I am speaking next week at the Dhaka Lit Fest, something I am particularly looking forward to. In a place like Bangladesh, more known in the West for poverty and terror, a literary festival might seem a luxury, a bauble for the rich and cosmopolitan. It is anything but. It is precisely in a country like Bangladesh that such an event becomes so important.
Between 2013 and 2016, a series of horrific murders of freethinking and atheist bloggers by Islamists shocked Bangladesh and create a sense of fear, as they were intended to. The Dhaka Lit Fest, simply by taking place, served as an important reminder and embodiment of a different tradition. ‘We had an incredible response’, observed Sadaf Saaz, one of the festival directors, in 2015, ‘which would have been great if conditions were normal, but given the security alerts, the hartal, threat on writers, the turnout was amazing. Dhaka audiences definitely turned up in huge numbers reaffirming our love of literature, and commitment to a life of debates and ideas.’ Or, as Kazi Anis Ahmed, another of the festival’s director and founders put it, ‘Traditionally the mainstream [in Bangladesh] has been a very progressive set — very secular and very supportive of free speech and free thinking — and that’s what’s so important about what they do. The Dhaka Literary Festival brings them new strength and inspiration and connects them to a wider world that shares those values’.
An event such as the Dhaka Lit Fest is important, too because Bangla has a rich literary and intellectual history largely unknown and ignored in the West. As Ahmed observed, ‘in recent times, our literary culture has been cut off from the scene. It’s really important to be in conversation with other cultures. That was the original impetus, that a literary festival would be really good for engaging with one another and hopefully unleash a new era of creativity here.’
Three years ago I was invited to the Lahore Literary Festival. Unfortunately I did not receive a visa – not formally denied one, but never actually given one either. It may have been because I was born in India, or because I write on topics such as Islam, blasphemy and free speech which does not sit well with the authorities (Pandaemonium is banned in Pakistan). This time I have managed to receive a visa at the last minute, the delay more about bureaucratic inertia than politics. (Such bureaucratic incapacity is not confined to countries such as Bangladesh. When it comes to visas, Britain, for instance, shows levels of bureaucratic madness that makes any system in the global south seem positively sane).
When I was invited to the Lahore Literary Festival I wrote on why such festivals are so important:
In a world constrained by borders, not just physical or national borders, but also social and cultural borders, borders of the mind and of the imagination, the creation of a space in which people are able to transcend those borders, and able to engage with other people and other views, to be able to discuss, to debate, to argue.
Such engagement is as important, perhaps more important, to those burdened by poverty, constrained by conflict, trapped by injustice, as they are to those who live in freer, wealthier, more democratic societies. It is a necessity, an essential tool of social change, of our ability to challenge tyranny and injustice.