Ask a historian and this is the answer you’ll get. Ask a politician and it’s the same. NGO social worker? Yes. An educator? Oh yes. Ask any of them to name one commonality for Bangladeshis through the ages and they will say: ‘Resilience’.
We have survived floods and droughts; martial law and dictators; bleeding of great leaders and breeding of despots. Through it all, we have written stories, recited poetry, expressed ourselves in music and art. So really, when the highly anticipated annual Dhaka Literary Festival (DLF) is marked on the calendar, how can a general strike stop us?
The hartal was called in protest of the conviction of two war criminals by the International Crimes Tribunal. Ironically, it seemed all the more significant that DLF should start without delay or hesitation. Every writer, poet, thinker and artist worth their salt made sure to attend. If dissenters could have a right to an opinion, so could affirmers. Due to the Facebook ban, there were no selfies, no check-ins – our presence was in real time, on actual ground. Dhaka litterateurs took a stand.
The opening ceremony started with not just one but two ministers stamping their approval on the free exchange of ideas and thoughts that festivals such as the DLF help to facilitate. The opening plenary took us around the world – as it has become today – with journalist Jon Snow, academic Ramachandra Guha, Women of the World Festival founder Jude Kelly and DLF director Anis Ahmed. Although at times the discussion felt somewhat ‘bleak’ (according to one audience member), it set the tone for the weekend – understanding global issues that polarise us and having the courage to publicly discuss hidden agendas and to name vested parties. In a city still reeling from the shock of bloggers and publishers being hacked to death, I couldn’t help but admire the courage of the organisers. Statistics suggest that over twelve thousand people felt the same way in the span of three days.
What was particularly interesting about DLF was the two-way flow between Bangladeshi creative minds and global ones. It was a treat to listen to Nobel Laureate Harold Varmus discuss genetic research with DLF director Sadaf Saaz. The former had gone from literature to science; the latter from science to literature – Dhaka was their meeting point. Just as it was entertaining to watch Cuban rock star Yoss, British author Marcel Theroux, Indian author Ranbir Sidhu and Bangladeshi author Saad Hossain sharing opinions on ‘alternate worlds’. We witnessed an exploration of Marathi, Malayalam and Bengali on one stage. Muthoni Garland made the green shamiana on the Bangla Academy lawn turn blue as audience members traversed under the seas with a Rastafarian matatu driver. With five panels going on simultaneously and a fantastic line-up of some ninety events, we were all over the place – in more ways than one!
DLF also made a commendable effort to bring Bangladeshi talent to the forefront. International literary journal Wasafiri showcased their exclusive Bangladeshi issue. Himal, Southasia’s first and only regional news and analysis magazine, launched their special issue on Bangladesh. Dhaka Translation Center released collections by Hasan Azizul Huq and Syed Shamsul Haq in the first ever series of books celebrating the best in Bengali writing. Poetry anthologies, short-story collections, coffee table books, a memoir, a horror novel … book lovers at DLF were certainly spoilt for choice. It was gratifying to realise that a read of high literary worth didn’t need a western sounding name on the cover. Post post-colonial literature, thy name is Dhaka Lit Fest.
The closing discussion had us asking: ‘Is there any future for liberalism in South Asia?’ It happened to be on a day when we woke up wondering: ‘Will-they-won’t-they-will-they-won’t-they?’ Rumour had it that the two convicted war criminals would be hanged at one minute past midnight. But, as is the case on any other day in Bangladesh, life went on until death took over. Creative personalities and thirsty souls still thronged the grounds, digging up dust clouds over feminism, watching the Serpent Goddess struggle, debating on attachment, alienation and, most of all, enjoying the beauty of the mind. As I headed out, intellectually satiated, I heard two people heatedly discussing capital punishment. It seemed pretty obvious that neither of them would come around to the other’s point of view any time soon. Still the discourse continued as they walked off. It made me think of the last session.
Future for liberalism? The Dhaka Lit Fest took place in full form, with ‘no excuses, no apologies, no regrets’ despite all that happened and whatever may have come about. I’d say we have plenty of reason to be hopeful.
Munize Manzur is author of Voices and Labyrinth. She’s usually found in the vicinity of a book.