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September 11, 2018

Fate of a treasure trove of Bengali heritage in Karachi hangs in the balance


September 11, 2018

Syed Muhammad Farouq, 65, sits in a shabby chair behind a desk that has also seen better days. Splinters stick out of the chair every which way, threatening to prick the unwary, but Farouq has a more pressing business to attend to.

He has taken on the daunting task of cataloguing thousands of books and packing them into cardboard boxes. He is assisted by his colleagues Nazim and Alauddin, but the trio still has a long way to go.

Farouq’s chair creaks as he shifts in it uncomfortably and raises his eyes from his work to look straight ahead, out the open door at the building of Sindh’s Board of Revenue, stunned at the irony that the government department that could have helped them is located just on the other side of Sir Ghulam Hussain Hidayatullah Road.

On this side of the road, however, is the Nazrul Academy, whose demolition has already been ordered by the Supreme Court of Pakistan, while an alternative site is yet to be allotted.

Farouq shifts his gaze from the academy’s main door to the archway to his left in the wall behind him and gets visibly distressed. The archway leads to the halls filled with boxes upon boxes of books, but the elderly man does not have a clue where to take them all from there.

He was elected vice-president of the Nazrul Academy around two years ago. He manages its library and arranges its literary and other cultural events. “It’s my bad luck that the academy will be deprived of its building during my tenure,” he told The News.

A portrait of Kazi Nazrul Islam hanging in the academy.

But this is not the first time that something like this has happened to the Nazrul Academy. In 1972 its old building was leased out to a cinema by the government. “The company forcibly took over the building and threw our books out on the street. This time round we have still agreed to move elsewhere. But where exactly?”

The academy is faced with a bleaker situation than before because its building is scheduled for demolition. The Pakistan Public Works Department would raze some 14 barracks of the Pakistan Secretariat Karachi to construct the local registry of the country’s top court.

A brief history

In 1953 prominent politician and lawyer Allah Bukhsh Karim Bukhsh Brohi set up an academy in Block-47 of the Pakistan Secretariat Karachi to promote Bengali literature. It was named after Bengali literary giant and revolutionary poet Kazi Nazrul Islam, who is known for his struggle against oppression and injustice in Colonial India.

Nazrul’s fiery poems and songs inspired the people of the subcontinent, particularly Bengali Muslims, to realise the economic and social oppression to which they were being subjected to by the then British Raj.

In 1957 a reading room was set up at the academy to promote a culture of reading and research and to introduce Bengali literature to the people. A wide variety of books were collected for the reading room to fulfil the interests of all sections of society, which later helped transform the room into a rich library.

Following the fall of Dhaka, the Nazrul Academy was displaced after the block in which it was housed was leased out to a private cinema. The administrators temporarily accommodated the academy in a dilapidated building in the Pakistan Secretariat’s Block-35.

On the directives of the then Pakistan president, Sindh’s Social Welfare Department officially allotted the block to the Nazrul Academy on May 18, 1976 after the untiring efforts of the then federal works & services minister Mahmud Ali. The new building was inaugurated a few months before Nazrul’s death on August 29 the same year.

Since then thousands of books have been painstakingly collected and the academy’s library has been rehabilitated to keep Bengali culture, history and language alive in Pakistan. With over 35,000 books in English, Urdu and Bengali preserved here, it is also the Bengali community’s only literary heritage.

Academy’s objectives

With the primary objective of imparting knowledge through its library, the Nazrul Academy has equipped itself with a myriad books on different subjects, especially in the Bengali language.

Almost all books written by Nazrul have been preserved in their original shape and form. Researchers and readers help promote his works and spread his message. The academy also translates these books in different regional languages for the purpose.

The Nazrul Academy also aims to establish and maintain a modern library of books by internationally acclaimed authors. “We regularly publish journals and periodicals to encourage research and educational and culture activities aimed at projecting the academy’s importance,” said Farouq, adding that they have also planned to arrange Bengali language classes, seminars and musical evenings on a weekly basis.

Bengali gems

The Nazrul Academy is perhaps one of the largest of its kind in Pakistan, boasting a large collection of valuable books on almost all subjects in the Bengali language, including books by Nazrul as well as those about the great poet.

Around 3,000 to 4,000 works of Bengali literature were added to the library later through donations and gifts, including those from the Liaquat National Library.

“Our desire to purchase more books in English and Urdu could not be fulfilled due to the limited space and the dilapidated state of the building,” said Farouq. “Much to our chagrin, we have still not been able to get Bengali books and newspapers from Bangladesh.”

The library is open to the public if they wish to avail its facilities. They can also find here popular journals and periodicals as well as daily newspapers. The academy is an apolitical nonprofit that only wishes to promote Bengali culture, texts, history and traditions.

Collaboration with PAL

The Nazrul Academy is among the 19 bodies under the Pakistan Academy of Letters (PAL) that also include the Anjuman-e-Tarraqi-e-Urdu Karachi, the Institute of Islamic Culture Lahore, the Punjabi Adabi Board Lahore, the Sindhi Adabi Board Karachi, the Pashto Academy Peshawar, the Balochi Academy Quetta, the Pakistan Writers Guild Karachi, the Institute of Sindhology Jamshoro, the Urdu Academy Lahore, the Shah Wali Ullah Academy Hyderabad, the Majlis Waris Shah Multan, the Idara-e-Yadgar-e-Ghalib Karachi, the Brahvi Adabi Society Quetta, the Saraiki Adabi Majlis Bahawalpur, the Sindhi Language Authority Karachi, the Saraiki Adabi Board Multan, the Anjuman-e-Tarraqi-e-Khawar Chitral and the Pushto Academy Quetta Balochistan.

PAL is the state-run body that provides impetus to promote literary and cultural activities across the country. It provides an annual grant to literary bodies to organise such events. Under PAL’s supervision, these literary bodies also publish books. At the end of each financial year, the literary bodies submit their accounts for audit to PAL as well as the details of their works in progress and future plans.

No more tributes

Every year the Nazrul Academy observes Nazrul’s birth anniversary (Nazrul Jayanti) in May and his death anniversary in August. “This year we are not in a position to hold such events,” lamented Farouq.

These events were marked by celebrating Nazrul’s music (Nazrul Geeti) and also featured the poetry of Allama Muhammad Iqbal and Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai. Besides these events, the academy held literary evenings to discuss works by prominent writers and poets as well as to review contemporary and classical literature. “Such events would probably never be organised again.”

Government neglect

The administration of the Nazrul Academy had requested the Karachi Development Authority (KDA) to arrange a 500-square-yard plot in Gulshan-e-Iqbal’s Al Hilal Society so the academy could have its own building, but the KDA allotted the plot to another organisation.

All Farouq wants from the authorities is a modicum of respect for his community’s values and their culture and heritage resultantly. “Displace us if you want to, but at least provide us with an alternative site.”

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