Bengalis embrace Islamic culture
Chitpur Road is one of the oldest roads of Calcutta. Located in the northern part of the city, this road is flanked by the Ganga in the west and the old wholesale fruitmarketin the east. The road’s most iconic landmark, the Nakhoda Bara Masjid stands nearby like a silent spectator witnessing a constant flow of life and cacophony of the market.
The marketplace is forever busy. Burly traders argue fiercely while bidding continues at auction houses. Peddlers walk from one end of the road to the other, hawking their wares. The whiff of fruits permeates the entire stretch. The bustling place has a magical feel about it and looks like a scene lifted straight from the Arabian Nights. The aroma of rich Mughlai food looms low from the renowned eateries lining both sides of the road. The tram track bifurcates Chitpur Road in two halves and on both sides, traditional Haqims’ (indigenous medicine shops) establishments rub shoulders with shops selling carpets, niche boutiques specializing in Aligarhi pyjamas and kurtas with intricate Lucknawi Chikanor Zardosi work, tailors’ shops, all vying for attention from busy passersby.
Amid all this, the flower-sellers or ittar-sellers hustle their way with their wares. The melodious sound of Azaan reverberates and Namazis recited daily on time. Tucked here in a corner on 30, Madan Mohun Burman Street, lies the Gaosia Library, a quaint little book shop. This shop is a treasure-trove of rare books. Rummaging through piles of books can yield rich dividends: Collectible fine books in Arabic, Persian and Urdu, old romantic novels including the love story of Laila-Majnu, Ghazi-Kalu and Champabati’s affair, Chholemani Talenama, Usuf Zulekha, Noor-namaand Hooliya-namaor the heart-wrenching tales of Karabala, Bon-Bibi Jahura-nama, are all stocked inside.
Despite specializing in books and journals on Islamic literature, the ancient shop has the English word, ‘Library’ as an appendage to its name. Multi-coloured and attractive photographs of moon and stars, imprint of some long-forgotten mosques, intricately-carved minarets and beautiful artistic inscriptions in Persian, peep out from the piles of books stacked from the base to the roof of the shop.
With the advent of Sufism in Bengal in 11th century AD, followed by Islamic invasion, Bengal’s rein was taken over by nawabs and badshahs. Bengalis were exposed to Islamic culture and in no time imbibed and made it an integral part of their own. Arabic and Persian words and expressions were amalgamated, enriching local languages, including Bengali. Native girls gladly took to the intoxicating fragrance of ittar(perfume) and accepted surma(kohl) as their own without any prejudice. Bengali literature was enriched by using words and phrases from Persian, Arabic and Urdu languages. Girish Chandra Sen translated the Holy Quran in Bengali. Gaosia Library stood the test of time, witnessing rise and growth of a homogenous culture.
The dense forest of the Sunderban delta is home to Royal Bengal tigers and crocodiles rule its waterbodies. Life here is a constant strife with nature and predators. The woodcutters, honey collectors and fishermen who live in the area believe Ghazi-Baba is the guardian who guards the entrance of the jungles and Bon-Bibi is the ruling deity of the jungles. She is called upon by locals before entering the forest for protection against tiger (Dakkhin Rai)attacks. Gaosia Library still publishes Bon-Bibi Johuranama, a rare book that narrates the story of poor Dukhe, whose unfailing belief in Bon-Bibi saved him from the clutches of sure death at the hands of Dakkhin Rai, who looks for victims in the garb of a tiger. This booklet is revered by all who live in the Sunderbans and none enters the jungles without reciting the Bon-Bibi Johuranama. One interesting fact is though the booklet is written in Bengali, it has to be read from back to front to emulate the Arabic script.
The book is always in demand and Gaosia Library has been dispatching this book to the interiors of Sunderbans via railway and boats for years.Pious readers, both Hindus and Muslims, have been lapping it up. In the process, the shop has been instrumental in bridging the gap between far-off islands like SaatJeliya, Lahiripur, Kakmari, Jharkhali and the vast metropolis of Calcutta. This book shop has been publishing Bengali Islamic books for more than a century now. It is a treasure trove of rare books and journals. Even renowned artist/author Abanindranath Tagore frequented the shop, Over the years, Gaosia Library evolved into an institution and continues on its trail diligently.