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A Dhaka diary, only for t2

On the eve of departure for the Hay Dhaka literature festival, Amish Tripathi said on the sidelines of An Author’s Afternoon, a t2 event, that on many economic yardsticks, Bangladesh’s progress has been comparable to those achieved during the Meiji Restoration in Japan. Though Hay Dhaka hardly provided even a sample size to check economic indices, it spoke very highly about Bangladesh’s Sahitya Index.

And why not? Many roads in Calcutta are named after writers, in Dhaka only a few aren’t. And the ability to quote Tagore, Nazrul and the Pantheon is almost pathological. And if the first Bengali press is in Serampore, ie, epaar, the second one is in Kamarkhali, ie, opaar.

The first session I attended was about ‘Tales of Liberation’. Though one delegate did mutter that he wished the hosts would ‘look beyond 1971’, there is no arguing that it is the fulcrum of their literature at present, possibly where India was in 1988, 41 years after 1947.

British novelist Philip Hensher, whose Scenes From Early Life is loosely based on the experiences of his Bangladeshi partner, was in conversation with Kamila Shamsie, a Pakistani whose novel (Kartography) speaks about the war from her country’s perspective. Anisul Hoque and Tahmima Anam were representing Bangladesh. The references to Tagore by Hoque and to the silences in Karachi about the excesses that accompanied the liberation of Pakistan made it quite an emotionally-charged session with Hoque actually having to pause to collect himself at one point.

A little later was an equally absorbing session about women’s writing in Bangladesh. Selina Hossein, one of the leading writers of her generation, spoke about allegations of ‘meye-li’ writing that is often laid at the doorstep of her generation. Tracing the roots to women writing to interpretations of The Ramayana, the panel that also had Shamim Ahmed and Anwara Syed Haq, had an impressive way of including all parts of Bangla literary history without excising the non-Islamic parts. It’s heartening to see such inclusiveness when other parts of the subcontinent are editing classical music of any allusions to Radha, Krishna or other Hindu gods and goddesses.

Vikram Seth about to launch into Faiyah as Syed Shamsul Haq (left) and Kaiser Haq look on and (below) one of the performances at Hay Dhaka

Why Seth is not on Twitter

Vikram Seth was on post-lunch and as usual had the audience eating out of his hands. In conversation with David Davidar, he spoke about how he moved between genres because of the demands of a subject, his debt to Aleksandr Pushkin and how he could not speak about ‘the next one’. But the answer of the festival was given when asked why he was not on Twitter. Seth deadpanned: ‘It’s not my genre…. I don’t think I crossed 140 characters, did I?’

The day ended with a four-hour Bangla rock concert which showed that for every Chandrabindoo there is a Leemon and for every Anupam there is an Arnob. The evening was a blockbuster among the visiting writers and also introduced the literary meet to an audience that might not have known about it otherwise.

The next day started with cricket, as Shamsie, Shehan Karunatilaka and Khademul Islam discussed why cricket is the only religion that unites the subcontinent. Khademul Islam has undertaken a quest for the first Bengali Muslim cricketer, which has proved futile so far.

An invigorating session with women writers in English that launched an anthology of women’s writing in English, Lifelines, confirmed my hunch — women in Bangladesh are far more articulate than their men. The gentleman who chaired the session was simply swamped by the women on the panel. Outnumbered, yes, but also outwitted and out-talked.

The late afternoon set with Syed Shamsul Haq and Vikram Seth discussing poetry and reciting. Seth is hard to out-recite, but Haq’s sonorous baritone did hold its own, and the evening and the fest ended like the literary meet had started last year, with Fire or Faiyah!

I have only mentioned a handful of the 40-odd sessions that were held, but it was a really impressive bit of programming that covered an incredible number of topics, from cinema to taboos to cricket.

Plenty of take-homes from the fest. Tahmima Anam, who is the brain behind Hay Dhaka, has already agreed to come for the Calcutta Literary Meet next year. Sadaf Saaz Siddiqi, a young poet and writer who partners Tahmima, will be here as well, as will Selina Hossein and a team of Bangladeshi writers.

Where Calcutta missed out

The only quibble was that India was present in this extremely well-thought-out programme, but not Calcutta. Also, India was often missing in sessions where it was patently obvious that an Indian speaker would have added value. A session on the tales of liberation or on cricket in the subcontinent without an Indian on the panels did feel odd and even the Bangla sessions would have gained a lot from the presence of writers from Calcutta in conversation with their counterparts in Dhaka. This happens in Ekushe Boi Mela, which happens through February, almost immediately after our Book Fair, but Calcutta needed to be a presence rather than an absence at Hay Dhaka.

I also got the distinct sense that the women are smarter. According to Peter Florence, director of Hay Festivals worldwide, this is the first time in the history of their festivals that the women outnumbered the men in their speakers’ list. He also marvelled at the turnout, which was quite impressive for a literary festival just in its second year. Florence had to deal with some protesters who were against English sessions at the hallowed ground of Bangla that is the Bangla Academy. But he said he expected it and in some ways was happy to be in a country he reckons is unparalleled in their pride of the mother tongue.

And finally, Tagore was born in Calcutta but he still breathes in Dhaka. Hardly a session passed without a reference to Tagore, and while this is not news to a Calcuttan, the level of reverence is quite staggering. During a session one of the panelists mistakenly called the younger brother of Chhuti’s (Homecoming) Phatik, Mohon. The capacity of the auditorium was 540, and I heard at least 400 voices correct him: “Mohon na, Makhan.”

The Calcutta Literary Meet will be held in association with The Telegraph from January 30 to February 3, 2013.