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A festival of no surprises

  • Published at 05:56 pm November 13th, 2018
Is the literary scene a bubble? MAHMUD HOSSAIN OPU

We have seen these reactions before

There has been a good amount of backlash against this year’s Dhaka Lit Fest -- which is, as we all know, an annual congregation of some of the brightest, most creative minds from within Bangladesh and other parts of the world.

Perhaps it’s how the event has begun to stagnate as of late, offering little to no surprise with each subsequent year -- the same old venue, the same old people, the same Hollywood celebrity, the same old coffee and snacks, albeit at higher prices.

Then again, it’s not like the Average Joe needs much in the way of justification to pooh-pooh the event, but the general impressions of this year’s event have been especially vehement, to say the least.

In fact, as I write this, the Wikipedia entry for DLF still remains very obviously vandalized: “Some observers have described DLF organizers as Anglophile comprador bourgeois who are the unashamed agents of neo-imperial Western hegemony in Bangladesh and speculate that they initiated the event to promote themselves as writers in English and groom their own fandom in Dhaka.”


While I definitely admire the level of cheek and vocabulary that such a choice zinger must have required, I think it’s important for us to understand exactly what inspired such vitriol towards an innocuous celebration of culture and the arts.

I guess the keyword here is “bubble.”

On the surface, events such as DLF appear extraordinarily foreign to anyone outside the bubble of Dhaka’s literary scene, which itself is often predominantly “English” -- not necessarily in terms of language, but the sense of entitled snobbery that we usually chalk up to our colonial masters.

An attitude that I myself have been guilty of, if I’m being honest. Upon learning that internet celebrity/comedienne extraordinaire Raba Khan would be one of the panelists at this year’s DLF, my initial knee-jerk reaction was to dismiss her involvement entirely, lamenting the fact that the “L” part of “DLF” was slowly being pushed to the backburner in favour of more plebian affairs.

While I still believe that the latter part of my reaction is still somewhat justified, I’ve come to understand that young artists such as Raba Khan are ultimately who the current crop of youth relate to, regardless of whether they agree with her work or not. The very fact that I wasn’t able to attend her panel because it was packed to the rafters testifies to that, I suppose.

As a student of the humanities, I have witnessed first-hand just how opaque and uninviting that bubble can be.

Graduating from school to university in Dhaka was like watching the battle between the English mediums and the Bangla mediums giving way to a cold war between the two sides.

Whether it be the faculty or the students, there has always been a sense of resentment bubbling under the surface, especially when they are made to share the same space with each other.

Not even a shelf full of thousand-page books can save you from the clutches of tribalism and groupthink, it appears.

Considering all that, is it really a surprise when people start lashing out against a seemingly English event being held on the grounds of the Bangla Academy, where the best seats in the house have an invisible force-field around them?

Of course, the event this year had the added misfortune of being set in the backdrop of tense political and humanitarian crises. With freedom of speech slowly disintegrating here in Bangladesh, a lot of us expected the event to address the prominent photographer shaped hole in the wall.

But again, no surprises there either. 

Rubaiyat Kabir is an Editorial Assistant at the Dhaka Tribune. He can be followed on Twitter @moreanik.