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Somnath Batabyal: Interconnected cities

  • Published at 03:32 am November 20th, 2014

Somnath Batabyal’s debut novel The Price You Pay follows a Delhi crime journalist’s search for truth. Somnath started his career as a journalist reporting on crime, but he now teaches at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

He will appear in this year’s Hay Festival Dhaka to discuss world capitals, commerce and globalization in Thursday’s “Cities” panel alongside Rana Dasgupta and Javed Jahangir. On Friday, he will join British historian William Dalrymple to interrogate the historical narratives behind the Anglo-Afghan War.

As we move increasingly toward global, interconnected cities, what is Dhaka’s position on the world stage?

The very fact that the prestigious Hay Festival is now in Dhaka, running not only successfully but with an enhanced reputation each year, shows that Dhaka and Bangladesh are upcoming players in the global literature stage.

Nonetheless, global brands from the UK and US publish particular kinds of stories and the rest of the world follows that trend. While it is encouraging that many South Asian writers play on the global stage, the dark side is we play the game to someone else’s rules and standards. And we are all people who have benefited and suffered from this trend.

Are there any stories that are particularly made for a Bangladeshi audience?

Great stories are universal. A Purbo Paschim will reach out to a global audience. In that sense, books just have to be well-written. Having said this, there are particular literary traditions in South Asia, especially in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, where we have a long tradition of storytelling. Some of this limps on, unmindful of the global onslaught.

Who are you most interested in meeting at the Hay Festival?

There are so many friends coming. There is William Dalrymple whom I am sharing a session with, and with Rana Dasgupta. Both are friends from my Delhi days who I greatly admire and follow. 

There is Arunava Sinha who has changed the tradition of translation in India, particularly Bengal, almost single-handedly.I am so looking forward to hearing Indian poet Joy Goswami recite. 

I have also hugely enjoyed K Anis Ahmed’s debut novel Good Night, Mr Kissinger, and look forward to meeting him.

These festivals are a great way to connect the reading public and authors. It is an utopia, an almost perfect Habermaasian notion of the public sphere. For any country and its reading public, literature festivals are both a carnival (and I mean this positively) and a space to read, think, and most importantly, listen.

What do you wish you would see more of among Bangladeshi writers? 

I have grown up with writers from Bangladesh. My father was from Dhaka, and though our family left in the early 40s, we carried East Bengal with us. My early readings were thus influenced by this and most of the writers I was reading had their roots in Bangladesh. Tahmima, Kaiser Haq, Razia Khan and Anis carry this glorious tradition forward.

Bangladeshis write brilliantly on what they see around them, their cities and their towns, the ills of class and poverty, the effects of globalisation, and the evils of religious bigotry. Bangladeshi writing is in good, competent hands.

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