Dhaka LitFest 2017: Literature in a world bereft of meaning

What sets the Dhaka Lit Fest apart is its earnestness, its belief in the possibility of change, and in the importance of literature in facilitating that change

books Updated: Nov 25, 2017 01:08 IST
Manjula Narayan
Manjula Narayan
Hindustan Times
Anuk Arudpragasam,Ben Okri,Tilda Swinton
Anuk Arudpragasam accepting the US$25,000 DSC Prize at the Dhaka Lit Fest 2017.(Courtesy DLF)

This was my second year at the Dhaka Lit Fest. Last year, I was impressed by the energy of the attendees, the quality of the panels and discussions, and the pluck of the organizers who ensured the event was a success in a charged atmosphere – the Gulshan terror attack and the violent killing of bloggers was top of mind. The festival, then, had seemed like a brave tetrapod blocking encroachment by an angry sea of fundamentalism. Chief guest, VS Naipaul, much advanced in years and diminished in energy, had nevertheless recognized the bravery of the endeavour and made the trip from his home across the world.

Tilda Swinton (DLF)

This year, the crowds were as enthusiastic, the discussions as energetic and the participants as interesting. Big international names like Booker prize winning Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri and the Syrian poet Adonis were in attendance, as was Hollywood star Tilda Swinton, who came with her partner the German artist Sandro Kopp. A quick Google reveals the couple met during the filming of The Chronicles of Narnia where Kopp played a centaur. Everyone wants a centaur. Only the White Witch gets one.

Watch: The scene on Day 2 of the DhakaLitFest

But this isn’t a dispatch for a UK tabloid so I’ll focus instead on the many stimulating sessions at the festival. These included one on the landless future of the Rohingyas featuring Azeem Ibrahim, author of The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide, and a lively discussion on whether the Bengalis are a race divided with Sudeep Chakravarti, author of The Bengalis, Kushanava Choudhury, whose Epic City is on Calcutta,cultural historian and winner of the Infosys Prize 2017 for Humanities Ananya Kabir, and human rights lawyer and writer Ikhtisad Ahmed, who held aloft the flag for Bangladesh on a panel that was surprisingly dominated by Indians.

Watch: The Bengalis: A Race Divided with Sudeep Chakravarti, Khushanava Choudhury, Ikhtisad Ahmed and Ananya Kabir at the DhakaLitFest

Then, there was Ben Okri’s rather magnificent session with Jerry Pinto. It didn’t begin on time, the audience later gathered, because Okri and Pinto were squabbling over whether the former should read from The Famished Road. The audience learnt this because Pinto announced it. I expected the show to degenerate into hair-tugging but after some minor back-and-forth bitchiness it miraculously morphed into a memorable event full of riveting pronouncements from Okri.

Jerry Pinto and Ben Okri in conversation. (DLF)

I was in the first row attempting to live stream the session with the unreal enthusiasm that practitioners of Mobile Journalism must muster at all times. From where I was, I reckoned, I’d get Okri perfectly. Then Pinto chose the seat I’d set aside (in my head) for Okri. It was crushing; I’d have to be content with the great man in profile. Next, the wi-fii began acting up. No one said MoJo would be easy.

Watch: In conversation with Anuk Arudpragasam, Author of The Story of A Brief Marriage

One of the great pleasures of attending literary festivals is meeting new authors with distinctive voices and meaningful things to say about a world that often appears bereft of meaning. This year, I had already picked out Anuk Arudpragasam’s The Story of a Brief Marriage and Deepak Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People as important books, works that take the reader outside themselves and into, in the first case, the last days of the Civil War in Sri Lanka, and in the latter, the lives of Malayali workers in the Gulf. Both these writers have an inventive, distinctive style and it’s certain that South Asian literature in English will be enriched by their work. Happily, Arudpragasam won the $25,000 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature at the festival, and promptly pledged 1/3rd of it to efforts to help the Rohingyas and victims of violence in Kashmir.

While the fight for freedom of expression was the central concern at last year’s DLF, this edition was all about the suffering of the Rohingyas, 700,000 of whom have fled torture, sexual violence, and discrimination in neighbouring Myanmar and are now sheltering in sprawling camps in south Bangladesh. How will that nation cope? Only the future will tell. For now, the Dhaka Lit Fest has put out a statement of sympathy for the refugees in an attempt to keep the “unfolding situation at the forefront of global consciousness” and to hold accountable those who have orchestrated the violence leading to this catastrophe”.

Read more: The Dhaka Lit Fest 2017’s Statement on the Plight of the Rohingyas

What sets the Dhaka Lit Fest apart is its earnestness, its belief in the possibility of change, and in the importance of literature in facilitating that change. This is especially remarkable when most festivals are air-kissing tamashas that pretend to grapple with real issues while doing everything to avoid them.

That’s why I believe this is one of the most enjoyable literature festivals on the subcontinent - that’s high praise indeed from an inveterate litfest slut. *Insert folded hands emoji*

First Published: Nov 25, 2017 01:07 IST