Shadhona, Dhaka Lit Fest 2019

This essay, on the Dhaka Lit Fest, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on a new survey of English dialects.) It was published on 20 October 2019, under the headline ‘Literary festivals are not a luxury, a bauble for the middle classes’.

Sadarghat is not a place for the faint-hearted. The river port of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, it’s a microcosm of the city itself – in your face, bursting with life, tumultuous and gritty. Multi-storeyed ferries loom over tiny, gondola-like boats carrying children and old men across the river. Mud-soaked children fish from the banks while ferry crew shower themselves with buckets of river water. Men hammer away at huge rusting hulks of ancient tankers. When most people think about Bangladesh, they probably have a place like Sadarghat in mind.

Across town lies a very different symbol of Bangladesh. Designed by the US architect Louis Kahn, Parliament House is unashamedly modernist and austere. Construction began in 1961, when this was still East Pakistan, and was not completed until 1982, a decade after the bloody war of liberation that brought Bangladesh into being. Kahn’s strikingly beautiful building is a symbol of that struggle, of the battle to define a nation not by religion but by language and culture, and to create a secular constitution.

In between Sadarghat and Parliament House lies the Bangla Academy, part of the University of Dhaka, and dedicated to the protection of Bengal’s literary culture. Last week, it was host to the Dhaka Lit Fest, a three-day celebration of literature and politics, in both English and Bangla, which began in 2011 and has become a permanent cultural fixture that draws writers and thinkers from across the globe. Which is how I found myself in Dhaka.

A country such as Bangladesh is viewed in the west primarily through the lenses of poverty and Islam. Both are important aspects of the nation’s story. But there are many other lenses through which to view the country.

Like most nations, Bangladesh is complex and conflicted. It’s a nation born out of a secularist desire but now seemingly defined by Islam. It’s a country in which extreme poverty has been reduced from 44% in 1991 to 13% today but one in which desperation is visible whichever way you look, from the tin shacks that line many roads to the pittance that multinationals pay garment workers. They are a people with a rich literary intellectual tradition, but one that is now badly eroded.

The Dhaka Lit Fest is both an expression of many of these contradictions and an attempt to face up to them. In a still-developing nation, a literary festival may seem like a luxury, a bauble for the literate middle classes. Yet it’s a kind of event more significant to a country such as Bangladesh than it would be to Britain or France.

The festival is part of the struggle to define the soul of the nation. It is, as one of the festival’s founders and directors Kazi Anis Ahmed puts it, a conscious attempt to sustain the spirit of secularism and pluralism that animated the struggle for independence. ‘We provide space for local writers to speak freely and to discuss issues they may not be able to elsewhere,’ he says.

It possesses a more profound significance, too. A few years ago, an Israeli missile attack on Gaza demolished a theatre in which stood the region’s only grand piano. It was restored in a project financed by Daniel Barenboim and became the centrepiece of a celebratory concert. Why in a land so devastated by war and which for many feels like a vast prison should so much fuss have been made of one piano?

Because to be human is more than simply to survive. It is also to imagine, to hope, to transcend, to transform. In a place such as Gaza, as Lukas Pairon, from Music Fund, the charity that helped restore the piano, says, music ‘is a form of rebellion against being narrowly defined as living beings who only want the basic things – food, protection, security – who are only in survival mode’.

That is also the significance of the Dhaka Lit Fest. In a world constrained by borders, not just physical or national, but also social and cultural, by borders of the mind and of the imagination, it allows for a space in which people can engage with others and discuss, debate and argue.

Such engagement is even more important to those burdened by poverty, constrained by conflict or trapped by injustice than it is to those who live in freer, wealthier, more democratic societies. It is a necessity, a tool without which it would not be possible to challenge tyranny and injustice.

‘If Bangladesh can refound its original vision,’ says Ahmed, ‘there’s hope for other countries, and not just Muslim ones.’


The top photograph and the cover photograph are of a performance by the dance troupe Shadhona based on the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore in the opening ceremony of the Dhaka Lit Fest.


  1. damon

    The question of whether such literary festivals are a bauble for the middle classes was taken up in the comments under this article in the Guardian. I’d say that they are, but that intellectual and cultural life is also really necessary to have in a nation. What turned me off a bit was just the introduction to the festival that was given in the short video clip that was linked to here, under the words “Dhaka Lit Fest” ….. where the chap with the posh English accent says how wonderful it’s been “sitting under the benevolent shade of the banyan tree”.
    That doesn’t make it sound very inclusive. More like the Subcontinent’s “VIP” culture.

    I visited Bangladesh in 2001 and for me, the “Soul of the nation” can be found out on the streets of Dhaka with the guys working as peddle rickshaw drivers. There’s hundreds of thousands of them trying to earn in a day of toil, what the middle and upper classes will spend on a coffee and a slice of cake at “The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf” cafe in the shady upmarket “diplomatic area”.

    Who reads books in Bangladesh? Do they even have bookshops?
    They probably do have some now, but usually, these bookshops are in the rich residential areas or in high-end shopping malls. Most often, in Muslim countries that I’ve been to, “Bookshops” are places where they sell Korans, stationary and children’s school text books.
    Translation of foreign books has a lot to do with it I guess. Most books are not available in the local language, so you have to be able to speak and read another language if you are going to read more than what’s available for the domestic market.

    When I was there a “Hartal” (general strike) was called. I can’t remember which party called it (the opposition BNP I think) but it was pretty violent and intimidating. All businesses were to close, or face attack from mobs or bombs.
    There were several grenade attacks in Dhaka during the strike. One on a bank that hadn’t closed properly I remember, and even a grenade tossed onto a cycle rickshaw because the driver was still working despite the strike.
    With that kind of politics, I didn’t have much hope for the future of the country.
    And the population has gone up by thirty million since then also.
    But apparently, prosperity has increased, so something is going right.
    Is that down to the good governance of the Awami League, or are they a part of the problem too?

    The thing about middle and upper classes, is that although you might need some of them to discuss the big ideas of politics and culture, they also deliberately segregate themselves off from the poor and working class because they are just out for themselves (like everywhere else).
    Or they just employ them as servants, cooks and drivers, but don’t pay them a real living wage.

    I’m sure there will be people attending such a festival who are very sincere in their desire to see progress and justice in the country. But it’s almost impossible to talk things through, as we are finding out in the U.K. and USA.
    The polarisation is a complete block on moving forward.
    In Britain, I just compare and contrast the Guardian’s Maya Goodfellow on the one hand – and Douglas Murray on the other. There is no conversation between such different points of view.
    It’s probably even worse in Bangladesh.

    • ’Who reads books in Bangladesh? Do they even have bookshops?’

      Sigh. Yes, they read books in Bangladesh (they also wear shoes, occasionally attend school, and a few have even heard of the internet), and there are dozens of bookshop in Dhaka. The literacy rate among 15-24 year olds is 93% and the adult literacy rate is higher than in India. There is a rich and deep tradition of Bengali literature, with world-renowned figures such as Rabindranath Tagore, Kazi Nazrul Islam and Natyaguru Nurul Momen; there is also a great tradition of Bengali film making, with directors such Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak. The 1971 war of independence was rooted in the Bengali cultural and literary tradition, and in the insistence that the nation should be defined by culture not religion. The ‘who reads books in Bangladesh?’ kind of comment is typical of the prejudices through which so many in the West look at such countries. Perhaps you need to read a few books (or even articles) before making such comments?

      ’With that kind of politics, I didn’t have much hope for the future of the country.’

      Yes, I know, there is never any violence in industrial disputes or political movements in Western nations. French strikes are always perfectly peaceful, the confrontations between gilets jaunes and the police must be fake news, just like the reports of the confrontations in Catalonia, and all that stuff about violence at Orgreave or Wapping must be myths, as, indeed, must be the stories about politicians being shot dead in Britain and Germany and America. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be much hope for these countries would there?

      • damon

        You’ll have to forgive me for having rather blinkered views on Bangladesh, as I was there at quite a torrid time. I think there was actually a second Hartal called during the 18 days I spent in the country.
        There was also a very serious border clash between the Indian and Bangladeshi border forces which left 19 of them dead.
        I don’t remember seeing any bookshops, but wasn’t actually looking for them. I was too taken in by the poverty and social backwardness of the country. Where were all the women and girls?
        And why were people who needed urgent medical attention being left to sit and rot outside the railway station in Dhaka, or destitute children being left to go garbage scavenging out of bins and piles of rubbish? I wasn’t really appreciating the country’s literary history, just looking at the streets and the chaos.

        As for the violence of the strikes, I thought it was particularly nasty, because it reeked so much of corruption. The BNP couldn’t stand being out of power, because you need “your people” in power if you are going to be able to get on and flourish in your (corrupt) business or political life.
        So whoever was in opposition would call these strikes and then threaten the whole society with violence if anyone dared to ignore it. It was the politicians who were paying the hired thugs to go and attack people. That’s what I was told anyway.
        And apparently, the Awami League do similar things when they feel they’re losing out too.
        That’s why I say I didn’t have much hope for the future.
        But the future comes around regardless, and maybe things are looking up a bit.
        The population size is a bit of a concern though. The country is about the same size as England and Wales, but has a whopping 161.3 million people.

        • Yes, Bangladesh is economically poor and socially backward. I don’t recall anyone denying that (though it’s also worth adding that it’s on course, according to the World bank, to be the first South Asian nation to eliminate extreme poverty, and that both the war of independence and the constitution is defined by secularism, not religion). But the questions ‘Who reads books in Bangladesh? Do they even have bookshops?’ are, I’m afraid, rooted in blind prejudice.

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