Hey Hay, what can I say? 19/11/13

Niaz Alam, Dhaka Tribune op-ed 19 November 2013

An enterprising blogger has amended Wikipedia’s entry for the Hay Festival to end with: “The Hay Dhaka Festival 2013 was criticised as a Potemkin village of a nepotistic elite complicit in covering the government’s clampdown on political expression.’’

Not to disparage the writer (although I am going to) as he/she has a memorable turn of phrase, but isn’t this just the sort of controversy that festival organisers dream of? With just a few words changed around, it is easy to imagine the Daily Mail using similar words to denigrate the 250,000 people who attend the original Hay Festival at Hay-on-Wye in Wales each year.

By their very nature, literary festivals all around the world attract something of a self-selecting crowd, and can easily be made to seem removed from most people’s lives. (Trust me, I’ve been to plenty.) All organisers can do is make them as accessible and open as possible. By making Hay Dhaka at the Bangla Academy, free of charge, the organisers and sponsors certainly did their part to widen its appeal.

Bear in mind also that the most common complaint heard about Hay-on-Wye from middle class literary Londoners is that they spend a fortune in time and accommodation to travel to Hay only to run into lots of other middle class literary Londoners. Unlike Hay Dhaka, they also have to cope with the vagaries of British weather; whereas the Bangla Academy provides modern auditoria and dry as well as peaceful grounds, a pilgrimage to Hay-on-Wye means trekking the odd field which can easily turn to mud. So, while the latter brings something of the rock festival to a small far off market town with a population around 1800, by contrast Hay Dhaka creates an oasis of calm and the charm of a village fete in the heart of the big city. Otherwise, they are very similar in their impressive lineups of renowned authors, discussions, and friendly crowds.

Perhaps it was the contrast in locations that inspired what was potentially the strongest part of the blogger’s critique, (Potemkin village) but this was weakened by the writer’s decision to throw in a kitchen sink list of contentious claims.  It is not as if there are no concerns about government restrictions on free speech in Bangladesh, of course there are. And we certainly have more than our fair share of nepotism and elites. But to infer as the blogger appears to intend, that attending and enjoying a respected international arts festival, sponsored by a diverse array of commercial and cultural organisations, (disclosure – including investors in this newspaper) reflects a “head in the sand” approach by attendees is not only unfair but an inversion of the truth.

At Hay Dhaka, as at literary festivals everywhere, hardly a discussion went by without one panelist or another referring to world events or audience members talking about ways to improve the human condition. This represents the exact opposite of the mindset inferred by the use of the term Potemkin village. The whole point of Potemkin villages, which the eponymous Russian military officer supposedly had built for his lover Catherine the Great,  was to present a facade of contentment for an empress who wanted to believe that everywhere in Russia was as well off as the facades appeared. It is hard to imagine anybody making a journey through the bustle of Dhaka as it lives with the trauma of people being burnt to death on buses in hartals, not to be conscious that they were privileged to have the time spare to attend the peaceful environs of the Bangla Academy.

Inevitably, given the venue, a few protestors handed out leaflets lamenting the use of the Bangla Academy for an English language festival. They were friendly souls and it seemed to me that this was just the sort of democratic discourse which at their best, book festivals seek to encourage. It was a sad coincidence then, that this year’s five-day Bhashnai fair in Tangail had been unexpectedly cancelled the same week. Bangladesh has a rich tradition of creating, embracing and innovating celebratory events and it is important that they are all nurtured and supported.

Of course, it is always easier to be a critic than to create. As at festivals elsewhere, many an audience member at Hay Dhaka noted that the Hay brand is now an established institution and reflected on the commodification of culture as high minded critiques on capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism, were all being sponsored by commercial organisations. My personal bugbear by the way was a remark by one of the star turns, Tariq Ali, when within a well intentioned criticism of xenophobes in Europe, he praised the skills and work ethic of Polish plumbers in the UK.  It wasn’t his aristocratic tone or the factual basis that bothered me (I’m sure he has a big house and knows a good worker when he employs one) but the fact that he did not challenge the mistaken perception that Polish people only have a recent history in the UK. East European migrants go back centuries and even if one neglected that, it’s impossible to avoid the history of the Second World War in Britain or the Polish War memorial near Heathrow.

Such thoughts soon dissipated as I strolled home past the throngs of Dhaka University students enjoying adda on the pavement. The pleasantly lit up glass tower at the Swadhinata Stambha complex in Suhrawardy Udyan perfectly complemented the atmosphere. As I walked north I couldn’t help thinking this was how the city should be, a place to meet new people and enjoy oneself. Normality needs to be like this for everyone. As I thought this, I rebooted my philistine credentials by thinking of the catchphrase recurring in the most recent book I had actually read, the tennis player Jimmy Connors autobiography “The Outsider” (yes I know he played Sun City): “Isn’t this what the people want, isn’t this what they paid for?’’ – See more at: http://www.dhakatribune.com/opinion/op-ed/2013/11/18/hey-hay-what-can-i-say/