Mridul Chowdhury

Nay to Hay?

November 29, 2012

59020_497434690296850_1925401624_nThe 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.

156664_491780244195628_587249027_nTo 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.

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Mridul Chowdhury is a co-founder of non-partisan youth group named Jagoree and a member of Drishtipat Writers’ Collective.

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5 Responses to “ Nay to Hay? ”

  1. Abul Kayyum on December 2, 2012 at 10:07 pm

    I think festival like this will attract more and more younger people towards world literature and our budding ones. Writing in English cannot and should not be seen as a thing to be frowned upon. Because English has ceased to be a language of any particular nation but has very much become a global language.

  2. Sohel on December 1, 2012 at 7:08 pm

    The critics above have tried to raise important issues about culture and power, but fallen back to a number of familiar prejudices.
    1. Given that English is the lingua franca, do we gain or lose by shunning it? Most of us have enjoyed the world’s best thanks to translations. What is so insidious then about giving the world access to our best?
    2. We don’t need the world’s approval to feel good about our culture, but we must also not succumb to a rejectionist attitude.
    3. To paint all Bangladeshis who write in English as “disconnected” is a dated and inaccurate stereotype. Moreover, presuming that there is only one ‘real’ Bangla culture misses the great diversity of our culture – even in our mother tongue.
    4. It’s easy to label something as ‘elite’, but why should even the elite have less right to take part in cultural activities? Class prejudice is unacceptable both ways.
    5. Finally, some critics wish to censor events like Hay in the name of a public which daily pays for access to Hindi TV programs. In truth, a festival like Hay, heavily attended and calibrated by our leading intellectuals and writers, represents cross-cultural engagement at its healthiest.
    Whatever the faults of this year’s Hay festival, or the pitfalls of representing our culture in English, these are things we need to be aware of. But using a few complaints or old prejudices to shut out the world is hardly what most Bangladeshis want.

  3. Abdul Huq on November 30, 2012 at 9:34 pm

    No doubt culture is a dynamic exchange of cultures. But you must gauge the flow of this exchange. Have you ever thought how much English (or western) we have become or how much Bangali they (the cultural forces with whom we have frequent exchanges) have become. It’s not only the exchange it’s how we place ourselves in that cultural bazaar. Culture is enriched through these exchanges provided there is a free flow of exchange. When we do not have enough time to culture our own the result is obvious: Japanese eating more hamburgers and getting unhealthy. In the 24 or so years of Pakistani rule how much Bangla we used to practice and how much Bangla we are practicing now after earning our hard fought independence. Or is it liberation? How much liberated we really are today?

  4. abcd on November 30, 2012 at 3:47 pm

    “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 culture, there is potential for making a similar footprint on the global stage… 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.”

    All these assumptions are inherently problematic in themselves. The writer makes these assertions but does not tell us WHY we must have this desperate need to go about conquering the world, etc and just why Bengali culture cannot stand on its own among its own adherents. The fundamental point, it seems, is that unless more and more of our culture is English-ified (either translated or in the original), then we can’t play with the big boys, but folks like Mridul don’t tell us why we should care to join the fray in the first place. Looks like the colonial dominating mindset has been well absorbed.

    When gigs like Hay are pimped by members of the globalized elite (such as Mr Mridul) who principally communicate among themselves and with others in English (in forums such as this and the Daily Star), and when they are barely capable of holding forth for even five minutes in their mother tongue, their agenda becomes pretty clear to the rest of the prakritojon. Anyone who saw the Hay Festival programme and its bazillion spelling mistakes will know just exactly how far this elite is removed from the culture of their own countrymen and their own language.

  5. z.m.alim on November 29, 2012 at 11:57 pm

    Focusing on the cultural should not be a denial of the economic and political. Most of us would agree that global domination by Britain led to the universality of English, and that language is instrumental in implementing social relations. That goes for the vernacular, inside national borders, just as English does the job internationally. We all know the history of contracts written in English being imposed on illiterate natives. The struggle for Bangla was inseparable from the struggle against Pakistani economic and political domination. I have to admit that I choose to use English at the expense of cultivating my Bangla because of social and economic advantages. It is a conflicted choice, plagued with embarassment and guilt, an inconvenient truth.

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