Dhaka Literary Festival 2019 crosses its 9th-year benchmark with its diverse panel of local and international speakers

Dhaka Literary festival now on its 9th  year, pulled all the stops to deliver once again a diverse panel of local and international speakers. Held at the Bangla Academy, a symbol of Bengali literary culture, DLF2019 raised its benchmark by branding itself as one of the most vibrant literary festivals on the circuit. The events were thought-provoking, intelligent, humorous and free of monotony. It felt as though one had stepped into a bubbling cauldron of readers, writers, celebrities, journalists, poets, performers, influences, Selfie takers and mic hoggers, creating an informal, yet lively vibe. DLF opens its doors annually to the multi-dimensional Dhaka society, creating an egalitarian and secular culture through literature.

Yara Rodrigues Fowler, Teresa Albor, Anne Ostby and Minna Lindgren on Ageing: The Secret of Life

Master of storytelling

 As we headed towards the cosmic tent on day two and scouting for empty seats, William Dalrymple, the acclaimed historian and writer, was addressing his audience of over 200 people. He was presenting a slide show depicting 18th -century masterpieces, painted by sub-continental artists under the patronage of the East India Company. The illustrations highlighted the shift from highly stylised flat miniature paintings of the Mughals, to the new emerging watercolour techniques of realism, with emphasis on shadows and shadings. A catalogue of flora and fauna, behind white backgrounds and colonial overloads in kurta pyjamas, sitting on divan’s smoking hookahs were also presented. Such works of art highlight the assimilation of a hybrid culture in colonial India.  The black-tented arena trapped Dhaka’s humidity with little ventilation as Dalrymple, in a downpour of his perspiration continued to enthral us with his descriptive narratives of the ‘Forgotten Masters Collection’. 

William Dalrymple reading On the Road

The following day, in the comfort of the air-conditioned hall at the PSR Seminar Room he spoke on ‘travel writing’ and the many adventures he encountered across far-flung lands. Back in the ’80s, still a student at Cambridge, with a College grant he retraced Marco Polo’s journey along the Silk Road and compiled the novel, ‘In Xanadu; A Quest’. As he read a passage from it, laced with sarcasm and dark humour, the audience burst into fits of laughter. He continued to skilfully colour the simple act of watching James Bond’s Dr No, in a cinema in Kashgar with his Uyghur companions, as a captivating adventure. 

The unresolved questions

Still on the subject of James Bond, Ernest van der Kwas, Mumbai born acclaimed Dutch writer highlighted the controversy surrounding Idris Elba portraying the iconic 007, in the discussion of ‘Identity and Citizenship’. The panel also consisted of Thomas Roueché, Minna Lindgren and Anne Ostby with Kenan Malik as the moderator. The session remains divisive, especially as Bangladesh is left to cope with the Rohingya refugee crisis at its doorstep. The panel’s ideals, of culturally diverse global citizens with equal rights and free movement, felt like a utopia far removed from reality. As global nomads and refugees are on an upward trajectory, where one belongs is a prevalent question for most of us.

Also at the lawn on day three was the discussion ‘Privileged’ led by Monica Ali, Yara Rodrigues Fowler and Kenan Malik and moderated by James Crabtree. The panel highlighted their struggles and preconceived prejudices based on their ethnicity and authenticity of their characters in their novel. As the debate carried on, a Diplomatic vehicle pulled up right next to the lawn tent. A flurry of armed security guards gathered around and pulled up their umbrellas to prevent the rain from falling onto the VIP and signalling to the bystanders, to move away. The irony of the situation seemed uncanny; as the discussion on ‘Privilege’ lingered on, the audience was somewhat distracted by the sideshow of the privileged attendee.

Celebrity status

Of course, for most of us who attended this year’s DLF, came to hear Shashi Tharoor. He needs no introduction, and I empathise with Shamsad Mortuza who seemed overwhelmed by the speaker, whom he had to moderate. The applause from the audience to encourage him to stay on-point and Shashi Tharoor’s calm smile did little to reassure him. ‘Sheikh Mujib: Icon of Post-colonial Liberation’ was the topic of discussion; also on the panel were Afsan Chowdhury and Kamal Chowdhury. Both Shashi Tharoor and Afsan Chowdhury eloquently brought two indelible points of view. Shahi Tharoor emphasised on the cultural and language movement in Bangladesh that mobilised the society towards a common goal. Afsan Chowdhury emphasised on peasantry aspiration and the grass-roots movement for upward economic mobility as the driving force to seek independence, in the post-colonial era. 

Shashi Tharoor further went on to commend the founding father, as Bangladesh remains one of the few countries to have successfully gained independence after the British exited the arbitrary border they drew across the Commonwealth of Nations. 

On the following day, he spoke on the topic ‘India Against Itself ‘. Unfortunately, I had to skip it, as it coincided with Dalrymple’s programme ‘On the Road’. Two writers with, at times juxtaposed views on the legacy of colonial India and its influence on its society and culture were scheduled concurrently. However, my husband, who attended Tharoor’s session, recorded most of the discussions. He highlighted that, today’s youngsters who did not live under colonial rule often romanticise on the empire, based on soap opera nostalgia, which was far removed from the reality of its native subjects. On current geopolitical issues such as the challenges within SARC and the Kashmir dilemma, he seemed to point the blame on a singular, so- claimed antagonist in the region.

Shashi Tharoor on Sheikh Mujib: Icon of Post-colonial Liberation

 However, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jeffrey Gettleman on the ‘Love Africa’ platform conveyed a more compelling account. When questioned why the international media is silent on the Kashmir issue, he did not hesitate to lay out the change in power dynamics, in the region. He further explained that India reigns in as the superpower, while Pakistan has steadily weakened, which was further exacerbated with the decline of US aid. In such a situation, India seized the opportunity to revoke Article 370 that gave the special autonomous status to Jammu and Kashmir. He also emphasised that all foreign journalists have been barred from entering the conflict zone. In the proxy game between unequal neighbours, there can be only one winner, and the voice of the Kashmiris like that of the Palestinians seemed muted. 

 At the AKSB Auditorium on day two, Monica Ali, the Bangladeshi born British writer who shot to fame with her Novel Brick Lane, spoke with the DLF director and producer, Sadaf Saaz. She highlighted her mother’s struggles as a white British, to assimilate into rural Bangladesh, as the inspiration behind the role reverse character, Nazneen. In comparison to the other events, I attended; ‘Beyond Brick Lane’ lacked energy. During the discussion some of the audience started trickling out, leaving me to wonder if the hype matched up to the session or was the subject so well researched and knowledgeable to the Dhaka audience that it lacked any element of surprise.


Mesmerising performance art

At the lawn on day three, the towering figure of Zohab Zee Khan, Pakistani Australian slam poet, with his Sufi philosophy addressed the issue of mental health and finding his niche. While Zohab played his Didgeridoo, dark clouds hung low, and the sky eventually spat out the rain it had been threatening to unleash since morning. Yet, nobody seemed too concerned about the weather. Next, he performed his poem ‘Imagine’ with a hip-hop rhythm that set the pace with the pitter-patter of rain. As his words echoed, he prowled and growled, hissed and grinned, bending his body to the tempo and created a powerful performance that moved us all.

Zohab Zee Khan on How to keep Poetry Relevant

 As the drizzle continued my friend and I battled the muddy path and made our way to the V Novera hall. ‘Ageing: The Secret of Life’, is a subject both of us now seem to ponder on. Anne Ostby, Minna Lindgren and Yara Rodrigues Fowler were on stage and like the rest of us waiting patiently for Teresa Albor’s entrance. And what an entrance it was. The lights went low, and the music glared up to “I want to dance with somebody”. She came out dancing in a blue sequin bodysuit with black and white sneakers to roaring applause. What does it mean to age in an era of longevity is a complex subject, especially for women. The panel addressed the physical, mental and social characteristics of women, as they get older. Redefining the best version of oneself, embracing age with positivity, to change the status quo was highlighted by Teresa Albor. Minna Lindgren denounced western ideals that deem retired women, a burden to society. While Anne Ostby discussed the loneliness felt by most elderly women in the west. This opened the floor for questions regarding the changing attitudes of the young towards the elderly in Bangladesh. As the panel debated and expressed multiple issues, breaking the boundaries as we age, seemed to be the coherent answer. Just as the session began, the hall burst into music, this time to the Bangla dance hit ‘Bondhu tui local bus’ and set everyone in the panel and the audience into a rapport of dancing and clapping. The energy and positivity were unmatched and not even ‘Cyclone Bulbul’ could dampen the spirits of DLF2019. What a fantastic way to curtain call, three cheers to the participants, organisers and volunteers on yet another successful DLF.