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Shashi Tharoor: New Bangladesh holds on to Tagore’s memory, even if it’s a century-old visit

I attended Dhaka Lit Fest this month. The reality is unmissable that Bangladesh, and not India, is South Asia’s fastest-growing economy.

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Of all the countries in South Asia, the one that is most steeped in literature and culture, and can boast about the power of language and the diversity of its art forms, is undoubtedly Bangladesh.

I say this not merely because the observation struck me hard at the Dhaka Literature Festival earlier this month, an astonishing celebration of the written word, but because it cropped up in every conversation around Dhaka.

The Dhaka Lit Fest is itself a remarkable event, attracting tens of thousands of readers to packed sessions featuring dozens of writers of varying degrees of renown.

What struck many of the writers – accustomed as we are to lit fests populated by scruffy collegians in jeans – was how much of an occasion the audience took it to be. They attended the lit fest in their best attire, the women, in particular, resplendent in their richly pleated saris. They might have been at a wedding, if one were to go solely by appearances. But they were merely reflecting the importance they attached to literature.

Also read: Development is now all about Modi coining new terms, not Indians’ well-being: Shashi Tharoor

The love for Rabindranath

The crowds were all readers, knowledgeable and argumentative. The spacious auditorium overflowed, with people standing against the wall, lining the aisles and sitting on the floor. They clutched newly-purchased books and clamoured for autographs. They lined up patiently for a glimpse, a handshake, a selfie with their favourite authors. They raised their hands in droves to ask questions at the end of each session. For the writers, it was heady stuff.

This is, after all, a country where newspapers reported, with large photographs, news of a three-day event held in the northeastern town of Sylhet to commemorate the centenary of Rabindranath Tagore’s visit there. “Just a visit?” I asked with some incredulity. “I mean, he came to town, and you not only remembered, you marked the event a hundred years later with a solemn three-day commemoration?”

“Yes,” replied my Bangladeshi interlocutor, somewhat puzzled. “But it was Rabindranath!”

Rabindranath. The first name was enough – the immortal poet, the Nobel Laureate, playwright, songwriter, composer, educationist and philosopher suffused the Bangladeshi air like the city’s smog, its particulates dissolved in the Bengali bloodstream. A visit by him was never an ordinary event. Of course, its hundredth anniversary was worth celebrating.

This respect for the Bengali literary giant was evident in every conversation I had in Dhaka – whether it was with readers passionately arguing that Rabindranath was a terrible translator of his own work, or with those who had taken on the vital task of rendering him directly from Bangla to other languages they knew (like German and Swedish) without the intermediation of existing English-language Tagore translations. People I met subscribed devotedly to Kolkata literary journals – “Desh” is still a favourite – and Indian Bengali writers were avidly sought after at the Dhaka Lit Fest.

But it extended, too, to a broader respect for literature for itself. There were more serious readers per head in any room than one could expect to find in any Indian city, barring Kolkata. And the questions were smart, well-informed, impressively articulated (in English and Bangla) and always provocative.

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The visible growth of Bangladesh

Amid all this intellectual fecundity, there is also the unavoidable reality that Bangladesh, not India, is now the fastest-growing economy in South Asia. Signs of advancing prosperity are everywhere in Dhaka. They are most visible (and audible) in the ubiquitous construction sites – I saw workers in hard-hats toiling every morning when I woke up at 6.30 am, even on the weekends. And, of course, in the traffic, which was bad enough when I last visited five years ago, but has now shifted into the Bengaluru-Jakarta class, made worse by the extensive digging for a new metro line, which may reduce – though surely not solve – the problem five years from now.

Bangladesh’s soft-spoken Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has her share of domestic critics – which South Asian leader does not? – but they are largely silenced by the undeniable reality of her success. She has single-handedly turned Bangladesh – a country famously derided in 1971 by then-US’ National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger as a “basket-case” of South Asia, and described as “75 million people in a swamp” – into a triumph of more than 8 per cent estimated GDP growth, widespread educational progress, and empowerment of women. A senior United Nations development official based in Dhaka told me what a relief it was for her to serve in a country where development was successful, unlike most of the places she had been posted in.

Of course, Bangladesh faces nightmarish environmental challenges. When I was in Dhaka the air pollution there, in the formerly green city, was “only” four times the safe WHO limit (of course, on the same days, Delhi was forty times above that limit). Global warming will inundate much of the lowlands of the Ganges delta. And the country is regularly subject to floods and cyclones: as my plane took off, ominous reports said that Cyclone Bulbul was about to assault the coast. (It did, and took 24 lives while five people were still missing).

Also read: Bangladesh’s high GDP a fitting reply to Amit Shah’s ‘termite’ taunt at illegal immigrants

New Bangladesh & New India

But our eastern neighbour is doing a good job of coping. If there is a fault, it may lie in the government’s failure to fully extend political democracy, beyond quinquennial elections. A close friend (who considers himself pro-Awami League and pro-Hasina) conceded that “freedom of press” is only “freedom of praise” – even legitimate constructive criticism is discouraged. The Bangladesh government surely does not need that: its achievements are widely acknowledged and applauded.

India’s relations with Bangladesh have never been better. Sheikh Hasina has been attentive to our vital security concerns, apprehending terrorists (who, after doing damage in the north-eastern hills, used to seek safe haven in Bangladesh) and handing them over to India. Trade is growing, as is cross-border interaction. When I arrived in Dhaka, Conrad Sangma, the chief Minister of Meghalaya, had just concluded a visit. He had driven to Dhaka by car from Shillong and was driving back. Indians could do that before 1965, but not since. They can again now.

Next March marks the birth centenary of Bangladesh’s founding father, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Prime Minister’s progenitor. It will be an occasion for both sides to recall India’s strong support for Bangladesh’s liberation in 1971 and the goodwill extended to Mujibur Rahman and his family by New Delhi. In turn, this should be an opportunity to reaffirm our close bonds with our closest neighbour.

I hope the Narendra Modi government will rise above politics and associate the Congress with a bipartisan celebration of this relationship. I have my doubts about the “New India” project, but there is no doubt that a “New Bangladesh” has risen from the ashes of 1971.

The author is a Member of Parliament for Thiruvananthapuram and former MoS for External Affairs and HRD. He served the UN as an administrator and peacekeeper for three decades. He studied History at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University and International Relations at Tufts University. Tharoor has authored 18 books, both fiction and non-fiction; his most recent book is The Paradoxical Prime Minister. Follow him on Twitter @ShashiTharoor. Views are personal.

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  1. I am surprised someone of Dr Tharoor’s stature has failed in his article to recognise that Bangladesh today stands as a brutal autocracy where democracy, rule of law and the rights of the people have all been taken away under a regime that has held fraudlent elections almost for the past decade and is known to be one of the most corrupt. Not sure what influenced his out of context article on this occasion! Maybe he just had tea with Sheikh Hasina rather than the people of the country!

  2. No doubts that those critiquing Bangladesh here are all Indians. It’s hard to grasp neighbour’s success with ease – a typical mentality in the Indian Subcontinent.

  3. India concluded that Information Technology, the Automobile Industry etc were it’s mantras to superpower status, and forgot about industries including fabrics, clothing, leather and footwear. Bangladesh took the cue and stepped in where India’s exit by choice had left a large vacuum. With a vast population of impoverished semi-skilled and unskilled labor, Bangladesh was able to build clothing factories and train people to work in these industries over twenty or so years. As political stability came to Bangladesh, so did international orders – people will always need clothes to wear. In the meantime, industries that had fed millions of uneducated Indians and brought a living wage to them, migrated across India’s eastern border. The possibility of bringing at least some of this work is strong. Centuries of management and innovation in the clothing and fabric industries cannot disappear – it is time, perhaps, for Indian entrepreneurs to take the challenge up and re-enter an industry that India did brilliantly in before just giving up. There is a lot that is on India’s side. For example, Chinese companies have been moving spinning mills outside the country even before US tariffs struck because electricity in countries like Malaysia costs 25% less than anywhere in China. A lot of clothing is now tailored in Indonesia, Vietnam etc and of course in Bangladesh, because Chinese labor has become expensive in parallel with electricity and land costs. On every count, India can compete.

    Speaking of literary interest, Shashi Tharoor might want to see the interest that Tamil people show in their Patti Manrams and in their debates and in the many writers and poets who define their culture, that Maharashtrians show in their traditional theater, that his fellow Malayalis show in their great writers like Thakazhi Sivasankaran Pillai and Vaikkom Mohammed Basheer, and much more. The great Rabindranath Tagore won a Nobel because he was equally gifted at writing in his native Bengali and English. By the time the Nobel Committee reached it’s decision, churches had begun to sing “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high…” as a hymn. That said, there are many great writers who are loved and celebrated in India and whose work will never be forgotten. A celebration of Tagore in Sylhet does not really make Dhaka and Kolkata magically more literary minded than the rest of a vast country like India. In trying to sound profound, Tharoor only exposes his own vacuosity and ignorance.

  4. It is very unfortunate to read such a superficial analysis of Bangladesh from Mr. Tharoor. Under the current leadership in Bangladesh, the country has regressed in terms of human rights and the rule of raw. Freedom of expression is almost non-existent. Bangladesh has one of the highest rates of inequality in the world with no signs of improving. The Chief Justice was forced to resign because he did not toe the party line. The economy is in a poor state due to rising bad loans, declining exports and stagnant private investment. All the white elephant projects may impress foreigners who come for a week long vacation, but the people who are living here know the reality on the ground.

    • Whatever you have pointed out are true to some extent but the rapid growth of Bangladesh under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina can’t be denied. Where will you find absolute democracy? In India? In Pakistan? Even in the USA?

  5. Mr. Tharoor is spot on in his observations. Dhaka can compete with any Indian city when it comes to literature and the arts save Calcutta. The pace at which it is progressing, it will surely surpass Kolkata too in the near future. Unless, of course, Didi initiates a course correction for Calcutta.

  6. I wish bangladesh becomes the richest country in the world as long as they do not export their poor and illiterate to India. We do not want another kashmir on our border.

  7. I hope they also take their illegal fellows living here. I also they don’t fall for the dangerous trap of religious brainwashing from Middle East which our west neighbor fell for.

  8. He is spot on. Bengalees on the other side are joining the lowest common denominator because of the onslaught of CBSE,ICSE etc. Legacy of Bengal Renaissance is becoming distant memory.

  9. This person gets a lot of hype, no one will doubt. But, just visualize the backdrop/reference frame/and in comparison to what and who. He talks a lot but says very little. Typical unyielding bureaucracy style I guess.
    Expecting people who studied Humanities History Literature Law or belong to these domains to be Scientific is stretching your realm of imagination, it’s a perfect recipe for disaster in your Expectation Mismatch.
    Now imagene the parameters based on which a country becomes a developed nation, and the relation of those parameters to science.
    Long live their argument – “you don’t need to be educated/learned to do good for the people”
    Now compare what or who gets priority; and needless to mention, see the result.
    For ages, in countries like India & BD, people don’t thrive, they just survive
    And Rabindranath is the best moral friend that they came across

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