We're Live Bangla Sunday, December 04, 2022

A ruby that lights up the dark': Bangladesh’s only handwritten newspaper

The Newspaper Focuses On The Stories Of Hope – From Reporting On The Boom In Yearly Crop Yield To Someone Buying A Cow.

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In this age of rapid digital transformation, using ancient methods of writing pamphlets to disseminate information amongst people sounds a bit too archaic. But that's exactly how Mohammad Hasan Parvez publishes his small community newspaper named Andharmanik in a remote village of Patuakhali district in southern Bangladesh.

Parvez goes out to the field – usually far-off areas that are disconnected from the outside world – and returns with stories inspiring hope and enthusiasm amongst its readers. Once every two months, he publishes a four-page handwritten newspaper named after a local river. He prints dozens of copies from a photocopier and sells each one for 10 TK (0.12 USD).

There are days when Parvez's news reports are consumed quietly by his readers and then there are days when they make an impact. 

A story he recently published was picked up by another media organisation, triggering a debate on the country's poverty. The story compelled the government to rehabilitate a nine-year-old Rubina, who was the main protagonist in Parvez's story. 

In 2017, Rubina’s father Mohammad Shahjahan went out for deep-sea fishing in the Bay of Bengal, but a massive storm surged, sinking his boat and drowning him. Mourning the loss of her husband, Rubina’s mother Doli Begum started to have severe mental breakdowns, forcing her family members to tie her up with chains — a common practice in rural Bangladesh where mentally ill people are at the mercy of family members as institutional support is scarce.

With her father gone and her mother unable to function,  nine-year-old Rubina soon found herself begging from door to door. She had to feed her sick mother, ailing grandmother and three younger siblings. She often took her mother along when she knocked on people's doors, asking them for some pennies and food. 

Parvez saw Rubina begging on the street one day. Seeing her condition, he wrote a story titled “Rubina-ke dekhte jodi tomra sobe chao” (If you all want to see Rubina…) and published it on the front page of his paper.

The story captured the attention of “Ityadi”— one of the most popular TV shows in Bangladesh that for decades has attracted a massive viewership and numerous media awards. The government took note of Rubina's suffering and compensated her with a piece of land and a house.

As unique as the newspaper 

Parvez earns his living as a menial labourer during the day. Such jobs are hard to come by every day, forcing him to work in brick kilns or go to the sea for fishing. The 42-year-old has to put bread on the table for his family of four.

Despite working as a labourer, he takes out the time for producing his handwritten newspaper, Andharmanik.

“I have this penchant for writing from my childhood. I used to write a lot of poems. I was supposed to pass my secondary school certification (SSC) exam back in 1996 but because of my family’s financial condition, I couldn’t do it,” Parvez told TRT World.

He did not give up on his quest for formal education. In 2015, at the age of 35, he completed his school education after passing the SSC examination. Two years later, he cleared the high school exams too.  He is now studying for a bachelor’s degree at the Kalapara Government College.

“I never lost my thirst for education. I also kept nurturing my writing habit,” he said, adding that he had never thought of becoming a newspaper publisher since he can't afford to be one. 

Since his region had no access to printed newspapers as none of the national or regional dailies reached this remote corner of Bangladesh, Parvez was quick to follow the advice of his mentor Rafiqul Islam Montu, an award-winning journalist who pioneered what is now known as “coastal journalism” in Bangladesh.

Montu told TRT World that he had visited Parvez’s village a number of times for journalism and was impressed with Parvez's writing ability. 

“He wanted to do something for his community. I told him he can publish a newspaper and cover local news, and especially focus on spreading good faith and optimism in his community”.

Montu said publishing a newspaper with modern printing technology, computers and other technical support was not feasible in such a far-off part of Bangladesh. “Also, he didn’t have the financial means, so I told him to go for a rather daunting but unique task—a handwritten newspaper,” he said.

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Mohammad Hasan Parvez does menial labour work to earn a living but he always finds time to writes his newspaper editions. ()

A piece of ruby

The river Andharmanik is known for some characteristics. The most common myth about it is that if someone splashes the river water in the dark, it emits light and creates an arc. 

“Andharmanik means a ruby that lights up the dark. I want my paper to be like that — a beacon of hope for our community,” Parvez said.

As the paper is dedicated to working-class people, it was first published on May 1, 2019, marking May Day. 

In the past four years, Parvez has cultivated a team of 15 volunteers — labourers, farmers, and fishermen — who work as newspaper reporters, feeding Parvez with the daily happenings in different corners of their district. Once a month, they have a team meeting where Parvez gathers all the news from his volunteers. 

Parvez writes headlines and gets them printed out in a big font from a local cyber cafe. He then pastes the headlines onto A3-size papers and writes the rest of the content with a fountain pen. He prints at least 300 copies from a Xerox machine. His volunteers also act as hawkers and distribute the paper in different villages.

Parvez said it costs him around 8 US cents to prepare and publish the paper. He sells it for 12 cents. 

“But, honestly, I don’t make any money out of it. This is not my goal too. Some of the copies are distributed for free,” he said.

Parvez said his main motivation is to spread "positive news" across the community. 

“We write stories of hope. Suppose there has been a boom in rice production this year, then we write about it. We write if someone bought a cow and now it produces enough milk to ensure the man is well-off. Or when a widowed woman secures a living by rearing chicken, we tell their stories,” he said.

Nesar Uddin, a farmer of West Sonatola village is a regular reader of Andharmanik. Talking with TRT World, Nesar Uddin said reading this newspaper "inspires us to do good for our community." 

"We take immense pride in the fact that our village produces such a unique product like a handwritten newspaper,” he said.

Vehicle of creating awareness against climate change 

Natural disasters like cyclones have ravaged the communities that read Andharmanik. They are at the forefront of facing the consequences of global climate change

Parvez is also a victim of natural disasters. He and his family were uprooted from Barishal, a district in southern Bangladesh, as floods washed away their family home. They lost everything to the disaster. They migrated to Patuakhali as landless climate refugees and started afresh. 

"Bangladesh's coastal region is the biggest victim of natural disasters and highly affected by climate change with problems including salinity and waterlogging, soil erosion, flooding and cyclones,” he said.

“With my limited knowledge, I try to spread awareness about climate change through my newspaper. From last year, I try to put stories on how salinity is affecting our local farmers or how waterlogging becomes a common phenomenon in each issue of my paper”.