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S21A becomes silent key

It was sometime in 1990. I was standing in front of the central library of the University of Dhaka, holding a sheet of paper. It was the photocopy of the overlay of a computer keyboard then employed to write Bangla.

It was the overlay of the first workable program to write Bangla, which officially came about in January 1985, reportedly after two years of work. Saifuddahar Shahid, then an employee of Beximco Computers Ltd, began the work to create a font on Mac in 1983 and he could finish designing a bitmapped font using Apple’s Resource Editor in 1984. When Saifuddahar released it as Shahid Lipi, not after his name but with the Bangla word for ‘martyr’ in honour of the martyrs of the language movement, it could process Bangla text on Mac, with a keyboard overlay and some TrueType fonts. He did some frequency analysis of the Bangla letters for mapping them onto the QWERTY overlay.

Each of the keys had four letters or glyphs, which made getting used to it difficult and typing slow. A friend of mine, from Dinajpur, who was cutting his teeth on Bangla publishing in Bangla Bazar after a bunch of us had come to Dhaka for higher education and in search of better jobs, hurrying by me, looked at the paper and said that the Bijoy overlay was easier to use. It certainly was.

Saifuddahar, a graduate of the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, later founded National Computers Ltd and started marketing Shahid Lipi. The program was also ported to Windows, but it is reported not to have properly worked much later with newer versions of computers coming in and the program fell out of use.

By then, a commercial venture called Mainul Lipi, developed by Mainul Islam, had come out in 1987, but it largely failed as the letters many thought were not good to look at. It was then Mustafa Jabbar and Gholam Faruque Ahmed who developed the Bijoy interface system, which was released on December 16, 1988 — a set of fonts and a keyboard overlay with a keyboard driver software — on Apple Macintosh, creating the proverbial Hamletesque history. It was later ported to Windows in March 1993.

Mustafa Jabbar had developed a font in December 1987 and worked out a keyboard overlay much before in 1982, but it had the same flaws that Shahid Lipi had — four letters mapped onto a single key. He could, however, dispense with it in the 1988 commercial release.

As Saifuddahar’s venture almost failed, he migrated to the United States in the 1990s and he died in Albuquerque, New Mexico on January 9. He was 75. Media houses in Bangladesh took about a couple of days to catch on with the news of his death. One or two newspapers, or their portals, may have published the news almost on time.

His has not been a great success, but it certainly has been the pioneering work and guiding principle for many systems that came about later. He even had a collection of poems written by his wife Mamtaj Shahid, Sukher Kachhe Tumi, composed in his system, printed and bound in 1987, saying that it was the first computer-printed book in Bangladesh.

He was the founding vice-president of the Bangladesh Computer Samity, the trade association of computer and accessories vendors that was founded in 1987. Yet, he also had a distinction known to a limited number of people. He was the first ham radio operator in Bangladesh. Along with a few others, he founded the Bangladesh Amateur Radio League on May 2, 1979 as its president. The organisation earned the membership of the International Amateur Radio Union in 1982. He along with his fellows could start amateur radio in Bangladesh in April 1992 and he was issued with the first ham call sign of Bangladesh — S21A — sierra–two–one–alpha. He already had one, when he lived in the United Kingdom, G1NWJ, and he had another, after his migration to the United States, KF6WJZ.

Saiful Huda, a ham radio operator who was city editor at New Age, one night came to me — I was the news editor then — proposing a headline naming a call sign for the death news of a fellow of his who was a ham radio operator. A key going silent is the word in the circle for some who dies. It is seen in the circle to write ‘silent key’ after a ham operator who has died.

I acted in disapproval as I thought that it would be much too unorthodox for a news item, a hard news item, and could limit the sense for general readers, not attuned to the ham radio thing. While I pay tribute to the man who devised the first program to write Bangla on Mac, letting lose a trend that may have furthered this far, I use his ham call sign in the headline to highlight his contribution to ham radio operations in Bangladesh that have played a vital role in emergencies post natural disasters.


Akkas, Abu Jar M. (2021 Jan. 13). S21A becomes silent key. New Age. 9


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