In today’s world, all these collaborative practices may seem all too usual but Ahmed was most certainly the first from Bangladesh and one of the first in South Asia to have started these practices, way before all the fancy multinational enterprises set up their shops in India.
By June 22 I had got used to hearing news of one or the other writer’s passing. We all had. There were times when several of them passed away in the span of just a couple of days, when one obituary hit us before we could process the demise of another writer we had read about just the previous day.
Mohiuddn Ahmed was not a writer as such. He was rather the maker and shaper of many big writers. The news of his passing nonetheless left me unsettled. Things were exacerbated by the fact that I had been struggling back then to recover from a mild case of Covid-19 infection and a terrible case of post-Covid fatigue. As a literary editor, when I was supposed to commission tributes to him, or perhaps, write one myself, I went into a state of hibernation.
He was a fighter, Mohiuddin Ahmed. He had fought off Parkinson’s disease and made it through for over two decades. He was infected with Covid last year and came out victorious again. Maybe that’s why I was not ready yet to accept that he, too, might lose the battle at some point, like others had.
Having recovered from Covid and its lingering legacies, I resumed work. As I tried writing about the man I thought I knew so well, I was faced with another challenge. What aspects should I focus on and what should be the main angle? A solution presented itself: If I was aiming for a tribute, I should highlight the new grounds he’d broken and the feats he’d achieved and the accolades he’d received. I had all the materials to fulfil the conditions of a thorough tribute.
I met him umpteen times. Every interview with him came with new sets of revealing information. If some were about how he’d founded the University Press Limited with unstinting effort and expanded it in ways that were unprecedented in our country, others were about how the entire sector was rife with rampant violation of laws, thus impeding growth of publishers with an ethical bent of mind. If some were about the accolades he received at home and abroad, others were about how he had to carve new avenues to make the UPL a viable enterprise.
I tried writing the tribute many times but a resistance arose out of some corner of my mind every time I tried and played in my mind like a broken record: Such profiles of and tributes to the man had already been written.
That’s when I decided on a memoir. Memories of my addas and interviews with him keep flashing through my mind. There are times when they jostle to overpower each other. It is impossible to write about them all, nor is it my intention to do so. I’ll rather share selected details of one of my addas with him, which, I believe, offer rare insights into why Mohiuddin Ahmed did what he did.
Sometime in May 2012. When I arrived at the Motijheel office of University Press Limited after traversing Dhaka’s legendary traffic jam, I felt as wearied as a traveller who’d trekked up a mountain for days on end. As I walked in through the glass door, my nostrils were rewarded with the fresh smell of books that every inch of this rectangular (or so it always appeared to me) office was pervaded with. I was here to meet Mohiuddin Ahmed, the only publisher in our country who’d be awarded the publisher emeritus accolade two years later.
I had first interviewed him back in 2009, while working on a cover story about the copyright situation in Bangladesh for New Age’s weekend magazine, Xtra. It had since become something of a ritual: like a leftist activist rushed in the past to their Marxist guru for guidance about any newly arisen issue of practice, I sought out Mohiuddin Ahmed whenever there were issues regarding book publication that I couldn’t make head or tail of. He not only knew about every law relevant to book publication, he also followed them to the letter when it came to practice. As the biggest authority on the history and practice of book publication in Bangladesh, he might as well have become too proud a person who is unapproachable. But he was ever welcoming to the younger generation of writers, journalists and literary activists.
Even then, I was a bit worried about how he’d respond to my queries this time. Daily Star Books, the books wing of The Daily Star, was about to start its journey and I was chosen to head it. Mahfuz Anam, editor and publisher of The Daily Star, sent me to Ahmed to learn about the business potentials of a new publication house that would bring out only English books. If this enterprise succeeded, it could potentially become a rival publisher of the UPL. That’s precisely why I was not sure about how he would react.
Greeting me in his characteristic calm yet amiable way, he asked me to sit and wait a bit. While he took care of some paperwork, I got up from the chair to take a look around the room. The walls were hidden behind tall book shelves filled with books. Every article of furniture e.g. side table, coffee table and the big desk across which Ahmed was sitting, had books stacked on them. Except for a few titles here and there, most of these books were published by UPL. Books both in Bengali and English; academic and research-oriented books in a vast range of subjects including sociology, history, literary studies, economics, economic policy, gender studies, anthropology, political history, political science, trade and commerce. His interest, anyone could tell, mainly lay in nonfiction.
Decades of hard work put in bringing out academic and research publications about Bangladesh and South Asia have resulted in all these books, many of which feature prominently on the list of selected texts and recommended references of many internationally acclaimed universities’ curricula. Only a few of them were titles by foreign publishers. They were books by academic presses that he must have been reading to explore opportunities for reprint arrangements.
Yet there was no dearth of excellent titles of fiction. In addition to Shawkat Ali’s Prodoshe Prakritojon, Akhtaruzzaman Elias’s Chilekothar Sepai, Khnoari, Onyo Ghore Onyo Swor, Dilara Hashem’s Amlokir Mou and Qayes Ahmed’s Lash Kata Ghor, there were many anthologies of short fiction both in Bengali and English. One particular book amongst them attracted my attention: a slim book of essays on Manik Bandyopadhyay’s fiction edited by Qayes Ahmed. This was an erudite book of literary criticism on Manik, the writer who was said to have initiated the Marxist literary tradition in Bengali fiction.
Qayes Ahmed was a fiction writer with a rare stroke of genius, who also wrote in the Marxist tradition and who was overlooked and gradually buried into oblivion by our readers and writers and publishers but was duly noticed and published by Mohiuddin Ahmed. I was skimming the heading of the articles and their writers that Qayes included in his book when Ahmed called me. “Rifat, I’m all yours.”
First, he dispelled my worry. There was no reason, he said, why he should be wary of any new publishing platform that aimed to bring about changes in the sector without compromising quality and professionalism. It would only create, he went on to explain, an environment for healthy competition between publishers who did not wish to survive through piracy, unethical practices such as depriving authors of their royalties and copyright violation in all its dimensions.
The conversation then turned towards more practical aspects of making a new publishing platform profitable in Bangladesh. I elaborated on the plans the DS Books aimed to carry out: a) Since imported fiction titles were highly priced in Bangladesh, we’d try to secure reprint rights from foreign publishers and publish Bangladesh editions for those at an affordable price; b) we’d take quality English translation of Bangladeshi literature to new heights. The former idea was conceived by Tahmima Anam and the latter by me.
Descrying a vision in what I described, he expressed his excitement and welcomed DS Books. However, the English reading public in Bangladesh, he pointed out, was so small that it wouldn’t suffice to bring out, say, 15 to 20 Bangladesh editions of English novels, especially when imported books already had a considerable market here. Supplementing it with quality English translations was a good idea, he added.
After that I narrowed the focus down on his experience of fiction and nonfiction. The picture he painted of the publication scene was a mixture of both glowing and bleak tales. True to his principle, he brought out books that would contribute to the growth of a knowledge-based society. So rich and intellectually stimulating content was what he’d always sided with.
It was at this point I flashed the cover of Qayes Ahmed’s edited book on Manik Bandyopadhyay and said, “What about this one? How did it sell?”
“It sold poorly. The sales were so bad that we couldn’t recover half the production cost on this one,” he replied.
“Why did you then bring this book out?”
“Because this book had to be published,” he said. There was no sign of any regrets in his voice. His reply threw me off balance. After a while I said, “What about these books?” As I had all of the following books in my personal collection, I could easily sputter their titles out, one by one:
Serajul Islam Choudhury’s Middle Class and the Social Revolution: An Incomplete Agenda; the two volumes of Contemporary Bengali Writing edited by Khan Sarwar Murshid; Infinite Variety edited by Niaz Zaman and Firdous Azim; Colonial and Post-colonial Encounters edited by Niaz Zaman, Firdous Azim and Shawkat Hussain; Selected Short Stories from Bangladesh edited by Niaz Zaman.
I distinctly remember what he said: “Some of them barely broke even. I can’t tell you exactly which ones but books of these kinds, either they barely broke even or incurred losses.”
I thought better of repeating the question why he then decided to publish them in the first place. I felt I already knew the answer: Because they had to be published due to their stellar quality.
It was lunch time. So I should wrap up and let the man have his lunch in peace. But the vital revelation about making money out of books was yet to emerge. In addition to reprint of English novels, I had been planning on putting together at least ten books of literary criticism, a genre I was still in love with. Amit Chaudhuri’s essay collection On Tagore had just come out from Penguin Viking India and I wanted to secure reprint rights for it. But if this was the situation with books with stimulating intellectual contents, prospects were abysmal, to say the least. So, how could I leave before he gave away the secrets, if there were any. I made the traditional Bangladeshi approach. I said, “Mohiuddin bhai, this is almost lunch time. Although I have one or two more questions to ask, I think I should …”
Cutting me short, he said, “The conversation is not even halfway through. Why don’t you have lunch with me? We’ll finish the conversation over some traditional Bengali food.” I uttered a few more short sentences to pretend there was no need to go through all this trouble but, of course, I was happy I was invited and I said yes.
While a support staff, upon laying the not-too-big coffee table right opposite Ahmed’s desk, put down bowls of curries and rice, he shared with me briefly his journey as a publisher.
Ever since he founded the UPL in 1975, he tapped into all the publication potentials that Bangladesh offered. In so doing, he made the best use of his experience of working as an editor and later on, as the CEO of OUP (Oxford University Press) Dhaka. He established working relationships with acclaimed research organisations such as BIDS (Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies) and CPD (Centre for Policy Dialogue), universities, professors and researchers in Bangladesh and beyond. By way of securing reprint rights for Bangladesh, he went into collaborative publication with many international publishers.
With OUP (Oxford University Press), UPL has done many collaborative publications, including A Stranger in My Own Country: East Pakistan, 1969-1971 by Major General (Retd) Khadim Hussain Raja, Witness to Surrender by Siddiq Salik and Friends not Masters: A Political Autobiography by Ayub Khan, three of the most acclaimed memoirs in the famous Road to Bangladesh Series. With Kali for Women, UPL’s collaboration is Ananya Jahanara Kabir’s Partition’s Post Amnesias. With Cambridge University Press, UPL has collaborated on a few translation projects while with Zed Books its collaborations include Arguing with the Crocodile: Gender and Class in Bangladesh by Sarah White. To OUP, UPL has sold the world rights of Kamal Hossain’s Bangladesh: Quest for Freedom and Justice, another remarkable title in the Road to Bangladesh Series, and the rights of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Unfinished Memoirs have been sold to Penguin Books.
In time, UPL had also become one of the biggest distributors of imported English books, especially of nonfiction, memoir and history books, an initiative which was later discontinued to focus more on its own publications. Whenever Ahmed came to know about a book on Bangladesh written by a foreign or Bangladeshi writer and published by a European or US publisher, he tried to secure reprint rights for it. In today’s world, all these collaborative practices may seem all too usual but Ahmed was most certainly the first from Bangladesh and one of the first in South Asia to have started these practices, way before all the fancy multinational enterprises set up their shops in India.
What sets him apart from all his peers in Bangladesh and beyond is his mission and his commitment to fulfil it. Whatever new grounds he broke, he never turned away from his mission of contributing to a knowledge-based society. That’s precisely why he always shunned away from bringing out popular titles or titles that might bring profits but would contribute nothing to fulfil his mission.
The table was sumptuously set by my standard. Several bhortas, one vegetable curry, two huge pieces of rui fish dopeyaja, a chicken curry with delicious gravy, and a thick daal. As I started digging in, he said, “Why don’t you work closely with local writers and bring out some original and translated fiction written by them?” “Do you think it will sell?” I asked. He said, “If it is in Bengali, it will sell in here but if it is in English, it has the potential to be sold in other South Asian countries and beyond.”
He then referred to Shawkat Ali’s Prodoshe Prakritojon and said, “If you find a few writers like him, you’ll enjoy working in this field. A good writer doesn’t only give you good books but he also puts you in touch with other good authors. He was the one who recommended Akhtaruzzaman Elias to me.”
After the lunch, another round of black tea was served. As the time came for me to leave, he made his concluding remark: “Start working on your projects soon. And you have to be creative. Otherwise, all these spaces will be taken up by multinationals, like every other industry in our country.” As for his secrets about making UPL viable, he said he had to branch out into publishing textbooks. He also mentioned "vanity publishing" as a way of surviving in a market where books don't sell well but he did not mention the time since when he'd partly adopted this model.
Daily Star Books published Bangladesh editions of a few books: Khuswant Singh’s Malicious Gossip, Shashi Tharoor’s Riot and Kamila Shamsie’s Kartography. But the real pleasure of working as an editor-cum-publisher was when I published debut short story collections by three different writers (Syed Manzoorul Islam, Sharbari Zohra Ahmed and Farah Ghuznavi). Maybe that's what Mohiuddin Ahmed had hinted at. Soon I realised that I had become a manager without the right resources, having shed my writer’s identity. I also found out that I’d never be able to dedicate myself to publishing so wholeheartedly as Ahmed had.
So I left The Daily Star and joined back in six months to quit the new position again and finally have settled down with Dhaka Tribune. Upon assuming my responsibility at the DT as its literary editor, the lead item of my first issue was a centre-spread interview with Ahmed. In his interview, he did say with considerable emphasis that decline of good and responsible book review culture had emerged over the years as one of the biggest issues, causing poor sales of books.
Despite the abuse of a few draconian laws in our political and cultural spheres, Bangladesh has grown to be one of South Asia’s fastest-growing countries. But just as Mohiuddin Ahmed predicted, like many other industries, our reading and writing spaces are being occupied by multinationals. No, they haven’t set up their shops here yet. But the reading market is saturated with their books. One must admit, this opening of our market is broadening the horizons of our readers, even though the fact remains that the big, fancy, profit-making bookshops are more eager to flash and sell imported books as they ensure better revenues than local books.
All of this is well and good. But we also need our own publishers who’ll promote our own writers not just within our country but far beyond its boundaries.
Maybe everything will fall into place. But whether they do or not, what Mohiuddin bhai said about Qayes’s book on Manik pops into my mind and keeps droning on: “Because that book had to be published.” I know it doesn’t mean anything at all. Otherwise, why would it vanish into thin air, as suddenly as it appears?
Rifat Munim is literary editor, Dhaka Tribune.