Books are to be read, first and foremost. But for book lovers, discussing them is a big part of their enduring pleasure. And that is the original inspiration for the Dhaka Lit Fest. It began its journey in 2011 as Hay Festival Dhaka. In that inaugural year, it was held as a small, one-day trial event on the lawns of the British Council, all decked out with charming bamboo-thatch stalls.
But in the minds of everyone who was lucky enough to attend it, that first edition remains etched in the memory as an unforgettably, charmingly life-renewing experience for Dhaka’s starved reading crowd. That year, the festival also tested Kolkata and Kerala in the region, but against all expectations, thanks to the superb staging by Jatrik and the warm reception of the crowd, handily beat out our far more anglophonic rivals.
Over the next three years, the festival grew steadily in size, going from two to three days, and drew luminaries from around the world -- Vikram Seth, Tariq Ali, William Dalrymple, Jung Chang, and Ahdaf Soueif, to name a few -- to bring an unprecedented intellectual excitement to Dhaka.
But, bringing the world to Dhaka was only half the goal; just as important to us was the need to take Dhaka to the world.
It’s been just over 100 years since Tagore won the Nobel prize. No Bengali author has come close to attaining that kind of recognition in the international arena. But Bangla literature has hardly stayed cocooned in Rabindric wisdom or melodies. It is the language of well over 200 million people, and one replete with a unique history of struggle, and the deep inspirations behind an entire nation’s independence. It seems almost a dereliction on our part not to do more to take the iterations of this vibrant culture to the world. Indeed, given how freely and joyously we take from others, it’s rude to not try and reciprocate.
The change of the festival’s name, on its fifth anniversary, to Dhaka Lit Fest, more boldly signals this ambition to put Bengal and its culture and literature more prominently back in conversation with its peers across all continents. Consistent with that aspiration, this year’s festival will mark several landmark launches.
Dhaka Translation Center will unveil the first four titles in its Library of Bangladesh series. Edited by the award-winning translator Arunava Sinha, the series will render the best of Bangladeshi writing into world-standard translations and also strive to find publishers in major markets abroad.
This year, we are also proud to host the launch of a special edition of Wasafiri dedicated to Bangladeshi writing. This is the first time that any international journal has taken this kind of notice of our writing, and how thrilling to be show-cased in one of the most celebrated of world literature journals.
The big news this year, of course, is that we get to welcome our first Nobel Laureate in literature, VS Naipaul, and also in science, Harold Varmus. Sir Vidia, of course, is far bigger than any prizes that have been bestowed on him; he is among the absolute pioneers of true post-Conradian world literature.
We are also thrilled this year to welcome other luminaries such as Paul Theroux and Arvind Mehotra, towering author and critics such as Nayantara Sahgal and Ramachandra Guha, powerful activists such as Asma Jahangir and a WOW (Women In the World) contingent. We will cherish new friends from as far as Cuba and Kenya, and rising stars from next door such as Sandip Ray and Mahesh Rao, reviewers from the New York Times and Le Monde and editors from Harper Collins and Bloomsbury will round off all aspects of the writing scene.
The number of participants, with their range of expertise and depth of accomplishments, who make this year’s DLF a big leap on already impressive past editions, really can’t be conveyed in a brief message. We urge all enthusiasts, not just of literature but also film and media, science and philosophy, religious studies and cultural activism, to check out the program in detail and revel in the festival atmosphere over three magical days on the lovely, haloed premises of the Bangla Academy.
We are very thankful to the sponsors, including Dhaka Tribune, the new title sponsor, who are making this year’s festival possible. But the number of people, from unseen government officials to toiling volunteers, who make such a vast event not only possible, but so smooth and enjoyable, are too many to name, but too important not to mention.
Most of all we are thankful to all the attendants. They are the life of the event; it is their robustly engaged presence that infuses our festival with unique energy. We hope it will be no different this year, and thank everyone in advance for their warm support.
Mark your dates now -- Nov 19-21 -- for the countdown for the most exciting intellectual event in Dhaka, and indeed, one of the most notable of such events in all of South Asia, is now just days away.
Join the countdown! Join the fest, and make it festive!