The last time I found myself on the grounds of the Bangla Academy was February 2013. It is an annual family pilgrimage that I was loathe to miss this year. Dhaka University next door was the point of origin of the protests on the 21st of February 1952. The youth of an as yet unborn nation took a stand for their language, their culture, their heritage. They were brutally suppressed by the state’s law enforcement authorities, but their collective action against injustice and oppression would be instrumental in Bangladesh gaining independence nearly twenty years later.
The Shaheed Minar, a monument erected, destroyed, rebuilt in memory of those who were martyred for the Bengali language in 1952, casts its shadow on Bangla Academy. The resilient citizens unite and descend on it on the 21st of February every year, to remember the fallen and the struggle. A festival of people celebrates the language and literature of Bangladesh throughout the month, within the walls of the nearby Bangla Academy. This inseverable bond with the Shaheed Minar and the Ekushey Boi Mela is supplemented in my case by a personal relationship. On the fateful day in 1952, Mahbub Ul Alam Chowdhury became the latest in a long line of Bengali rebels whose revolution flowed from the pen, by writing the first poem of the Language Movement.
He was my maternal grandfather. He taught me the virtue and the power of words. It is because of him that I hope to give a voice to the oppressed, the marginalised, the forgotten. Having missed this year’s Ekushey Boi Mela, I entered Bangla Academy on the 20th of November for the three-day Hay Festival. Ahsan Akbar, hailing from the land of poets and being a gifted exponent of the art-form, had graciously extended an invitation to me. My poetry collection, Requiem, reflecting on the truth of the human condition, came out. A very Bangladeshi book of poems written in English, it contained five of my grandfather’s poems that I had translated, to bring the pride of a nation to the attention of the world.
The focus on translation at the Festival was, in fact, noteworthy. We repeatedly boast about our rich literary heritage, but while the claims are far from false, we have struggled to show proof to the world. Mahmud Rahman, an excellent but lone voice on the subject, and a few individual efforts that are labours of love, have been exceptions that have only fleetingly threatened to bring Bangladesh in all its glory to the world. This is changing, aided by the work of the new Dhaka Translation Centre and others. The world will, finally, have the privilege of engaging with contemporary greats such as Asad Chowdhury and Selina Hossain who were on panels at the Festival, and of being mesmerised by past giants.
I said goodbye to Hay on the 22nd. The big international names gave a reason to venture from Baridhara, Gulshan and Dhanmondi, but what I remember is the warmth and generosity of the average Bangladeshi extended to those to whom we can relate. We love Kosal Khiev, TJ Dema, Isaac Fitzgerald: young, spirited, hopeful individuals like us who, armed with literature, choose to break down barriers rather than erect them. We embraced them and produced pockets of festivities on hallowed grounds.
There was a Commonwealth Writers session on translation at Hay Festival Dhaka, moderated by Kate Griffin, with Arunava Sinha, Shaheen Akhtar and Kaiser Haq. A workshop on consensus translation preceded the session. You can read about it here.Go To The Translation Hub