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.


As our Jet Airways plane landed in Dhaka, my wife and I were met by an able man from Hay Festival with a large placard bearing my name, who filled out the form for my spot visa (in a near forcibly hospitable manner). My wife, an Indian Citizen had obtained her visa from Calcutta, and was through the line for SAARC countries like the wind.

It was the first time she had to wait for me at immigration. I think she quite enjoyed the role-reversal.

With the sweet sound of Bangla in the air and the guidance of a volunteer, we boarded our welcome vehicle, and proceeded to spend the better part of the morning moving just barely through the worst traffic jam I have ever experienced. Still, we were not annoyed. There was something oddly comforting about being in a different country where the Bengali language, unadulterated by Hindi or English was being spoken fluidly: sounds, barely interrupted by breath.

I had been reading Maria’s memoir, Beloved Strangers, as well as The Lovers and the Leavers, by Abir Hoque. The former had been published by Bloomsbury whereas the latter was a title of the relatively new Bangladeshi imprint, Bengal Lights Books, founded by writer and tea baron, Kazi Anis Ahmed.

Having already become familiar with the work of Tahmima Anam, I was pleasantly surprised at the strength of the female narrative among Bangladeshi diaspora. Maria’s memoir read like a novel while Abeer’s short stories seemed ripped from real life. Their works were well-suited to the title of our session, ‘Writing the Self.’

Upon arriving at the hotel, I made some notes on how I would approach the session. Fine. I was not worried about this one – it was ‘Reading the Soul,’ that concerned me.

Tacked on to it, just before the commencement of the festival, I was struggling to find a way to make the esoteric subject of reading in different religious traditions relatable to an audience. The theme questions I had been sent for discussion seemed to be a primer for a heavy academic discussion. And, part of me questioned the wisdom of having a panel on a religious topic, which can carry the risk of inflaming public sentiment. Add to that: I hadn’t heard of the panellists – Patrick Laude, Swami Sthiratmananda, and Shankar Nair – and could find scant little about them on the internet. I pondered these questions as I set out to see some of the city, hoping her people might help me find a way start the conversation.

My wife and I had a day to see Dhaka. Our guide, a young volunteer named Anik took us to Lal Bagh, a stately Mughal fortress and garden. We also saw the Parliament Buildings, Supreme Court, the venerable Dhakeshwari Mandir, and Dhaka University where we had tea and watched young people socialize.

Backpack in hand, I was mistaken for a student by a Bangladeshi looking for the physics building. Flattery and irony on either side of me, I told him that I was an outsider. To the extent that I had been made to feel Indian by exclusion in Canada and the UK, in Bangladesh, I was made to feel ‘Deshi‘ by association. I was left wrapped up in the arms of that encounter.

My wife, too, seemed to be looking inward for a connection. Her father’s side of the family were from Rajshahi and Bogura but left the place around a century before partition. Still, she found herself identifying her roots to those who would listen.

Growing up in Canada, I had found myself struggling to define a connection to West Bengal when confronted with questions on my family’s origins. The editor of Pragati, the newspaper at which I first began to file journalistic reports, told me how clean and orderly Calcutta was before the refugees and migrants from East Pakistan, post partition and then Bangladesh, pre-liberation, had made the place “dirty”. I’m sure no small amount of glossy nostalgia coated his recollections of old Calcutta. Still, his views were not terribly uncommon among those whose roots could be traced to the place before partition.

A woman in the Bengali community in the city where I lived had wanted to introduce me to her niece until she learned that my father came from Chittagong. ‘We’re looking for a West-Bengali groom,’ she told my mother. Never mind that East Bengal had ceased to exist decades before my birth, that I had never set foot on her ground, that the Bengali I knew was learned at a Canadian heritage language school. It didn’t matter to her.

People called me ‘Bangal’ as though it was an insult. Instead of arguing that most of the bright lights of Bengal were from the East, I parried by saying that my mother’s side was from the north and my father grew up in Calcutta. Some part of me was ashamed by the East Bengal where they spoke funny dialects and had different dietary habits form the Ghoti West Bengalis.

That we owned property in the poshest part of Bengali Calcutta, namely Hindustan Park in Ballygunge., and my father once had a job writing speeches for the Chief Minister of the state did not matter – it was all erased by utterance of the word, ‘Bangal.’

In Dhaka, for the first time in as long as I could remember, I felt proud of my roots, especially as I saw in Bangladesh a vibrant country, born of horrific strife, atrocity, and blood, working its way into a hub of trade and cultural exchange.

Bangla Academy, where The Hay Festival was held, was situated on historic and scenic ground. Kazi Nazrul Islam, the rebel poet, had had an office there. And, soon I would be on a stage moderating a conversation on literature.

My wife had become ill, and was relegated to the hotel for the first two days of the festival but it enabled her to speak to the hotel staff, many of whom professed to take special care of Bangalis from India. One Muslim employee lamented the migration of Hindus, saying that Dhaka’s muslin trade had suffered their exodus. Why couldn’t we all life together?

VIP Tent

SB Veda (centre) prepares for ‘Writing the Self’ with Abeer Hoque (left) and Maria Chaudhuri at the VIP tent, Hay Festival Dhaka

I was reminded of the forces that drove the Bengali people apart in one of Abeer Hoque’s stories, which I read in preparation for ‘Writing the Self’. In it a character recounts a tale told to her by her grandmother of being slapped by a Hindu school teacher for forgetting to ask for her notebook back. The teacher had taken it home by mistake, and claimed the notebook had defiled his house, that he had to purify it again, with cow-dung.

Ms. Hoque had been born in Nigeria, and came to Bangladesh for the purpose of writing the stories in her book. Though she claimed in our pre-session meeting at the VIP tent on the grounds of Bangla Academy, that her stories ‘could have been set anywhere,’ she had planted herself in the psyche of Bangladesh to mine for her experiences. She came away with considerable booty.

I asked her where that story came from, and as I suspected, she said she heard it from her grandmother. She had put it in the book for a reason, I felt, so I asked her how it made her feel – hearing the story from her grandmother: what emotions did it evoke? She ducked the question, saying that she had never felt the divide that her grandmother had. And yet, there it was on the printed page. I noticed that in her recounting of it for the audience, she left out the part about cow-dung. He purified his house in ‘whatever they used to purify their houses,’ she said. Did she really forget such an unforgettable detail of her own story? Or did that point make her uncomfortable?

In an interview, which she had forwarded me to read – and to which she referred repeatedly in our pre-meet as if to quiz me on whether I had read it (I had) Ms. Hoque had mentioned that she turned to fiction, in part, because of the ‘privacy issues’ involved in writing memoir. Though, from this too, she seemed to back away, in our session. Confronted with a Bangladeshi crowd, this child of diaspora seemed uncharacteristically closed off. By contrast, her co-panelist, Maria Chauduri, has been fearless in her writing and, as I found out, in her reading.

Beginning with a section about being shown pornography on a rooftop in Dhaka, and imagining her exposing her own body parts to the boy who had circled the bits in the pictures, the passage she chose to read from her book, dispelled any question about glossing over the past.

I asked her about feeling the pull of her home country, having studied in America. She admitted that she envisioned herself returning and making a life there with her first husband. Not only did the marriage not take, she found (as I did in Calcutta) that her idea home did not reconcile with her experience of it, and it left her disoriented.

Ms. Chaudhuri lives in Hong Kong now. Was she looking to keep the ‘beloved strangers’ of her family and land at an optimal distance, accessible in manageable quanta? ‘Yes…very much so,’ she replied.

It was an experience with which I could relate. In trying to keep optimal distance between my parents, who live in Canada, and me, I had inadvertently kept India too close for comfort, and was suffering because of it.

Bangladesh had offered a temporary reprieve from India. It also left me appreciating Calcutta in ways I hadn’t imagined, beginning with the traffic. For all Calcutta’s automotive bumps and hitches, the roads run much better in this metropolis.

Hearing Hindi music blaring in shops, and people discussing Shah Rukh, Amir and Salman – I could see Indian ‘soft power’ in action. As much as I disdain Bollywood, I was left with no doubt of its impact in the region.

India’s pluralism was still in evidence. It had been alive and well in this land at a time when there was no border. The Ramakrishna Mission of Dhaka, built in 1899 by the famous now worldwide Vedantist organization, founded by Swami Vivekananda is a sight to behold. A peaceful island furious sea of activity, it houses a school for the downtrodden where eighty percent of its pupils are Muslim.

My co-panelist in ‘Reading the soul,’ Swami Stiratmanananda had invited me to the mission.

‘We have some problems from time to time,’ said Swami Dhiruvanananda, The Head of Mission, ‘But for the most part, we live here harmoniously.’

This account is vastly different from Arun (name changed for this story), one of the workers nearby. ‘People throw garbage on our property but we cannot say anything. We must live as an imperiled minority, not at all how Muslims live in India,’ he said.

The inter-religious dialogue, which I moderated called ‘Reading the Soul,’ steered away from how the faithful interacted. We talked about reading in different traditions.

I started with an anecdote, about how a famous artist, Ramananda Bandhoypdhay – a student to Jamini Roy’s – who defined art in his life as a path to God, had read my soul.

We talked about how religious texts were like recorded realizations, and discussed the tradition of utterance in different traditions.
Still, it left me wondering, could the soul be misread? And, what is the impact of this?

It put me in mind of a story recounted by one of our drivers about why a certain film in which the Bengali actor Dev starred was banned in Bangladesh. He told us that Salman Khan had gone to the premiere of the picture, and raised his hand to shake Dev’s hand, congratulating him. Dev, the driver said, refused to take Salman’s hand (as with Ms. Hoque’s tale there was the accusation of the Hindu refusing to be defiled by the Muslim). Insulted, Salman struck Dev. And in solidarity with their
Muslim brother, the film was banned in Bangladesh.

Forget that there is not a shred of truth to this story. My wife and I were struck by how, in the age of the internet, the narrative could be so completely framed by religious leaders in 2014 to make fiction into fact.

It left me wondering about Ms. Hoque’s grandmother’s tale. I wondered how such stories are filtered from one generation to the next to tell a certain narrative. The history of South Asia, perhaps, was a combination of reading, interpretation and misreading of the soul.

But was the ‘soul of a nation,’ which Nehru said had found utterance in 1947, actually being heard across the border? Stories of Arun and others were not be heard at public venues; one had to go to places like old Dhaka, talk to ordinary people to hear the tales.

There was no mention of Taslima Nasreen at the festival. Her voice is not only unheard in Bangladesh but she was silenced in Calcutta in 2013 – as was Salman Rushdie. There is a lot of silencing and self-censorship going on in the sub-continent. I mentioned this in my interview with Shashi Tharoor, and asked why more politicians don’t defend freedom of expression in India. After all, at Hay, a session had taken place with John Ralston Saul, president of Pen International on the dangers of censorship. He answered by talking about how unpopular such a politician would become.

‘But some would say that’s just lack of leadership,’ I said.

‘I don’t disagree,’ he replied.

He went on to describe how he took Penguin, his publisher, to task over pulling of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: an Alternative History, from bookshelves for fear of a law suit. But Rushdie’s Kolkata ban – that was fear of the mob.

‘Was it?’ I appended my question with a statement that the Kolkata Police were implicated in creating the groundswell of opposition against Rushdie’s coming to the Kolkata Literary Meet in 2013.

‘I refuse to add to the speculation on such matters,’ he answered, reminding me that he was still an active politician.

The other interviews I did for Hay on Video: Afterword, Afterwards, steered clear of controversy, though I took the opportunity to discuss topics brought up in one session with authors attending others – a kind of crosspollination of the programme at the festival.

Rana DasGupta had talked to me about how writers have so little power in the age of the global metropolis. I brought this up with John Ralston Saul, who countered that, for a powerless lot, ’there is an inordinate number of us, who are being put in jail and silenced’.

John and I spoke at length on the importance of defining the narrative. He was approached by aboriginal Canadians to do so, and the effort culminated in his latest book, The Comeback in which he describes how the long marginalized First Nations people of Canada are making a contribution to the modern state.

‘I think we are feared, now, more than ever because of the importance of defining the narrative,’ he said.

As President of Pen International John oversees the interaction and operation of autonomous centres in over 100 countries. One of the first global NGOs, founded as PEN (Poets, Essayists and Novelists) in 1921, its mandate was to: emphasise the role of literature in the development of mutual understanding and world culture; fight for freedom of expression; and advocate on behalf of writers harassed, imprisoned and sometimes killed for their views. In fact, John had scheduled several meetings related to his work for Pen International in Dhaka, including a meeting with the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina.

The exchange left me reflecting on the power of the pen. I concluded that we do have power, maybe not the same kind as the gun or the dollar but it is real as it was even before the founding of PEN. In the subcontinent, during the freedom movement, a single letter had accomplished what mass protests could not – exposing the injustice of the British Raj. The letter was written by the world’s first non-European Nobel Laureate, Rabindratnath Tagore in 1919. The subject – his renunciation of a knighthood conferred four years earlier.

His words were both elegant and definitive: ‘The time has come when badges of honour make our shame glaring in the incongruous context of humiliation, and I for my part, wish to stand, shorn, of all special distinctions, by the side of those of my countrymen who, for their so called insignificance, are liable to suffer degradation not fit for human beings.’

He wrote the letter when he failed to mobilize protest against the brutal massacre of a peaceful gathering of civilians at a six acre garden called Jalianwallah Bagh by the British Army, which resulted in anywhere from 400 to 1000 deaths (depending on sourcing) and some 1500 casualties.

Abandoned by his contemporaries, Tagore was left to address a constituency of one. And he did so, definitively. No longer could the British operate under Kipling’s illusion of racial and cultural superiority; dashed was the motivating idea that they had arrived in India with the burden to ‘civilize the natives.’

Today, the ‘natives’ are at the forefront of writing in the English language, and much is being written about them. To that end, I wish I could have spoken more to the South Asian writers from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India, who otherwise wouldn’t have found a reason to gather together and exchange views. I caught snippets over the breakfast buffet, the VIP tent, and the Hay grounds, though. South Asian writing, today, has an array of different voices.
Diaspora writing is no longer limited to immigration and acculturation. Stories from the sub-continent jump off the page bringing the local to a global audience – and, as Sandip Roy hopes to do in his soon to be launched book, crossing borders.

Bangladesh has become a popular topic for authors, even Indians: Salil Tripathi launched his book, ‘The Colonel Who Would Not Repent,’ an account of the tragedies of the 1971 war of liberation, told through interviews with Bangladeshis; Somnath Batyabal, author of, ‘The Price you Pay, revealed that his next novel would be set in a Bangladeshi village.

One might ask, why now? It is perhaps a combination of time passing and progress made. The wounds of the 1971 war, while still yet to heal, are no longer fresh. Also, after years of instability, democracy seems to be functioning again in Bangladesh.

Perhaps more compellingly, Bangladeshis have migrated to different countries, and become successful, telling their stories in the process. This has generated considerable interest in the country. Expats have invested their windfalls back into the state, and the government has developed indigenous industries.

Bangladeshis are more trade-friendly than their South Asian peers. While many believe that global trade results in a homogenization of culture, some economists such as Miguel León-Ledesma have studied the affinity between trade and cultural growth. Nobody can doubt that culture in Bangladesh is being nurtured, and becoming ever more vibrant with each passing year.

Hay Festival Dhaka’s slogan was, ‘Imagine the World’. The openness and confidence with which Bangladeshis have greeted the world at large demonstrates that the festival has overcome initial concerns from some quarters that they were ‘selling out’ to neo-colonial interests at the expense of local writers. Bilingual sessions were held, and the Bengali language assumed a prominence in both song, poetry, rap and prose in a way that it never has at the two literary festivals, which take place in Calcutta (perhaps with the exception of Kolkata Literary Meet 2013 in which Bangladesh was a theme country at the Calcutta Book Fair – and that there was a linkage between the festival and the fair).

On the last evening of Hay, as I admired the projection of Bengali characters on the side of the Bangla Academy main building, I was left imagining a Bengal in which borders were no longer a barrier to cultural exchange. It was made all the more easy listening to the flute playing songs of Tagore and Nazrul in the lobby of our hotel, as our luggage was being brought down for our check-out.

From the distance of Calcutta, I contemplate how my father might feel returning to the land of his birth at some point in the future. He mentioned to me that when he came to Dhaka as a UN consultant, fifteen years ago, he was visited by a nephew, who came all the way from Chittagong.
‘It was as if nothing had changed, and he treated me according to tradition and respect of a bygone time, which I dare not expect, today.’ He said.

Harashankar, if reincarnated, today, would be likely still see himself in the land and of it – just as I felt

As writers from Calcutta, we write the self, read our souls, but for us to imagine a new world where culture flourishes beyond borders, we must also listen to our hearts. My Dhaka trip was full of observations, conclusions and reflections not the least of which is that our hearts beat together on both sides of the border. We only need open ourselves up to hear its synchronous tympani to become one with the great literary traditions of Bengal and the new world in which it inhabits.

©The Global Calcuttan
All Rights Reserved