For years, Dhaka—the sprawling capital of Bangladesh—has been known for the ancient beauty of its mosques, its nauseating traffic jams, and the thick parade of rickshaws lining the narrow streets. But English literature? In Dhaka? Any mention of it, especially in rarefied Western circles, would have prompted disbelief. Not anymore. Over the past few months, as Tahmima Anam’s novel The Good Muslim has been met with international acclaim, the city has fast emerged as an enclave of literary talent. At the Hay Festival of Literature and Arts last year, a thousand people thronged the British Council. Buoyed by its success, Hay returned to Dhaka this November with a far bigger retinue of talent, this time at Dhaka’s prestigious Bangla Academy, the premier government institution for the promotion of Bengali language and literature. Over two days, 20,000 people passed through the expansive banyan-shaded grounds of the academy and the lakeside Hay Dhaka Music Festival at Rabindra Sarobor. On the lawn, under the mellow winter sun, a packed crowd listened to recitals by the likes of Indian novelist Vikram Seth and Bangladeshi poet Syed Haq. Several English-language books and journals were launched, and two new talents, Khademul Islam and Maria Chaudhuri, were signed by Bloomsbury for world release of their memoirs.
Yet Dhaka’s coming-out party wasn’t without controversy. As the audience packed the auditoriums, a debate ensued over giving prominence to an English-language festival in Bangladesh and the use of the Bangla Academy. Outside the gate, a small band of protesters stood with a banner that read “Stop Hay at Bangla Academy.” These sentiments were echoed in blog posts and a variety of Bengali-language newspapers. On the surface, the protesters objected to the corporate sponsorship of the program, but underlying their demonstration seemed to be deeper-rooted sensitivity to the celebration of the English language vis-à-vis Bengali, or Bangla, as it’s known here, with its accompanying issues of wealth and class.
Hosting the Hay in Bangladesh is indeed sensitive, as the very existence of the country stems from a movement in the 1950s to recognize the Bangla language in the face of West Pakistani cultural aggression. Yet the festival’s planners went to great lengths to ensure due homage to local culture and history, as the opening ceremony presented classical Indian dances performed to Bangla poems, and ended with a jatra, a form of folk dance-drama. Out of 41 panels, at least 15 were in Bangla, and the stage was taken by four times as many Bangladeshi writers as foreign ones. The Bangla panels found equal room for new poets, like Trimita Chakma, who writes in the minority Chakma language. And the event marked the time at Hay that women outnumbered men on stage. In Bangladesh, a certain linguistic nationalism of the post-independence years has unfortunately seen a related slide in the practice of English. But as Bangladesh begins its fifth decade, the embrace of an international festival like Hay by the Bangla Academy marks the maturation and newfound confidence of a culture. Hay will be back next year, with an even richer offering, though I suspect the protesters will be back, too.