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Dhaka Tribune

Literary jollies: My experience of Dhaka Lit Fest

As for Dhaka itself, I fell in love with it

Update : 03 Nov 2018, 12:59 AM

It is now coming up to two years since I attended the Dhaka Literary Festival, and yet my memories of it are fresh and pleasant. I am not normally a fan of literary festivals, preferring to operate from the safety of my own living room, but the chance to visit the subcontinent (not a phrase I like using that much; that “sub-” has something of a condescending air, even though it’s not meant to) was a powerful allurement, and London in November can be grim.  

The first surprise was the military escort. I’d never had one of these before, but the organisers were keen to allay any anxiety the guests might have had following the terrorist outrage on the Holey Artisan bakery the previous July. This was not a trivial anxiety, but we were assured that everything possible would be done to guarantee our safety and, also, I (and, I suspect, many of my fellow guests) felt that if literature is to mean anything, or do any good in the world, then it must be brave, or the people who serve it must be prepared to stick their necks out on its behalf. 

But because most of the guests, as far as I could tell, were British, we never talked or even thought about these fears much, except to joke about them. It became clear, very quickly, that we were in safe hands. Our only real worry was of dying of old age in one of Dhaka’s celebrated traffic jams. (I gather it is the most congested city in the world; whether this is true or not, it stopped me from complaining about London traffic for a long time afterwards.) 

As for Dhaka itself, I fell in love with it. I don’t think any cricket-lover can feel wholly out of place in a country where the game is played, and as we crawled past the park on the way to the campus where the events took place, I looked with deep approval at the way every spare inch of it was taken up with what looked like overlapping impromptu cricket matches. I even got to play in one (on a proper pitch, not in the park), for a scratch team of the Authors’ XI, scoring a streaky single before being bowled by one of the opposition’s rare bad balls: a full toss which clipped the top of off-stump. I was slow to start my walk back to the pavilion because I was hoping that the umpire’s raised finger was actually a sign for a no-ball. It wasn’t. (Is mentioning a cricket match irrelevant when talking about a literary festival? I don’t think so, given how many writers love the game.)  

All literary jollies like this become emotionally intense; when they take place thousands of miles from one’s home, even more so. They give the events an extra charge; and the friendships are forged at a higher temperature than in familiar surroundings (I mean this figuratively, not literally. The weather in Dhaka in November is, as readers of this paper will know, deliciously balmy. Well it was when I was there, and it suited me). As for what I could tell about the country itself, which was not much, admittedly, well, let me put this tactfully: some Westerners can have misgivings about visiting Muslim countries, for all sorts of reasons, many of them bad ones, but at no point, not even for a second, whether in our plush hotel or just wandering through the city itself, did I experience anything other than civility, friendliness, and genuine welcome. Nor did it seem like a population suffering under (I name no names) a stern or oppressive regime. 

As for the literary part of the Festival, I do not have much to say, because there is little mileage in reporting an event which ran so smoothly. The events were stimulating, intelligent, good-humoured, and, astonishingly, entirely free of tedium (this is why I am not normally a fan of literary festivals, which can suffer from an excess of smugness. Not this one). If there was any panic behind the scenes, I never heard about it; in fact, the more I think about it, the more I marvel at the professionalism and competence of the organisers. Not only are you having to arrange dozens of events, stalls, dinners, guides, and the co-operation of the military, for crying out loud (Hay and Cheltenham, the two main literary festivals in the UK, do not have that particular logistical problem) and whatnot, you have to deal with writers, who are not all known for being the least demanding and unfussy of people. Writers love a good gripe, and will often go looking for things to gripe about if nothing immediately offers itself, but we had nothing.  Even V.S. Naipaul, who graced the Festival, looked genuinely happy to be there. The smile on his face was unforced, and so were ours. I very, very much want to go back there again, and envy those of you who are going to attend.


Nicholas Lezard is a writer and columnist for the New Statesman in London. He was a judge for the 2018 Goldsmiths Prize for Fiction and his column, Nicholas Lezard’s Choice, ran in the Guardian newspaper for 20 years.

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