Faces behind the book

After visiting Bangla Bazar, Muhammad Ibrahim Ibne Towhid writes about the gruelling work hours and conditions faced by the people involved in the publication and binding of the books that we love to purchase from the Ekushey Boi Mela every year

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Last week I bought a book from the Ekushe Boi Mela. As soon as I reached home, I turned its pages to find a left over piece of bread smashed within the pages of the new book. I assumed this particle was from breakfast that was being had by any of the people who were involved during the publication of it.

The next day, I took the book with me and rode on the front seat of a horse carriage from Gulistan to Bangla Bazar, where the books are published. As I travelled through the traffic clogged roads, I turned the pages of the book. Within the next hour, I found myself at the foot of Sadarghat from where the roar of the vessels emanated.

I entered a long alley into Bangla Bazar, which was filled with rickshaw vans and people carrying bundles of books on their heads. All these books were being taken to the fair from the ware houses here.

If one ignores the new structures, one can find traces of the more than 100 years old buildings with red bricks. The concept of studio apartment has been a practice in old Dhaka for quite some time where business and life exists together. People were all very busy and I found a man reading a novel at an old shop. I asked him if the books in his shop were printed here. He says, ‘This is a sales center and the books are printed from Segunbagicha.’

Further down, I stopped to gawk at an ancient building with no name, banner or number. I could see the other end of the house with piles of books in each and every corner. A man rushing into the store house informs me, ‘only books are stored here.’

Most of the establishments had no names on it and once in a while I could hear the sound of printing machines. Soon I found one whose entrance could be seen from the main road. A boy was operating the machine like a robot and I saw only machines without tags surrounding him. Clad in jeans pants and a T-shirt, the boy seemed oblivious about everything else due to the music coming from the earphones in his ears.

He also wore an ‘Arsenal’ wrist band. I did not embarrass myself or him by asking if he was a supporter of the football club or just wore it for style. While inserting blank pages into the machine, he tells me, ‘Binding shops are that way.’

Printing a book involves a number of steps. The book is written and edited and afterwards the publisher sends it for printing. The printing takes place in big sheets which are sent to the binding shops for the final touches.

Here there are two sections, one is the production of the book and the other is the finishing. The long sheets of paper are cut into smaller pages and then the production team folds them after separating the sections. After that these pages are glued, sewn by machines and again cut to proper size while the cover of the book is prepared simultaneously. The finishing of the books involves beautification and pasting the pages of the books with the cover and piling them together properly.

The entire binding process is carried out by an average of 15 people. ‘Bhai bhai book binding’ is one such binding house which is run by Md Amzad, who hails from Kishoreganj. He has been involved in this business for over 35 years. The binding house at Lakshmibazar is a tin-shed market that connects the vacant spaces of three buildings. There are five small rooms that carry the different binding processes.

The first room hosts the cutting machine that cuts the longer sheets of paper into smaller ones. The room was filled with scraps of white pages.

DSC07464The next room was noisy. Md Saiful Islam Khan (21), the machine operator, appeared older than his real age. He inserted sections of the book (formas) into the machine which were sewed automatically and the whole book became ready without the cover.

Khan had to paddle the sewing with his leg while the main motor ran on electricity. He had to be very careful with the pin of the machine which pulled the pages inside but he did not wear gloves, as he reasons, that that would not allow him to turn the pages of the book quickly and smoothly.

Khan is originally from Barisal. He has been operating this particular sewing machine for more than five years. He says, ‘I came to Dhaka with my elder brother who is a mechanic and repairs old machines. I learned to work with machines from him and now I can operate six different machines, all used for printing and binding. Here, I sew all sorts of books around the year except diaries.’

Khan has only studied till Class 3. After coming to Dhaka, he could no longer continue his education. He works from 8:00am till 10:00pm to be paid a monthly salary of Tk 10,000.

Khan shared that he often wants to read the books that he puts together but can hardly manage time. He has to sit and operate continuously while requiring his assistant Aminul (13) to fetch books from the other room or stack the sewn books.

Aminul came to Dhaka from Kishoreganj and has been working here for the last two years. He was also brought to Dhaka by his elder brother who works at a stationary shop nearby. Aminul claims to be an expert at stacking the books and cutting out the extra lengths from the sewn books. He lives, eats and stays at the binding place and works till midnight every day.

DSC07417‘Normally I have rice for all the three meals of the day. Potato smash is common for breakfast, pulse with another curry at lunch while dinner is something light and at times includes tortillas,’ he says.

‘I take leave every two months for a couple of days. I only get holidays during the Eid vacation and that is when I visit my mother who lives in my village in Kishoreganj. I send her all my monthly income of Tk 3,000, every three months,’ Aminul says.

Working in the binding business requires no education but hard labour over long hours. Comparatively there is less health hazard as shared by the supervisor Md Arju. He has been working for more than 17 years in this profession.

Aged 30, Arju is single and claims to be a ‘master’ at all the various processes of the trade. He says, ‘Here, other than the machine operators, everyone is rotated in the various positions for pasting, gluing, cutting and finishing. This work does not need education and maintaining order of the different pages and sections of the book comes automatically.’

While speaking with New Age Xtra, Arju pasted small pieces of chains in the two corners of the book joint. He explains, ‘This chain is one of the many popular aspects of beautification. The inner pages of the book are prepared through different processes. The cover of the page is printed in separate pages and then pasted over hard paper, which we cut from bigger boards.’

When asked about the fees and leave of workers, he informs, ‘All the workers are paid on a monthly basis. It takes around two years for a person to learn this work. All of us here entered the profession as children. By the time most of us turned to young adults, we were already experts of the field.’

He adds, ‘Getting a payment of Tk 200 for eight hours of work per day becomes easy when you know the different skills. Also, with overtime, the total daily income can go up to Tk 500 for some workers.’

Md Hossain, another worker involved in the finishing process, hammer parts of the book so that the pages do not shuffle out. He never went to school but is sending his only child, who lives in his village, to school.

Hossain shares that the workers do not get regular leaves. ‘We take leave on an emergency basis or go home for a week every three months,’ he says.

Emon is a new addition to the workforce. He joined three months back and is learning the work while observing others. All he does now is to carry the large piles of books on his head from one room to the other or load and unload books from the vans or trucks. He is 12 years old but appears smaller.

Emon shared that his mother is a maid in Dhaka and he himself lives in the binding house. He has been in Dhaka for two years and earlier used to sell random items from boats in the Buriganga River with his elder cousin.

He says, ‘I do not get time to play. I sometimes watch television on the nearby shops. I like to work here when there is not much pressure. I can wander, talk to people and learn the work by observing my seniors. However, at times there is huge pressure and I do not like it when this happens. These are times when I cannot take rest or sit idle for five minutes.’

Emon wishes, ‘When I grow old, I plan to build a house where poor people like me can stay for free. We do not have a house. The only property we had in our village had to be sold off to pay for my mother’s treatment after she returned from working abroad with a damaged kidney. If I can earn Tk 1,000 monthly then after three months, I can send some money to my mother.’

The work of binding and printing is a technical job that requires continuous labour. The payment is less compared to the hours of work. The workers do get salaries on time but if a publisher delays payment they are forced to wait.

Annually, more than 1.5 lakh books are printed from the small binding house that was visited by New Age Xtra. Although Friday is the weekly ‘day-off’, but these workers cannot enjoy leave on that day due to the work load.

The workers inform that over the next two days, they have a deadline for binding 50,000 books. Except the supervisor and one or two senior workers, none of them has ever visited a book fair, met an author or read a book.

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