The recent Hay Festival in Dhaka was a rare treat in many ways. Meeting some of the South Asian literary luminaries was a delight as expected, but meeting the ‘protesters’ of the Dhaka Hay Festival added a dimension to my experience that I was not prepared for.
As I was waiting for Prof. Zafar Iqbal to speak, a young, stern-looking boy approached me with a leaflet. He had a look of purpose in his eyes — with steadfast determination, he extended his hand towards me holding a leaflet.
I glanced at it, and was immediately taken aback by the title, which in English translates to “Why we should boycott the Hay Festival”. Up until that point, it never occurred to me that there may be a group of young people, the next generation of this country, who view events like the Hay Festival as a threat to the integrity of our nation and our culture. I looked up just then, wanting to talk to the boy, but he was quite a distance away from me by then.
The essence of the message in the leaflet was the following: In this age, the Western powers can no longer conquer countries like ours through military might. So they have chosen to conquer through their language (by which they mean English). Event such as the Hay Festival are their “inlets of invasion”, and by attending and supporting them, we become contributors to their scheme of global hegemony.
I read the message within the leaflet and then carefully re-read it once more. There were three implicit assumptions made by the authors of this leaflet, which I find fundamentally disturbing. First, an assumption that culture is a rigid, monolithic entity that needs to be “protected”. Second, that any literature not written in Bangla does not appropriately represent our culture and heritage. And third, a mouth-watering conspiracy theory about attempts to “invade” our nation and that cultural aggression is the newest weapon. Let me tell you why I find these assumptions fundamentally disturbing.
To me, culture is like a “moving target”, since it is essentially a reflection of the characteristics of a certain group of people, or a manifestation of collective experiences, it is natural for it to evolve over time through interaction with other cultures and belief systems. The protectors of Bengali culture a hundred years ago surely had somewhat of a different notion of what it means to be a Bengali than what its protectors see today and surely a hundred years from today, they will have yet a different notion. I understand and appreciate that our history has a lot to do with our being extra-sensitive about the issue of culture, when not so long ago, during the undivided Pakistan era, there was a need to define our identity from a cultural perspective, stemming from the political need to distinguish ourselves from Pakistanis. But even 40 years after having gained recognition as an independent nation, we still seem to be carrying that “fire”.
This brings me to my second point of “disturbance” — the notion that our culture can only be represented and reflected appropriately through Bangla. In 1972, right after having won a place on the global map through a three-decade long bloody struggle that was ignited by the language movement of 1952 (that placed the issue of language at the centre of the struggle), the new nation found itself in a situation where use of Bangla in every sphere of life, from government procedures to education, became widespread – all in the euphoria of having created a new nation born out of the blood of “language soldiers”, emphasis on competence in other languages got de-prioritized.
There is of course nothing wrong in upholding and cherishing one’s own culture and one’s language, since that is a critical part of a culture’s identity, but an ethnocentric attitude towards trying to keep it rigid and keeping its representation hinged on a language seems unrealistic and unreasonable. I believe that Bangladeshi writers increasingly writing in the English language have found new expression of our culture, history and heritage; and the Hay Festival this year has possibly been the first major global outlet for them.
I find the third assumption referred to earlier, even more problematic and wonder whether it stems from a deep-seated complex arising out of decades of oppression and subjugation by foreign powers at various stages of our history. Through decades and generations of fighting against aggressors — whether political, military, or cultural — have we forgotten that we ourselves may be “conquerors” at a global stage through our cultural footprints?
In this age of globalization and advent of fast-paced interaction between countries and cultures, it is only natural that there is an implicit race towards dominance in every sphere. We can choose to take a defensive and meek stance in this race, or we can take an aggressive and confident position like a true global player. In the area of poverty alleviation and economic empowerment, we have already established undisputed leadership — people working in the area of development come to Bangladesh almost like a holy pilgrimage. In the area of culture, there is potential for making a similar footprint on the global stage. And it is safe to say that we have already begun the process. The popularity of Lalon geeti (perhaps one of our ignored heritages of secular music) is spreading beyond the borders of South Asia with increasing numbers of foreigners visiting the Lalon akhra. Tahmima Anam’s books written in English (that speaks of our history, our views towards religion, etc.) are getting translated in almost all major languages. Examples such as these surely are enough to create confidence that we are ready to “conquer” as well.
In my humble opinion, events like the Hay Festival have opened up “outlets” for our conquest, rather than “inlets” for us being conquered. Bangla Academy has shown courageous leadership in this regard despite the threat of possible criticism. If I were ever to meet the boy who handed me the leaflet, I would only tell him that we believe in the strength of our ever-evolving culture and its ability to conquer the global stage rather than meekly take a defensive, ethnocentric position.
With full respect for the history of this land and those who have sacrificed their lives to defend our language, I write this piece in English, strongly believing that I am not losing my culture or identity in any way. We can choose to shield our culture from “pollution”, or we can embrace the process of evolution — sometimes with discomfort, sometimes with doubt, and sometimes with approval — realizing that this process of evolution does not threaten our sovereignty or our identity at a global stage. The choice is ultimately ours, and what we decide is surely bound to have far-reaching consequences.
Mridul Chowdhury is a co-founder of non-partisan youth group named Jagoree and a member of Drishtipat Writers’ Collective.