Hay Festival Dhaka, Bangladesh, 21 November 2011
On 21 November 2011, Rosemary Arnott, British Council Director Bangladesh, opened the first ever Hay Festival there, at our office grounds on ‘a cool and sunny (almost) winter morning to resemble a perfect summer’s day in Hay-on-Wye itself’.
The atmosphere was beautifully festive; our grounds decked out in jasmine and bamboo, with a green room – a writer’s resting place in between sessions – that Peter Florence, Hay Director, described as the best he’d ever seen.
‘We love stories. We love big ideas. We want to celebrate the possibility of changing our minds and wrestling with new ways of understanding the world. Thank you for being in on the beginning of a thrilling adventure’.
Bangladeshi poet Kaiser Haq was cheered as he recited ‘Ode on the Lungi’ a celebration of this traditional male garment, worn by more people across the world than the population of the US, proclaiming ‘I am a lungi activist!’
‘All clothes have equal rights’—
this nobody will deny
and yet, some obviously
are more equal than others
No, I’m not complaining about
the jacket and tie
required in certain places—
that, like fancy dress parties,
is in the spirit of a game…
Is it a clash of civilizations?
The sheer illogicality of it –
the kilt is with ‘us’
but the lungi is with ‘them’!
Extract from Ode on the Lungi
This was followed by a session on violent revolutions, where Tahmima talked about her novel on the Bangladeshi War of Liberation in 1971.
The lead character, Rehana, is a mother desperately trying to protect her children from the extremes of student activism. Yet she ends up being transformed into an activist herself.
The novel, when it first appeared, was greeted by whoops of excitement by UK publishers. And yet, Tahmima’s take was: ‘I know I don’t have the talent to write War and Peace. This is a small story about a big event, the seminal moment in my parents’ lives and mine.’
‘Stories are always about now,’ he explained. ‘We are so absolutely contained by our own age – I’ve only just realised this. Writers don’t have a great track record in politics. We can get into a hopeless muddle’.
When asked what writers could do for world peace, Tahmima replied: ‘Write more books!’
Next, UK journalist Nik Gowing talked about the vulnerability of power. He enumerated a number of corporate and government leaders who simply didn’t know how to handle the upsurge of popular power through social media.
The communications revolution is forcing much greater accountability and revealing a democratic deficit. Yet, so many leaders are still resistant to this. ‘Why didn’t Gaddafi learn from Mubarak, Assad from Gaddafi?’ he asked.
These three sessions – the lungi, violent revolutions and the vulnerability of power – reminded me that it is very difficult to separate out art, media, politics, revolution even.
I reflected on our British Council approach. Are we perhaps just slightly disingenuous when we talk of cultural relations as transcending the political relationship between two countries? Should we acknowledge the links between these to a greater extent?
These considerations got more complicated with issues of language. A key driver in the liberation war was the preservation of the Bangla language.
Given this context, writer Farah Ghuznavi commented: ‘We talk of the Indian voice in literature. We’re still in the process of finding a Bangladeshi voice. How does our society relate to English? We haven’t really decided yet. In reality, English is used as a second language but we don’t yet call it this.’
Bangladeshi writers in English described the rift between those Bangladeshis who speak English and those who do not. ‘When you write in English, you feel a bit divided. A crisis develops inside you.’
At the end of the festival, I feel that our Hay discussions represent a whole world of opportunity for our work in Bangladesh. When I asked my colleague Eeshita Azad whether we were halfway through a renaissance in Bangladeshi writing in English, her reply was: ‘no, we’re at the starting point.’
After today, we would love to think that we’ve nudged the movement a step further forward.
Our UK line-up included writers Andrew Miller, Jon Gower, Lorna Bradbury, Tiffany Murray; broadcaster Nik Gowing; story-teller Jan Blake and Tahmima Anam. Our Bangladeshi partners responded with a line-up of equal distinction, comprising Razia Khan, Rebecca Haque, Rumana Siddique, Fakrul Alam and many more.
Hay Festival Dhaka took place at the British Council in Dhaka on 21 November 2011