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Are these seats taken?

  • Published at 05:58 pm November 12th, 2018
Dhaka Lit Fest
A big name always draws big crowds MAHMUD HOSSAIN OPU

A literary festival won’t be everybody’s cup of tea, and that’s OK

My personal experiences of the Dhaka Lit Fest, an annual three-day event that takes place in November at Bangla Academy, have always been pleasurable over the last four years.

From interesting discussions to roaming around the grounds to eating slightly-overpriced food to further increasing the size of my “unread books” list thanks to the designated book-seller of the year, I have enjoyed my time there. 

But as with all events which capture the attention of a significant number of people, it is not without criticism, justified or unjustified. Be it the fashion show it becomes, the silence on certain issues, the guests who are worthy and who are not, the elitism it boasts, there is always a negative lining on that silver cloud, floating over events such as these. 

While I have, personally, ignored or have been perfectly fine with these criticisms, in any discussion willing to admit, to a certain extent, the “rightness” of all sides of an argument, I would also admit that all of these criticisms have grains of truth in them. 

But that goes without saying, and is expected. Many cooks stir a dish into a festival, many players play the game to ensure that the audience is entertained. That is, and always has been, and always will be, how it goes. 

But it can’t also be denied that these criticisms present us with interesting questions, avenues which, if explored, might lead to a better understanding of ourselves (it must be noted that even the “us” lurking beneath the “ourselves” is not immune to deconstruction either).

There are definitely undercurrents of elitism that run through our cultural events, with honours and prestige afforded to those who come from abroad, more so if they are white, and more so if they’re well-known (not in their fields, but in general). That’s why, for example, actors and actresses always end up being more important than professional writers. That’s why Hollywood actors and actresses are more important than Bollywood and Dhaliwood ones. 

Even if you don’t know who these people are, you can always identify them when they walk from one place to another, followed by a plethora of fans and bodyguards and organizers circling around them like minuscule planets, revolving around a big sun in a small solar system. 

But what else can you expect from any post-colonial nation, which has grown up hating itself and what it represents to some degree, and more so considering its role in the globalized village, where white, Western privilege is still very much a prominent feature? Where “bideshi” things are more valued than “deshi” ones? 

That’s why it was so much easier for me to sit in on a rather interesting performance of deshi poets than an uninteresting reading by a bideshi of a book I cared little for. That’s why it was so much more difficult to find seats to see a certain YouTube personality than a third-gender dance performance. 

But that is fine, popularity inherently reserves more space. To even begin to say that a YouTube female comedian is irrelevant to a literary festival of this stature reeks of the Dhaka upper middle-class lack of self-awareness and inability to understand where truth and art lie. 

YouTube possibly has a bigger platform, has more viewers and influence, than any singular television channel currently in the world, and a successful performer there might very well have more to offer in a conversation than many others, be they international or otherwise. 

There is the writing comedy perspective, the women in media perspective, the new media perspective. The fact that I found myself explaining these to intelligent people boggles the mind. Perhaps if your thinking is narrow enough to exclude, you’re the one who has found yourself in the wrong platform, a platform meant to extend the breadth not only of literature, but of the conversations we have, and who with.  

But all of that is fine. Rants will ensue, disagreements will occur. You will go where you find meaning, to where your interests lie. That does not mean that festivals such as these are beyond criticism, but it also means that they cater to a significantly wide range of interests and passions, covering multiple languages, subjects, peoples, races, ethnicities, mediums, and formats. And, if you’re lucky, maybe you’ll stumble on to something new altogether -- a new world, a new author, a new book, or a new passion.  Sure, some of these spaces are reserved for the more important, the elite, “perhaps,” but these spaces cater to their egos, not yours. 

Personally, I can stand, and I can walk, and I have a little money. So I can wait in the back and listen, or roam around, and perhaps buy a novel I may never read. That, to me, is not a half-bad fest to go to. 

SN Rasul is an Editorial Assistant at the Dhaka Tribune. Follow him @snrasul.