On November 18, a day before the Dhaka Lit Fest, the Jamaat-e-Islami called for a countrywide hartal protesting a Supreme Court verdict that upheld the death penalty for their party leader for war crimes committed during the 1971 Liberation War.
Violence was expected, blockades were feared. In response, the government blocked all social media platforms, including Facebook, WhatsApp and Viber. Security in Dhaka has been a matter of concern since the killings of two foreigners two months ago. Then, a ‘secular’ publisher was brutally murdered. Bloggers and writers are soft targets here. Under these circumstances, organising an international literary festival seemed both dangerous and difficult, almost tempting fate.
But Sadaf Saaz, festival co-director and producer, was determined. “I felt deeply that the literary festival had to go on despite everything; that we could never ‘give up’ this important literary space,” she said.
On the morning of the first day of the festival, the usually clogged Dhaka roads were empty. Policemen were ranged on the pavements near Shahbag, the epicentre of most protests in Dhaka. At the venue, ID had to be produced, bags were checked. Yet, once inside the premises of Bangla Academy, a wonderful old building with a generous banyan tree and overgrown lawns, the atmosphere was convivial. Book stalls did brisk business. Fuchkas and beef rolls were consumed in large quantities amid impassioned discussions on science, religion, art and politics. Children heard old tales and learnt to write new stories.
The finance minister of Bangladesh, Abdul Muhith, declared the festival open saying, “This is a liberal country. This festival is a form of resistance against attacks on thoughts.”
Freedom of speech and the fight against violence, inequality and intolerance were recurring themes through the festival. Indian writer Nayantara Sahgal, who delivered the keynote address, proclaimed that literature needs to stand for reason against unreason; that writing is a political act.
The mood was both defiant and celebratory. Authors spoke their minds and mingled freely with the audience.
The Dhaka Lit Fest (DLF) has been known as Hay Festival Dhaka since it began four years ago, but now the focus is on making this a homegrown affair, taking Bangladesh to the world as much as bringing the world to Dhaka. Sadly, 19 invitees, including VS Naipaul, cancelled.
“The writers who made it here defying the travel advisories of their country are the heroes,” declared festival co-director Ahsan Akbar, in his welcoming remarks.
Ciku Kimeria, a young writer from Kenya, remarked that she was so excited about her first visit to Asia that she could barely sleep. The Nobel laureate Harold Varmus discussed his research in science and the future of cancer treatment. Yoss, a musician and sci-fi writer from Cuba, sporting long hair and combat gear, strolled around the grounds like a rock star. Local Bangladeshi authors, performers and poets drew large audiences for their sessions. Language was not a barrier. Words flowed.
Indian writers were everywhere and everyone knew of them. Writer and historian Ramachandra Guha — who covered a broad swathe of topics in his panel discussions, including cricket, Gandhi and traffic in Bangalore — told me that coming to Bangladesh was more interesting than visiting Europe or America. Shobhaa De was her usual feisty self, holding forth on everything from the thrill of dissent to Salman Khan’s propensity to take off his shirt. Kiran Nagarkar and Benyamin swapped notes on writing in their mother tongues.
The audience in Dhaka is hungry for a chance to engage with the world. A young man shyly thrust two pages into my hands just after my conversation with poet Sudeep Sen. “I can’t read Bangla much,” I confessed. “And I am not a poet.”
“Translation next page,” he said, smiling. Poets were always aplenty in Bangladesh.
Young authors spoke to me at a panel on writing commercial fiction in English in Bangladesh. “The Uncles and Aunties want to know why we don’t write in Bangla,” said Nesar Talukdar, author of Demons. Srabonti Narmeen Ali remarked ruefully, “Foreign publishers want us to write about famine, poverty and village life.” Her debut novel, Hope in Technicolor, is about the young and restless elite in contemporary Dhaka.
“The younger generation won’t run; they don’t want to hide in fear,” she said.
“What I feel, in addition to relief,” added festival co-director K Anis Ahmed, “is also a reaffirmation of our identity as a culture that will continue to fight for its pluralist and tolerant traditions.”
Nirupama Subramanian is the author of two novels, Intermission and Keep The Change.