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.
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.
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).
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.