The vibe at each literary festival is different. The biggest of them all, Jaipur, has its giddy people who come to click selfies with a famous literary figure’s forelock or posterior in the frame; Bhutan has its polite audiences and the occasional monk-presenter who strides about in sleeveless robes in the Himalayan cold. The Tata Lit Live in Mumbai is unexpectedly genteel. The Dhaka Lit Fest (17-19 November, 2016) held at the Bangla Academy in the grounds of the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh, has an air of defiance, a stubborn determination to defend intellectual striving and enquiry, the freedom to think.
Thinking is a subversive activity anywhere on the subcontinent. These days, you could die from articulating a thought too stridently. The list of Bangladeshi writers, bloggers, publishers, and professors – all questioning intellectuals, “buddhijeevis” -- who have recently been killed for their beliefs, is long. Free thinkers, questioners of orthodoxy, those who dare discuss the possibility of a world bereft of God are particularly loathed. And then the July 2016 terror attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery in Gulshan happened. The Dhaka Lit Fest, with its international guests, engaged audience, and general celebration of the life of the intellect would be the perfect target for the armies of Darkness. Death when it comes would be live-streamed.
So security is tight. An armed police escort accompanies delegates to and from the venue, and everyone has a tenacious chaperone. It seems absurdly over the top; only it isn’t. Also, the fear should paralyse; it doesn’t. Eager crowds throng the sessions. Even the one on the Hegemony of Hindi where I held forth with writer Vivek Manezes, who curates the Goa Literature festival, the cognitive neuroscientist and linguistic rights activist Garga Chatterjee and film maker Indranil Roychowdhury is packed. Incidentally, the Indian-Bengali contingent raged against Hindi, while Vivek and I took a more susegad view, concluding that pshaw, who’s afraid of Hindi when, fully Macaulayputraed (it’s an old-new word), we’ve almost willingly allowed English to yank out our mother-tongues.
On the lawns, book sales are brisk and the stall selling t-shirts with quotes from the Pulitzer prize winning American poet, Vijay Seshadri and Nobel laureate VS Naipaul does good business. “The story of a life is the story of its humiliations” says the one you pick up. It’s a vivid green to match the verdant campus. Wearing a poet you’ve just met so close to your chest isn’t advisable but I go ahead anyway after hearing him recite lines from Ghalib in quaint but endearing American-accented Urdu.
VS Naipaul’s statements, on a t-shirt or off it, often leave me open mouthed. Is that derision he’s heaping on women writers, Africa, Islam? Or is he the true savant, the truth-speaker, who picks up on the subterranean and is unafraid to articulate his thoughts? Naipaul is old now, on a wheel chair, his mind often wandering, his wife Nadira often completing his sentences (The audience readily tittered at Naipaul’s clever statements but responded with cold silence when his Pakistani wife, perhaps accidentally-on-purpose, referred to Bangladesh as ‘East Pakistan’.), but there are flashes of brilliance still. Why did he agree to come to the Dhaka Lit Fest, when many others were too scared to show up? “Because a writer should never be afraid” he said.
I wasn’t afraid in Dhaka. At first, it seemed like a half familiar Indian state from an earlier decade, like an early 1990s Calcutta with vivid works of art doubling up as cycle rickshaws. Many more women there wear saris than they do in Delhi, a few wear the hijab, but it’s so terribly fashionable and the face it envelopes often so vividly made up that it isn’t clear if the wearer is aiming at religiosity or fashion.
At the festival bookstalls I discover poet Kaiser Haq, whose lines from Buriganga Blues come to me now as I recall dodging the crowds during a visit to the river:
It’s so easy to shed tears -
Are they any use,
Can they salve an uneasy spirit?
Wondering if any movement can be viable
I decide to move on, slip feet
Into sandals with flapping soles,
Let them drag me to the black waters,
of the polluted Buriganga river,
Watch the seasons turn.
The rains have stopped,
the blue sky
is such a pure blue
I can only stare in disbelief.
The book flap says the poet is an independence war veteran.
I bully my chaperone, Souman Guha, a 20-year-old student with a quiet sense of humour, to take me to the Liberation War Museum. An unassuming building that recalls railway bungalows in mofussil towns, it’s packed with vintage radio transmitters, spectacles of those killed by Pakistani soldiers during the 1971 Liberation War, personal effects like Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s coat and pipe, display cases full of guns, and photographs. Oh, the photographs. A profusion of pictures of decaying bodies of the slaughtered, of women who were raped and murdered…
Is this shrine to death an effort to never forget? You stumble from room to room trying to unsee the pictures. And then there’s the chamber with the heaped skulls and bones, unindentified bodies from a mass grave. Ah what charnel house is this? “We have suffered a lot for our language and culture,” Souman says as I run out retching.
The city is dotted with memorials to 1971. Calmer now that we’ve fled the museum, I study a crowd of straining granite figures as I sip chocolate tea at a pavement stall. It offers some 17 varieties of chai including chili and mango flavours. A few yards away, a student band is playing at the University of Dhaka’s Teacher-Student Centre. The tune is plangent and the lyrics speak of loss and longing.
This is a country still coming to terms with its history; a nation struggling with that perennial subcontinental need to be wholely one thing or the other and never quite succeeding. Biting into bhapa pitha, a sweet jaggery-rice powder dessert that absurdly reminds me of the puttu my grandmother made in her vanished red-oxide floored kitchen in Kerala, I think of this fragmented land, each piece grappling with its own carefully nurtured neuroses. Will India, Pakistan and Bangladesh ever be at peace with themselves? Writing this, a month later, on Bijoy Dibosh, Bangladesh’s Independence Day, I continue to wonder.
The vibe at each literary festival is different. Some are frivolous, others are vehicles for image building, and still others are venues to push politics. The Dhaka Lit Fest 2016 was remarkable because it underlined just how imperative it is to believe, think, articulate.