- Vendors sold books and newspapers at a railway station in Dhaka, Bangladesh,
For a country whose independence struggle from Pakistan was based on the right to speak Bangla, rather than Urdu, language is a big deal.
Known as East Pakistan after 1947, when British colonial rule ended and the subcontinent was divided into India and Pakistan, Bangladesh became an independent nation in 1971, after a bloody independence struggle.
That makes the Bangla Academy, which promotes the national language and its literature, a hallowed institution. This year, it’s hosting an event that’s a bit of a departure for it – a literature festival that focuses on English.
That’s quite a coup for the organizers of Hay, a literary festival that originated in the Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye, but now has offshoots in many parts of the world. Last year, Hay Dhaka was a one-day event at the British Council.
At an inaugural event Thursday night, speakers representing the cause of Bangla made it clear they see the festival as a stepping stone for literature in that language to make it to the global stage in translation, rather than as a platform for authors who write originally in English.
As part of its brief, the academy is meant to make Bangla literature known globally, said Anisuzzaman, president of the Bangla Academy.
“It is mainly with this aim in mind that the Bangla Academy has joined in organizing Hay Dhaka,” said Mr. Anisuzzaman. “We hope this interaction would help make our literature known beyond the confines of Bangladesh.”
Another speaker seemed suspicious of the influence of English, and the growing number of private schools that now teach in English.
Last year’s Hay was largely attended by “English pedagogues and their students,” said A.A.M.S. Arefin Siddique, vice-chancellor of Dhaka University.
“It was mostly a sideshow to our mainstream cultural life,” said Mr. Siddique, added that Bangladeshis writing in English, barring “a limited number of brilliant exceptions,” were likely to be “English-medium misfits.”
Still, he expressed the hope that the festival, which runs through Saturday, could bridge the gulf between the two languages in Bangladesh.
The other speakers, meanwhile, offered effusive thanks to the academy for allowing the festival to take place on its grounds.
“For me as a festival director it’s an honor to come to the home of the Ekushey Boi Mela,” said Peter Florence, a founder of the Hay festival, referring to the book fair that takes place on the Academy’s grounds every February. He called the fair one of the world’s “greatest literary interactions.”
Indian writer Vikram Seth spoke of the “sacrifice and the sorrow” of Bangladesh’s language movement. “That’s why it’s particularly significant that Hay Dhaka is happening here,” he said.
Pakistani author Mohammed Hanif may have gone a bit overboard in his praise of the academy though. “I am really and truly honored to be here at the Bangla Academy,” said Mr. Hanif, author of the 2008 satirical novel, “A Case of Exploding Mangoes.”
“I will go back to my friends in Karachi and boast about this forever,” he said. Some in the crowd seemed a bit surprised by the comment.
But the novelist went on to make more soothing remarks, telling the crowd that his teenage son was reading festival organizer Tahmima Anam’s 2007 novel “A Golden Age,” about Bangladesh’s independence struggle, and was finding it eye-opening.
“He was quite surprised to hear about that period in our history,” he said. “It is something that doesn’t get talked about much.”