I haven’t woken up yet from the euphoric three days of the Dhaka Literary Festival (DLF). Before I sink back into my reveries, I must congratulate the directors of the festival, Sadaf Saaz, Ahsan Akbar and K. Anis Ahmed, for pulling off this event with such resounding success. This despite the security alerts after the recent attacks on local writers and publishers, and tensions in the city surrounding the execution of war criminals and the resulting, last minute cancellations by some guest writers. The rest, flocked to Dhaka fearlessly and gave the support and sparkle that makes any ‘Woodstock of the mind’ memorable.
This year, I thank DLF, not only for continuing to give us, writers and readers in Bangladesh, the opportunity to interact with other international literati, but for the national pride of meeting them on our own grounds: Dhaka’s own literary festival!
It was about time that this city, which always boasted a rich heritage of writers in its mother tongue, should, along with its evolving community of English writers, play host to the world, and in this over-crowded megalopolis, create a space for us to stop and dream.
And so, in my dream it is the eve of DLF, and I am again a kid in the candy store of writers and books, greedily eyeing the three-day programme, trying to choose among the panoply of panels with local and visiting writers, poets and media personalities.
Notable among those from the western hemisphere were: British novelist Marcel Theroux; British journalist Jon Snow; London based film-maker Leslie Udwin; novelist Meike Ziervogel, and Women of the World festival founder Jude Kelly; two Palestinian poets Ghassan Zaqtan and Fady Joudah; Cuban sci-fi writer and rock-star, Yoss; and Nobel Laureate in Science, Harold Varmus.
As a Bangladeshi writer of English myself, my literary proclivities lay more with Indian English writers: Nayantara Sehgal, whose literary identity is intertwined with the political, being the niece of Nehru; glamorous Shobhaa De, writer and blogger; poet Arvind Mehrotra, my favourite fiction writer, Amit Chaudhuri, whose miniaturist’s art has always brought to life quotidian Calcutta, and now with his, Odysseus Abroad, the Proust-like minutiae of living in London; the gifted storyteller Kunal Basu, who brings in his latest novel, Kalkatta, another view of the seminal Bengal city, which is not far from that other, eternally fascinating Kolkata, written about by the author of the Tagorean world, Aruna Chakravarti, whose Jorasanko is her latest offering.
I attended the DLF as both Bangladeshi writer and a voyeur from Italy, where I now live; it was a privilege to be with other Bangladeshi writers of English: Ikhtisad Ahmed, Saad Z. Hossain, Munize Manzur, the Swedish Bengali, Dilruba Z. Ara, Canadian Bangladeshi Ghalib Islam, the bilingual novelist Syed Manzoorul Islam alongside those who write in Bengali, and whose work is being translated and published for international consumption by the Dhaka Translation Center’s ‘Library of Bangladesh’ series.
I am dreaming that I am back on the grounds of the Bangla Academy, and it is the morning of 19 November, and the literary circus is about to start. I walk through the security check posts, passing the Cosmic Tent, where last year, my book of short stories, Piazza Bangladesh was launched.
I linger at the lawn, in front of the colonial structure, Bardhaman House, with its half-moon portico, red oxide steps, and arcaded verandas. Here, later in the day, I and other poets like Sadaf Saaz, Farida Majid and the eminent Kaiser Haq have been invited to recite our poems, included in the World English Poetry anthology, edited by noted poet Sudeep Sen and to be launched by the Bangladeshi literary critic Fakrul Alam. Here too, on the second day at the session, ‘Two Voices’ my collection of poetry, Calligraphy of Wet Leaves will be launched with poet Sabahat Jahan’s, A Handful of Nothing.
The Bengal Lights Books stand stands nearby with rows of English language publishers: UPL, Bengal Publications, Writer’s Ink, Daily Star Books, and the bookshop, Bookworm. All are lined up with their conical tented roofs in a multitude of colour, giving it the atmosphere of a fair ground.
The food stalls under the Banyan trees will soon be serving delectable local street food and beverages. But in my dreams, an equally mouth-watering, moveable feast of words and ideas is about to unfold. This year, and the next.
Neeman Sobhan is a fiction writer, poet, translator and columnist. She writes in English, and teaches at the University of Rome, La Sapienza. For two decades she wrote for the Bangladeshi national daily, The Daily Star. She is the author of An Abiding City: Ruminations from Rome (UPL), Piazza Bangladesh (Bengal Publications). Her collection of poetry, Calligraphy of Wet Leaves (Bengal Lights Books) was launched at the Dhaka Literary Festival, 2015. She is working on her first novel, The Ninety Nine Names for Being. She lives in Italy.