‘ADDA’ AND ADVICE

‘ADDA’ AND ADVICE

From the mild morning sunshine, through the more serious ‘I mean business’ heat of the afternoons, the buzz on the Bangla Academy premises remained constant for the duration of the Hay Festival Dhaka. The pretty little bamboo stalls scattered across the grounds offered all the necessary ingredients for a true Bengali ‘adda’ – a national tradition that can be somewhat unsatisfactorily translated as ‘relaxing with friends amidst animated discussions’. There were organic and herbal teas on offer, snacks galore, and a choice of tangy or sweet fruit juices to tempt the more discerning palate, as well as fizzy drinks for those who wanted to play it safe. And most importantly, there was a bounteous array of books to browse one’s way through.

Despite the handful of protesters hanging around outside the Bangla Academy premises (a few later infiltrated the event to hand out flyers that were kept as souvenirs by some and deposited without ceremony into the nearest rubbish bin by others), spirits were high. There was a sense of history being made somehow, and a general consensus that last year’s one-day pilot had been unambiguously upgraded to a full-scale celebration.

A more serious problem involved figuring out which sessions to attend, not an easy decision to make with three choices available for each timeslot. I opted for the immensely enjoyable “Conspiracies” session, where novelist Mohammed Hanif and short story writer Kazi Anis Ahmed discussed the therapeutic possibilities – and the opportunities for dark humour – offered by assassination plots in literature. Hanif kept the audience in stitches with his stories of how his black comedy about the assassination of Pakistani dictator Ziaul Huq was received by some readers (including senior members of the intelligence services in his own country) as being based on inside information of a particularly privileged nature, rather than what it was: a fictional recipe concocted from a combination of the wildest conspiracy theories around Ziaul Huq’s death that Hanif himself had encountered. Rather more funny in retrospect than it felt at the time was the moment when a particularly sensitive political question was under discussion and the sound of something resembling two gunshots suddenly interrupted the discussion. Everyone went silent, and looked around in alarm – including the panel members! It turned out to be some kind of malfunction in the sound system, but that unexpected reminder of the political realities under discussion gave the audience pause for an uncomfortable moment.

For members of the public who came to watch, listen to and interact with their favourite writers, the authors certainly held up their side of the bargain in the sessions that I attended. In “Narir Dekha, Narir Lekha” (Women’s Perspectives, Women’s Writing) Bengali writers Selina Hossain and Anwara Syed Haq didn’t pull their punches while making it clear that women would have to re-order their priorities in order to be productive in societies where their creative aspirations were viewed as secondary to their domestic roles. Anwara Syed Haq made the pithy comment that despite the inevitable disapproval resulting from perceived neglect of their household responsibilities, women writers should remind themselves that while they might be remembered for a book they had written, it was unlikely that they would be immortalised by the flavours of the curries they had produced!

Selina Hossain illustrated her view that you can’t keep a good woman down by referring to the work of the writer Chandrabati, who re-wrote the Ramayana epic from the perspective of the female protagonist, Sita. Her masterpiece was mothballed for centuries, to benefit the reputation of her father, also a writer. Centuries later an inquisitive scholar delved into Chandrabati’s almost-forgotten work, finally bringing her work due recognition. As Selina Hossain pointed out, today Chandrabati’s innovative re-working of the epic is admired, while her father’s mediocre works have been consigned to the dustbin.

A common thread in many of the sessions was the telling of truths – often hard, sometimes painful and very occasionally, surprisingly funny.

The novelist Kamila Shamsie impressed us with her unflinching honesty as she probed the reasons behind Pakistan’s descent into chaos. There was a sense of agreement about her assertion that the country’s present-day problems stem from its failure to learn the lessons of its past – including facing up to the inhumanity of the treatment meted out to the Bengalis in 1971. As a student at the London School of Economics several years ago, I had been struck by the way that the posters we put up for a cultural event held by the Bangladesh Society were defaced. The map of Bangladesh had been crossed out, and the words “East Pakistan” were scrawled across the poster. Shamsie’s words about how subsequent generations of Pakistanis had never been exposed to the truth about the war resonated in my memory of that incident.

The launch of the “Lifelines” anthology took place in a playful and vibrant atmosphere. I had edited this collection of short stories by Bangladeshi women for the Indian publisher, Zubaan, and was a panellist at the event. We were fortunate to have a number of luminaries, including Philip Hensher, Nandita Das and Kamila Shamsie as part of the audience.

My co-panellists commended the collection for its diversity and the contemporary flavour of the stories showcased there. But the beloved senior novelist Selina Hossain sparked off much merriment with her rejoinder to fellow panellist Firdous Azim. Azim had commented that the stories in “Lifelines” seemed chary of addressing questions of sex and sexuality. “They are still very young” Selina Hossain said sweetly of the forty-something-and-under contributors to the anthology, “Give them more time to grow up and gain experience – then they will write more confidently about sex!” Everyone howled with laughter.

A lively and surprisingly frank discussion followed, covering a range of topics from self-censorship, to the fear of reprisals from ‘aunties’ who would inevitably read any book produced here, to the challenges of writing sex scenes. And the rather unfair suggestion was made that I was the one panellist who had not commented on issues of sexual content because my father was sitting in the front row! I should add that the moderator – Mahmud Rahman, author of “Killing the Water” – was let off the hook due to lack of time for further discussion. I had planned to point out that those of us who are Mahmud’s friends have often teased him for the absence of sex scenes in his writing, so that isn’t always a gendered prerogative…

In almost every session I attended, audience members were eager to interact during the Q and A segments following each discussion. Admittedly, the quality of some questions left something to be desired, but it also demonstrated beyond any lingering doubt that everyone was given equal access to their idols. In one session, the incomparable Vikram Seth fielded a series of dodgy questions with aplomb, before succumbing to the temptation to administer a much-needed dose of commonsense. To one questioner, who was clearly worked up about the fact that Bengal had only produced one Nobel prize-winner in literature and saw this as an attempt to keep the Bengalis down, Seth offered a soothing explanation. After pointing out that the Nobel Committee must juggle a number of variables to decide the recipient of the prize, the writer went on to say that becoming overwrought over such a sense of injury from a regionalist, or even nationalist perspective, was probably not the best of ideas. As a remedy, he suggested that it might be better to “just chill out”.

In another session, “Becoming a Writer”, a panel that comprised of Philip Hensher, Kaiser Haq and Lucy Hannah offered useful tips to aspiring writers. In response to one audience member who wanted to find out how to write a story about a rickshaw puller, Hensher suggested imagining the details of such a man’s life i.e. what a rickshaw puller might carry on his person, what he might hang on his wall, etc. When these suggestions were met by the questioner’s subsequent confession that he didn’t know enough about the details of a rickshaw puller’s life, Hensher suggested mildly that the aspiring writer might prefer to write about something else instead.

A valuable morsel of advice to aspiring writers came from Vikram Seth, albeit indirectly, as he responded to a query about why he was not on Twitter. Seth left us in no doubt that he considered Twitter to be an encroachment on his time, which was precious. And following on from that, he listed his priorities (his family, his work) and explained how so many of the other demands thrown his way threatened to derail those priorities; something that he would simply not allow to happen. I found myself thinking enviously about his capacity to retain such a single-minded focus on what is important, and concluded that such clarity of purpose is essential to achieving creative freedom and producing good work. Time is a resource that most of us seem to squander on a fairly regular basis. But like others who attended the Hay Festival Dhaka this year, I feel considerably richer for having spent my time doing so.