Hay Festival Dhaka: Reflections from Calcutta

Writing the Self, Reading the Soul – and Listening to the Heart


by SB Veda

‘Home is in the company I keep,’ remarked Maria Chowdhuri, author of the memior, Beloved Strangers, during one of the sessions I moderated at Hay Festival Dhaka.

Not quite the catch phrase, ‘Home is where the heart is,’ but Maria’s words seemed to resonate with several authors and audience members at Hay – all determined to be defined as global citizens.

The Hay Festival Dhaka was started four years ago under the aegis of the enterprising group that started Hay-on-Wye in Wales 27 years ago. Since then, it has gone on to be a global franchise with festivals taking place in fifteen countries. The Bangladeshi organizers included directors, author, Tahmima Anam and entrepreneur and poet, Sadaf Saaz.

Bill Clinton had called Hay on Wye, ‘Woodstock for the mind,’ and the Dhaka variant, though smaller, lived up the characterization.

For me, coming to Hay in Bangladesh was more than an intellectual exercise; it was a cultural and emotional one – a new chapter in my story of ‘coming home’, words which lie aptly encompassed by inverted quotations. Just as my return to Calcutta was more metaphysical than corporeal, the trip to across the Indo-Bangla border retracing the steps of my forebears was a journey of the mind, for I had never actually been to the place before.

Regular readers of this magazine might well know that I was born in London, and grew up in Canada before moving to Calcutta from where my parents had immigrated to the UK. Calcutta has been an anchor for my father, in particular, in his attempt to position himself across international currents. And though, my father’s mind frequently visits Gariahat and College Street, even when in Canada, his story is not exclusively a Calcutta tale.

My father, Sushil, was the second last of nine children – six brothers and three sisters, born on a sprawling estate in Chittagong, within the then province of Bengal in British India. My grandfather, Harashankar was a surgeon, who travelled from village to village treating the poor for free, most of them Muslim. As the family did not want for money, he felt it was the best use of his time. That he was a Hindu did not much matter, and such activity was not as uncommon as one might think, reflecting back on that time from the present day.

His approach to surgery was hypnotic, literally: back then the availability of anesthesia was scarce, so he would lull patients into a trance-like state, telling stories as he opened them up. His patients became so engrossed in his tales, that they became oblivious to the pain. My grandfather would conclude as he snipped the last stitch. I often muse that his was the more practical application of the narrative form than the one pursued by me!

Harashankar believed as statesman, Chittaranjan Das did, that the problems of India’s Muslims – a large minority within predominantly Hindu India – were at their core, economic ones, and that with affirmative action programs, their position would made at par with their Hindu neighbours. Like many of his generation, he could not imagine a Bengal chopped in two or an India divided twice over.

As freedom fighter, Maulana Kalam Azad wrote in his memoir, India Wins Freedom, the history of the Indian sub-continent might well have been vastly different had Das not died when he did. In the elections held by the British to placate the proponents of Indian home rule, the secular candidates of CR Das were the only ones standing in Muslim majority constituencies to take seats away from the pro-partition Muslim League even in polls reserved for Muslims only.

Like Das, Sarat Chandra Bose, even Hussein Suhrawardy (who went on to become Prime Minister of Pakistan) Harashankar believed in an undivided Bengal where language and culture would bridge the religious divide. My grandfather’s liberalism was not shared by many of his Brahminical peers nor would it be shared by the next generation of his family, the children of partition. Perhaps it was fitting that he did not live to experience the hatred that followed.

In 1939, the year of my father’s birth, my patrilineal village, which was located close to an important port, was thriving; the land owned by my ancestors, of which there was plenty, was fertile and scenic. In less than 10 years, they would all be living in the new country of Pakistan – a Hindu minority in a state that was created for Muslims. Three years later, my father, who enjoyed the solitary act of walking barefoot in the grass, picking vegetables for the dinner table, seeing scant few souls in the process, would scarcely be able to move a few inches without banging into a relative as the family struggled to eke out an existence in a single room of a rented house in North Calcutta.

‘I went back (to Chittagong) when I was fifteen,’ he told me on the phone as I packed for Dhaka. ‘I didn’t own a pair of shoes, even then.’

He recounted a long seafaring journey in 1950 from the port of Chittagong to Garden Reach, where ships from the East would dock – to a metropolis already bursting at the seams with refugees and other migrants. Before the trip, he had never been anywhere, except on foot. His time on the water was spent vomiting over the side of the vessel or sleeping, so there was not much more to tell. I wonder if it was mere sea sickness that had afflicted him – or that sense of loss, exile, homesickness, which he must have felt but failed to articulate. He did not mention whether the return trip was by sea.

For the full article, click here: Hay Dhaka: Reflections

2 Comments on “Hay Festival Dhaka: Reflections from Calcutta

  1. Thank you for such a thoughtful piece. A lovely meditation on returning to a home you have never known.

    A couple of corrections:

    Maria Chaudhuri lives in Hong Kong, not Singapore.

    Also, Taslima Nasreen is indeed being heard in Bangladesh! She is a correspondent in Bengali for the online Bangla Tribune (https://www.banglatribune.com/) and is also reprinted in the English-language Dhaka Tribune (http://www.dhakatribune.com/).

    In fact, close to the time of the Hay Festival Dhaka, she had written:
    “Marriage and the minister’s age” on November 10, http://www.dhakatribune.com/op-ed/2014/nov/10/marriage-and-minister%E2%80%99s-age
    “Kissy kissy kissy” on November 16, http://www.dhakatribune.com/op-ed/2014/nov/16/kissy-kissy-kissy
    “Then what?” on November 27, http://www.dhakatribune.com/op-ed/2014/nov/27/then-what

    • Thank-you for your comment. It is much appreciated. We will surely correct the error re: where Maria Chudhuri lives. As for Taslim Nasrin: She continues to live in exile, and currently resides in India (holding an EU passport). She may well wish to return to Bangladesh and read from her works at Bangla Academy at a forum like Hay Festival Dhaka. Under the circumstances, this is impossible. And, this is what was meant by saying her voice is not heard. While her words appear in newspapers, she can only exist in the shadows, her distant words,though printed on the page at times, still echo from beyond Bangladesh’s borders. But your point is well taken we’ll mention that she has written articles for Bangladeshi newspapers. As for her book ‘Lajja’, the shame of it continues: it remains both banned and relevant in Bangladesh as in India (we don’t want to spare in the least West Bengal’s banning of her work as well nor do we wish to unfairly target Bangladesh – freedom of expression is under threat in all of South Asia – which is why her silencing at the Book Fair in Calcutta was mentioned). On the issue of whether she is really heard in Bangladesh, certain words, which she uttered when the 20th anniversary edition of ‘Lajja’ was being released, are indeed telling: “It would have been worse if it (Lajja) was published in Bangladesh today. Bangladesh is much more Islamised than before. Most people in Bangladesh don’t know what freedom of expression means. They have no idea that without freedom of expression, democracy does not work.” One wonders if those words of hers, in particular, have or will ever be published in a Dhaka newspaper. That would be a good litmus test of freedom of expression in the country. Thanks again…your feedback was very valuable, and we hope you’ll continue reading. All the very best, the Editorial Board.

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