The recently concluded Hay Festival Dhaka has left readers and writers with the excitement of coming into touch with vibrant literary discussions with our counterparts on other shores. At the same time, some questions have been raised by a few critics, about the fitness of the venue, the status of Bangla writers, and so on. The unfolding of an international festival in the heart of the Bangla Academy indeed raises piquant issues that should be addressed explicitly. But the issues should be assessed with facts and analysis.
The Hay Festival started in a Welsh town called Hay-on-Wye in 1988, and now takes place in fifteen countries on five continents. At a time when world-famous universities and museums are headed to new capitals of wealth like Dubai or Shanghai, Hay chooses off-beat places, such as Caracas and Nairobi, Segovia and Beirut, to host their festivals.
Hay came to Dhaka for the first time last year with a one-day pilot. The enthusiasm with which almost a thousand people thronged that event led to Indian venues being dropped this year in favour of a full three-day event in Dhaka. It is to the credit of our local organizers that an international event has found Dhaka to be a more compelling venue than Kolkata or Kerala. Bangla Academy’s bold decision to host this programme certainly conferred a special honour on it, and made it both more visible and accessible to the wider public.
The critics have accused the leaders of the Bangla Academy of kowtowing to foreign and corporate interests. They have also charged the organizers of privileging English writers, while neglecting Bangla writers. Did the Bangla Academy really sell out, as a few critics claim, or is Bangla Academy helping usher in a new era of engagement for Bangladeshi writers with the world?
The decision to host Hay at Bangla Academy came from the likes of Professor Anisuzzaman and Professor Shamsuzzaman Khan, and was endorsed by the majority of leading Bangla writers, including Syed Shamsul Haq, Selina Hossain and Hasan Azizul Haq. As for the allegations, by the very few, of disrespect to Bangla writers and language, it should be noted that out of the 106 participants, 82 were Bangladeshi, and they were given place of eminence in many ways. Local authors on panels represented an excellent range of experience, gender and writing styles. Out of the 41 panels, fifteen were conducted in Bangla. At the same time, most of the Bangladeshi English writers on panels were selected due to books recently published from a reputable place at home or abroad. Bangla writers who felt comfortable on English-language panels were also amply represented on various panels.
Beneath the charges of Hay being a “neo-colonial” English ploy lurks a kind of nationalistic jingoism that should be challenged. Being only in its second year, the festival has understandably attracted more writers from the UK and India, but it plans in the future to invite writers from other countries and languages. The critics are welcome to convene an international confab that will be conducted only in Bangla. I will pay real money to witness and be edified by that remarkable spectacle.
There were also criticisms of corporate sponsorship. Yet corporate sponsorship is a sensible and very well-established way – at home and abroad – of funding events without burdening taxpayers. Anyone who attended this event would know that the corporate branding was low-key and very much in deference to the gravitas of the venue.
Interestingly, one critic of Hay himself received a literary prize awarded by one of the sponsoring companies some years ago. It is ironic that when similar sponsorships come to the aid of many, he should so vocally protest it.
The criticisms have sadly demonstrated the worst side of our culture, bordering on the xenophobic. They risk misleading segments of the public, and have also missed the chance to ask more interesting questions: Why has Bangladeshi writing not yet found a place in the world? Are there strong works that due to their thematic or linguistic nature are not easy to share in other languages, or for other audiences? Can even works with terrific translations – such as Kaiser Haq’s rendition of Nasrin Jahan’s Urukku or Mahmudur Rahman’s of Mahmudul Haq’s Kalo Borof – find a place in the world? If Hay brings foreign publishers to town – as it indeed did, practically for the first time – how do we make the best connection with them?
The broader theme that underlies all these sundry accusations is an anxiety about cultural integrity. This kind of anxiety stems from a view that sees culture as an aggregate of fixed properties, not as a process of continual re-invention. This is the view of an archivist, not of an artist or of a vitally engaged citizen. The truth is there is no single literary idiom in Bangladesh, nor was there one at any time in the past. Multi-vocality is a sign of cultural strength, not dilution, and I personally welcome attempts such as the “Pub Banglar Bhasha” movement, among other counter-cultural expressions.
As Bangla itself becomes more diverse, like it or not, English and other languages are destined to find a literary foothold in this country. (One hopes that someday soon we will hear something in Chakma, which we will accept as “Bangladeshi” writing, and not just “minority” writing.) The number of young Bangladeshis writing in English is no longer in the handful. There are writers that almost no one here has heard of yet – poets like Nausheen Yusuf and Tarfia Faizullah, and prose writers like Maria Chaudhuri and Tanwi Nandini – who are publishing, and on the verge of international recognition. Increasingly they come in all varieties: many, like Farah Ghuznavi or myself, are products of Bangla-medium education. Yet others like Mahmudur Rahman and Shabnam Nadiya are deeply steeped in Bangla literature (and superb translators) no matter the medium of their schooling. Some were born and schooled entirely here; others were raised abroad but count Bangladesh as a vital part of their identity. Only those with terrible insecurities would need to reduce this emerging diversity to a few conveniently disparaging stereotypes.
To think that authentic experience of any culture belongs to any one language is to take a very dim view of the capacity of both language and artistic forms. Fiction, for example, is not about mere reportage. It is about the indeterminacies of life and about mapping the vagaries of consciousness. No one denies that there are experiential tropes that may indeed be hard to capture fully except in the native language. The greater purpose of fiction is served, however, by richness and modulations of form and insights, not by the evocation of local dialects.
As we enter our fifth decade, Bangladesh is finally savouring some success. We have overtaken India and Pakistan on a range of social indicators, and the worst effects of poverty are on the wane. There is a growing middle-class that is desirous of a conversation with the world as equals. This is why 10,000 people happily attended the Hay Festival, while only a dozen held up banners outside. Given where the brunt of the public chose to go, it would seem it is not the organizers of the Hay Festival but its protesters who are disconnected from our public.
Bangladeshis no longer want any self-appointed doyen of “cultural authenticity” to impose their limited perspectives on the rest of us. Bangladeshis want opportunities to meet the world, standing proudly on the platform of our own culture and heritage.
K. Anis Ahmed is the author of Good Night, Mr. Kissinger and Other Stories. He is also with KK Tea and Bengal Lights, which were among the sponsors of the Hay Festival.