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Kitabistan: A forgotten tale of partition

  • Published at 01:08 pm August 17th, 2021


(Translated by Marzia Rahman) 


Sometime in 2007, at a seminar at Independent University in Dhaka, when a paper titled “Kitabistan: Remembering a pre-partition publisher” was being read, most people in the audience shifted in their seats. The presenter, Ali A Rehman, an English professor of Rajshahi University, grabbed all the attention as he read out in palatable prose the success story of a publishing house, Kitabistan, and its untimely tragic demise. His personal account left a permanent mark on my mind though I never got around to knowing more about this. 

We get carried away by the tide of life, and we get busy. Ultimately the wonderful story of Kitabistan got buried in my mind. Nearly a decade later, while reading The Daily Star sometime in 2016, I came across a review of a book titled Literature, History and Culture: Writings in Honour of Professor Ali Arifur Rehman. A photo of the professor was attached to the review and under the photo was brightly written the dates of his birth and death: August 29, 1950 – March 13, 2013. I soon realised that the writer of that paper on Kitabistan and this Mr Ali Rehman were the same person. 

How I’d desired to meet with him and talk about Kitabistan in detail! I had not taken any initiative, though. Now fulfilling my desire is impossible as he was beyond anyone’s reach. Even then, I think I should do my part in recounting the story of Kitabistan to readers because this is not just a woeful story of a publishing house, this is also a story that helps us understand the price at which partition came – the pangs and traumas that it stands for. 

Kitabistan was a book publication house founded in 1930 in Allahabad, India by Ali A Rehman’s father Mutatz Obaidur Rehman and Uncle Muktadir Kolimur Rehman. In ten years, it rose to fame surprisingly all over India and even set up an office in London. But the next decade came with a massive set-back that ultimately led to its disintegration and the displacement of Rehman’s family. In 1949 the Indian government marked the publication house as evacuee property, citing as reason that one of its publishers (Muktadir Kolimur Rehman) had migrated to West Pakistan. Obaidur Rehman stayed back with his family and fought legal battles against the government but the house received another blow in 1955 when the government auctioned it off. A heartbroken Obaidur Rehman moved to East Pakistan along with his family for good. 

Ali A Rehman studied in Rajshahi. Later he obtained a PhD from British Columbia University in Canada. Upon his return from Canada, he took up a teaching position at Rajshahi University. It was much later in his life that Ali came to know about his father’s publication house and became involved in exploring its glorious past. With the death of his father and without any record of the books, it proved a daunting task for Ali to assemble the titles published by Kitabistan. His relentless effort bore fruit and he could come up with a list of nearly sixty titles. Mostly, he recorded the books published between 1933 and 1949. 

From the list it was clear that Kitabistan had attained success swiftly and even set up an office in London with further plans. Kitabistan’s target was to create an Indian book market in England. To do so, works of Indian writers needed to be published from Britain and vice versa. The vision of the publisher-brothers, no doubt, was far ahead of their time, incomprehensible to the mass people. The list of publications by Kitabistan would surprise anyone. It featured unique titles by renowned writers as well as emerging ones, by social workers and philosophers. Sarojini Naidu, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose, historian Ramesh Chandra Dutt and poet Toru Dutt, to name just a few. 

The Rehman brothers had a reputation for encouraging eminent personalities to write on their respective fields. They took the responsibility of printing them as well. This type of venture resulted in books like Prajesh Banerjea’s Folk Dance of India (1944), GAC Pande’s Art of Kothakoli (1943), and Premkumar’s The Language of Kothakoli: A Guide to Madraz (1948). In 1930, Kitabistan gained the right to publish the second edition of Jawaharlal Nehru’s A Father’s Letters to his Daughter. Later they published Nehru’s Where Are You? (1939), China, Spain and the War: Essays and Writings, and Glimpses of World History. 

A dispute arose between Nehru and the Kitabistan publishers regarding the copyright of Glimpses of World History. Addressing Muktadir Kalimur Rahman, Nehru dispatched a letter expressing his disappointment with Muktadir's unwillingness to give up the copyright to an English publication house. But later both the party arrived at a mutual understanding. The book was co-published next year by Lindsey Dramond and Kitabistan. Some interesting titles, like Muflishuddin Ahmed’s Learn to Hypnotise and Cure, was published by Kitabistan from London while a few English writers’ works were published from Allahabad. Diana Fredrix’s Diana: A Strange Autobiography (first published by Dayal Press in London 1939), a book written under pseudonym that discusses lesbianism openly was one of their many unique and daring ventures. 

Another bold work was Sheila Cousins's To Beg I am Ashamed. Also written under pseudonym, the book depicts the life of a prostitute in London, and was first published in England and America in 1938, and later from Allahabad in 1940. What the Rehman brothers dared to publish was even incomprehensible to British publishers at that time. A quick look at the publishing history of Kitabistan would show its special interest in nonfiction. Except a few poems in English by Sarojini Naidu, Toru Dutt, and some collections of Indian music, most of Kitabistan’s books were essays in different subjects. Politics, history, literature and logic were their main fields of interest. Another unique feature of this publishing house was their endeavour to hunt for new talents. This search led them to people like Alex Aronson who had fled from Europe to escape the Holocaust and taken refuge in Tagore’s Shantiniketon where he stayed till 1943. His book, Rabindranath Tagore: Through Western Eyes, was published by Kitabistan in 1943. 

Another debut work based on war by an Australian journalist Wilfrend Berchant was published as well. Kitabistan published a book by Margaret Cousins, the Irish-Indian feminist who led the women empowerment movement in British India. In 1941, her book, Indian Womanhood Today, came into the market. It also published a book by Aruna Asaf Ali, a leader of India’s independence movement. A few other memorable titles were ZA Ahmed’s Philosophy of Socialism, Bertrand Russell’s Roads to Freedom: Socialism, M Ilin and E Segal’s How Man Became Giant etc. As publishers, the Rehman brothers’ apt choice of books, their pure professionalism, business success and ultimately their journey from Allahabad to London surely mark them as one of the finest publishers in the history of the Indian subcontinent. 

Sadly, instead of being recognised for their immense contribution to the publishing industry, they were driven into oblivion, with a heart-rending displacement of their family. Like million other deaths, Kitabistan lost its life in the aftermath of partition. Both the publishers -- one migrated to West Pakistan, and the other to a small town of erstwhile East Pakistan -- spent the remaining life in isolation perhaps trying to come to terms with the death of their publishing house. Ali A Rehman’s main occupation in the latter parts of his life was in relocating and reclaiming the past glory of Kitabistan, an irrevocable loss that could not be restored but that remained as a forgotten chapter of the tragedy called partition. 

(Abridged from a longer version of the Bengali original) 

Mofidul Hoque is a co-founder and one of eight Trustees of the Liberation War Museum. He is a writer, researcher and publisher based in Dhaka. His books include ‘Deshbagh, Sampradayikata Ebong Sampreetir Sadhana’ (University Press Limited, 2012), which is a scholarly take on different aspects of the 1947 partition of India

Marzia Rahman is a writer and translator based in Dhaka.

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