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.