Ned Beauman at Hay Festival Dhaka

Ned Beauman at Hay Festival Dhaka

Five long-haul flights in one month means a lot of jet-lag, which is my only excuse for watching most of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines on a hotel TV in the Indonesian port town of Tanjun Pinang, about a week before I arrived in Dhaka. The denouement of this travesty takes place in the Cheyenne Mountain nuclear bunker, a real-life US military installation that was completed in 1964 with the intention of ensuring ‘continuity of government’ in the event of a Soviet attack. Every writers fantasises that if armageddon came, he or she would be welcomed into the underground ark along with all the politicians, generals, engineers, doctors and so on. After all, if there weren’t going to be any more of those thrilling novels to read, why would anyone bother to give western civilisation a second shot?

A literary festival is like a highly selective fallout shelter in both good ways and bad. On one hand, it can sometimes feel as if several dozen of the greatest minds on the planet have been brought together to cohabitate for a while – the whole world in a marquee. (I certainly met a lot of terrific people at Hay Dhaka.) But on the other hand, it can sometimes feel as if, in your effort to invite the whole world in, you’ve really shut the whole world out – sitting there in the permanent twilight of a lecture hall, asserting your enthusiasm for a thing you haven’t seen in days.

So you have to veer away sometimes. Dhaka was in a state of furious political unrest, the roads were gridlocked, and the sun was merciless. We were encouraged by our entirely well-meaning British Council ‘shadows’ to keep to the tight chauffered loop of hotel to festival to hotel to festival to hotel. For a day or two, we did, and there was so much to see on stage that this was no hardship. But then we started sneaking out for walks – down to the river, down to the market, down to the Lalbagh Fort. These, too, revealed themselves as an essential part of our schedule. A festival like Hay only makes sense with frequent reference to the chaos outside – just as, sometimes, the chaos outside only makes sense with frequent reference to the perspectives and sentiments you hear discussed at a festival like Hay.

A couple of weeks after Dhaka, when I arrived at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport to attend a book fair, I was delayed for a few minutes while the immigration officer and her supervisor satisfied themselves that the heavily bearded man in front of them was identical with the clean-shaven man in his passport. The pair of them stood there glancing up at my face and back down at my eight-year-old photo again and again and again like a broken subroutine. Check the one against the other, check the other against the one: this is what we do with writing and life. The city is bearded, and symposium is clean-shaven, and we desperately need both. Once you find the ideal ratio of Hay to Dhaka at Hay Dhaka, it’s a lot better than the Cheyenne Mountain fantasy, because the gates may be guarded, but they’re not closed.