many housewives take our services.
Do international lending agencies support the centre?
Most of the lending agencies do not provide funds and other support to projects taken for enlightenment of the people. Most foreigners believe Bangladesh’s people should get support only in catastrophic situation for food, shelter and others. Many of them question if Bangladesh’s people need cultural enlightenment at all.
I try, if they come and talk to me, to remind them that the French Renaissance developed much before the Industrial Revolution, which had marked a major turning point that influenced almost every aspect of peoples’ life in some way.
What is your view about the present educational system?
It is difficult to produce and get quality leaders for society from present-day schools and universities under the present educational system.
Why did the centre introduce mobile library?
There were small libraries in almost all localities or mahallas in Dhaka and other areas when we were young. People living in a certain area would run cultural activities under the banner of the local libraries. But most of the libraries have become dysfunctional or non-existent over the years as there is hardly anybody to engage in social and cultural activities without benefit now. Most of the people now talk in material terms and ask for money for whatever they do.
We introduced mobile library to take library facilities to the doorsteps of the people with small support from the Norwegian and Danish embassies in Dhaka.
Is language a barrier to reading habit?
We provided all books in Bangla in the initial years as there was hardly any reader for English books. Recently we have introduced about 30,000 English books to meet an increasing demand.
What is the reason for the surge in the number of readers of English books? Do English-medium schools play any role?
No. English-medium schools teach only
language without its proper accent. These schools are nothing but business entities established for commercial purpose. They
do not teach students how to become good human being.
Have you observed any change in the reading habit of children?
They are our future. We need to dedicate full concentration and resource to them.
With the emergence of internet and computer, have you observed any significant change in the reading habit?
Many people thought that internet and computer would bring a huge change in people’s reading habit. But it did not come true. Technology failed to change the serious readers.
Elites in societies used to go for golf, billiard, horse race and cricket. Now most of them go for light entertainment. Computer, internet and television are mainly used for light entertainment. There is hardly anything serious.
Yes, technology has some influence on persons who like light reading including crime thrillers. But most technologies, including Facebook, have damaging effect on society.
You can solve mathematics and do light reading keeping television on and loud. But you cannot read a serious book keeping television on. A serious book demands total attention.
Books were written on stones and leaves in the past. Now books are printed on papers. Yes, some books are available online. But readers, who are thinking persons and have capacity to read serious books, always prefer printed version of books. It is true that we cannot make available all serious books to our serious readers due to resource constraints.
Technology, however, helps to build up a huge storage of knowledge in limited space.
Most of the public libraries in districts and upazilas are in bad condition due to neglect by successive governments. Why?
The governments in Bangladesh do not have the capacity to maintain good things. You would see a catalyst, a dedicated and to some extent enlightened person behind any private library. We work with pains and anxiety as the existing schools and education system fail to produce enlightened persons.
But you will see the absence of such persons in government-run libraries. You will see a non-enthusiastic librarian, a sleeping guard and an all-time-annoyed counter clerk at public libraries. There is no accountability. It is totally frustrating.
The number of libraries founded voluntarily is also decreasing. Why?
There were dreams in the 1960s to develop a society which would be rich politically, socially, economically and culturally. People also joined the war of liberation with same dream.
But after 40 years of independence, the present social, economic and educational system are producing consumers and persons dedicated only for material gains.
There were 1,200 members of the centre when we founded it 32 years ago with 100,000 books. About 600 of them who had taken one book each on the first day never came back to the centre. They even did not return the book. About 400 readers were there for light reading. We have got only 200 persons who were in fact enthusiastic about reading books of different genres.
Now I understand that we opened a shop without doing any market survey. Society has not changed much in 32 years. We, however, need to continue our journey. And we will do that to reach door to door.
What would be the impact of price hike on book?
Yes, the price of books has also increased. But people consumed rice two takas per quintal in the past. Now they consume 50 takas per kilogram.
Most school libraries are in bad conditions, too. Why?
There is hardly any library in most of the schools. The government abolished the post of librarian in line with the recommendation of the Enam Education Commission when HM Ershad was president.
Successive governments have provided some books to schools. These books are, however, kept under lock and key under the supervision of most unpopular teachers so that students do not demand them.
The government has, however, restored the post of librarians for schools.
How do you see the role of teachers in developing reading habit in students?
Successive governments have politicised appointment of teachers. Most of the teachers allegedly pay three to four lakh takas to get a job. What ideals can you expect from them?
How do you see the role of NGOs in developing reading habit?
They do not have any role. In most of the cases, they only dance to the tune played by their fund providers. The fund providers, on the other hand, provide some funds for awareness programmes that have hardly any impact on cultural enlightenment of the stakeholders.
Successive governments have purchased books for public and school libraries on political considerations instead of keeping contents of books in consideration. What is your view about the trend?
I have said we were an agrarian society ruled by foreigners. The highest position in our society was morol (village leader). These morols-with-tiny-hearts are now holding positions in the rank and file of the government. They see and operate thinks with narrow political mindset, not to speak of systemic corruption and other corrupt practices. Almost everyone talks in terms of money.
So, I think it will take at least 50 years to see some positive changes in society. I believe that the government should play the facilitator instead of doing everything by itself.
I, however, appreciate that the government provided a fund from a project of the facilities department to the centre to build up a new building.
What should be the role of politicians in developing enlightened persons who would lead the country in future?
Politicians do not have any role in the government system. Only chiefs of the two major political parties decide how the political show would be run. Politicians have no voice now. Can people’s representatives who have been elected by voters in responsive constituencies say what they want to say at all? No.
Politics is now in trouble. Nobody knows where the current politics would lead us to.
What obstacles have you faced in developing the centre?
We had to wait years as there was a shortage of cash. I cannot ask for fund, especially to foreigners.
Do you have any regret?
I do not believe in regret. I prefer to take positive sides if there are both positive and negative sides in a situation. Because positive things keep us live.
I admit that we could have done many things. We wasted time waiting for funds.
It, however, has helped develop a character of the institution. Everyone here is happy with a small amount of money despite many shortcomings.
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