November Thursday 17th
Waking up in Chittagong Nahin accompanied me to the airport, catching another car-with-wings flight across Bangladesh to Dhaka, for the primary reason behind my visit, the Dhaka Lit Fest. I watched the streets of Chittagong pass by once again, with lots of time to think on how unique these last few days had been, as it took hours to veer through the crazed traffic. I was to learn quite quickly that Dhaka traffic made Chittagong traffic look positively expansive. We trawled through the city, getting just a taste of the intensity of a metropolis of twenty million, its density and force. The hotel, a compound of sorts, was absurdly nice. Five stars, with huge rooms, free minibars, buffets restaurants always on the go, swimming pools and such. The kind of hotel so nice it makes one feel strange, estranged, always grateful anyway, but aware of the contrast in such luxury from my room to the street. None the less, I was keen to take advantage of the comfort I didn’t choose, to use it to stay unsick, rested and ready to make the most of just a measly few days. An event was due so I had to leave rapidly for the festival itself.
Upon arriving at the festival I was immediately assigned a buddy / shadow / friend / fixer – an absolute mensch of a man, Sifat. Sifat was one of what seemed a hundred young local students who worked with the festival, each one assigned an individual author, looking after them, and not letting them out of their sight it seemed. I've found this at many festivals, the young people who work so hard, keep the momentum going throughout, are some of the nicest people one can meet, and so it proved. I must’ve taken 80 selfies with these amazing folk by the end of the three days, all of them were so funny, so warm-hearted and Sifat and his many friends made the whole thing feel communal, connected and sincere. I was tempted, as in Chittagong, to play practical jokes on him, and hide, but resisted to spare his blushes.
The Dhaka Lit Fest was spread out over the Bangla Academy, a short ride from our hotel, and the grounds were beautiful. Food markets and book stalls strewn over a campus requisitioned for the fest, which had a dozen venues. Over 20000 people came in the end, and over 100 events were ongoing in parallel sessions. It was extensive, and moreover, really so friendly and open. The particular quality of the light, the air, the heat too, the constant energy and exchange, and for me the unique circumstance of being stopped every minute for a selfie, led to a very energising experience. I was always keen to say hello to anyone looking in my general direction, which was normally dozens of people, I remained keen to meet new people. My opening event was nice, wonderful to meet the poet Carles Torner and to have the chance to read my work, a small video from it is attached above. It was a little rushed, and interrupted by announcements, and slightly squished by a poet on the panel who was a little unaware of his own ego, but these things are part of the flow, they are part of the thing I want to overturn in poetry. I was happy to take a back seat and save my thoughts for my final event, which was to be a panel. I was then free to explore to festival and to spend some time in the authors lounge, meeting an immense range of writers and journalists from all over the world.
I had the chance to meet some marvellous people, and I hope, begin some friendships. Simon Broughton, whose work with Songlines magazine and the Rough Guide to music is something I've long followed, was an inspiration. World music is an integral part of my interest and teaching in sound and improvised vocalisation with my own work, and has always been a passion of mine. Such a self-effacing and knowledgeable man, he essentially shaped an entire understanding of this field in the UK and we lost a few hours talking of everything from Ketjak to Romani music. I could’ve picked his brain for much longer. I had the chance too to talk to Tim Cope, and felt really quite humbled by his incredible work as a writer and a guide exploring Mongolia and central asia. In fact I was not truly aware of the scale of Tim’s work before we chatted, and found him to be vastly insightful, modest and kind, always interested in others, always gentle and assured with his words. To then discover he had traversed a huge stretch of the globe on horseback, over three years in the saddle, following the Mongol path from Mongolia to Hungary, it really made me feel I had made a special connection. I cannot recommend his book enough, I read it within a few days on my way home.
So nice to meet many others from the UK too, the translator and publisher Deborah Smith, whose work from South Korean has brought her greatly deserved success, the novelist Evie Wyld who was really lovely company, the publisher Kelly Falconer, who has championed some brilliant writers from all over Asia, including some of the leading avant-garde poets. I was surrounded by really inspiring people and tried to balance the intense, engaged individual conversations which I am naturally inclined to, with a constant desire to roam, explore, meet new people. After a few more events, with the sun slowly starting to mute and the festival gently quietening, they walkie-talkied for a car and I was driven back to the hotel.
I nipped to the gym, full of slightly strange swarthy men trying to tiger stare me and so gave in to my own fragile ego, bashing a punchbag for an hour, and then headed to the opening night party, held in the hotel, but out on the lawn, with an extraordinary dinner served in a nightlit tent. It was a beautiful setting but I felt talked out from the day, and though I met some fascinating people like the journalist and fiction writer Nadia Kabir Barb, and reconnected with my buds from the british council, I took an early one to rest for a free day following.
This was a really memorable day amongst many. It was a genuine festival day, a day where I was able to just be an audience member, and experience what can be distant when you are performing or presenting, thinking altered by your own responsibilities to the audience. I was able to attend six events back to back. Eating my bodyweight in free pancakes at the fancy hotel breakfast buffet I waddled onto the festival site first for a panel on Indian music with Simon Broughton and Vidya Shah, which was fascinating, and saw Vidya perform her music later in the day, and then to the aptly titled Cosmic Tent, to watch Tim Cope speak. This was a festival highlight for me, I was entranced and wrote texts responding to the hour, as I often do when a talk really takes me, refashioning the language into a poem. Suffice to say the audience loved Tim’s talk and it seemed, as it often does with really insightful speakers, it was a multi-layered experience. One could take the details of Tim’s travels, his achievements, his insight into human nature across the Steppe, his hardship alone (or never alone with his wonderful dog Tigon given to him as a puppy in Kazakhstan.) Fundamentally, what I took was a revelation of human will, of perseverance, through choice – it was an exercise in human strength, quiet, unassuming, without complaint, with utter focus and without existential angst. His was a work, a life, of quiet immensity. It really stayed with me, something in his words and his journey resonated.
I spent much of the day from then on seeking out primarily Bangladeshi themed events. I witnessed a panel about the campaign of rape by the Pakistani army during the Bangladeshi liberation war of 1971 which featured Nayanika Mookherjee, Firdous Azim, Shireen Huq and Sadaf Saaz. The event was about the victims of this campaign and their status as Birangona, or war heroes. Considering the topic, I have not been to more engaged, balanced, intelligent and insightful panel discussion in sometime, the true brutal tragedy of the events of 1971 were revealed with real expertise and positive disagreement, and it was an education for me. One of many events I went to about Bangladeshi history, politics and culture, and this was an ongoing process of education that I tried to constantly engage with when they were in English and not Bangla. I packed a few more events in before the main event, Ahsan Akbar’s packed out discussion with VS Naipaul in the main hall, a particular highlight, knowing Ahsan in London and having heard him speak with such eloquence about the festival and the support of Naipaul to the enterprise.
On the way back to the hotel I fell into conversation with the wonderful Romana Cacchioli, and our initial exchanges led to an hour of intense conversation in the hotel lobby. Her work at PEN and her time working in Anti-Slavery Internationalin Africa in the last decades just scratched the surface of revealing a life dedicated to helping others. She was yet another remarkable human being to listen to and learn from. This was a perfect way to end a wonderful day and once back at the hotel I skipped the fancy dinner to just write and rest.
My last day in Bangladesh, feeling time having shot past absurdly fast. I tried to rest as long as possible with a night flight upcoming, but was soon up in the hotel stuffing my chops. Straight off after arriving at the festival, travelling in with my friend Daniel Hahn, a brilliant translator and thinker who travels the world with the ease of diplomat, I asked my friends to take me out of the compound, to see some of the sights of Dhaka. Raihan Mahmud and Shadab Anwar took me out, it being Sifat’s day away. Two amazing dudes, full of humour and great companions, we had a ride around and visited the national museum of Bangladesh amongst other things. A strange and intense mix of war memorial, taxidermy and ancient archaeological history, we had a fine time bopping around the museum, surrounded by stuffed swordfish, pangolins and Bengal tigers next to abstract modern art, next to horrifically graphic pictures from the 1971 war and the crimes committed during that conflict.
Back at the Bangla academy it was time to prep for my event, brilliantly chaired by Anjum Hasan. It was a panel discussion about resistance, and poetry. The title was a little conceptually vague, but we managed through, I enjoyed talking about the range of my work, people were receptive and even took my decries that people must be allowed to hate poetry etc… my normal spiel about uninterrogated myths, notions and metaphysics in poetry making it less than it is, less popular, less interesting, seeming to be of interest to the rather large audience on the lawn. The event was again a bit overshadowed by slight pomposity from other panel members, the loud, dominant ego driven proclamations of poets still abide into the 21st century, but perhaps, to the discerning viewer, this emphasised my points even further.
I made a last tour of the festival, the beautiful Bangladeshi music that followed my event floating over the onset of dusk, the still busy stalls, the activity and bustle of a great three days. I went to closing ceremony and far from being the normal official list of thank yous, it provoked a sense of palpable appreciation in me, offered me time to enjoy the moment as it slipped away. I owe a great deal of thanks to Ahsan Akbar and the other directors of the festival, for allowing me to be part of it. What an achievement on their part, not just another grand literary happening, but literally a political act, one that demanded people refocus their gaze on Bangladesh not because of extremism or intolerance, but precisely because of the secular, intelligent, generous nature of this country, as has been its way since its independence. This festival brought together so many people and so much focus through its size and enterprise to the qualities of Bangladesh which are in fact the norm. Its ambition, and its achievement were remarkable, I was lucky to witness it and be a tiny part of it. The closing ceremony, which had some very earnest and honest, and frankly sincere speeches, was a moment for me to personally pause to consider actually what a thing it all was, just months after the horrible events of July, and just how I had been treated. It felt emotional to be there, to see it unfold as well as was possible.
Flying in the early morning following the day I went to the closing party with my luggage in tow. This was a nice opportunity to say goodbye to people properly, in the same spirit of compressed intensity that such festivals provide, everything at hyperspeed, outside of the usual rhythm of life. Again the setting was lavish, with a magician, naturally, entertaining the authors. At times the vibe got away from me a bit, perhaps I was tired, or that I have no inclination to group smalltalk, but I did find myself politely nodding to some bourgeois private school English literary talk at times, the normal incestuous dinner party stuff of posh young novelists and journalists that sometimes does happen at these festivals, but mostly I was able to evade and find further sources of intelligent inspiration. A lovely chat with Marcia Lynx Qualey and again with my new Bangladeshi friends, and a round of heartfelt farewells led me to the airport. Raihan Mahmud accompanied me, a few of the lovely young Bangladeshis did in fact, even though they didn’t need to, just to say farewell. Raihan and I swapped whatsapp and Instagram and within minutes of leaving his company he was messaging me with video game recommendations. He said he’d pray for me every day because I was so cool. I’m not sure a bigger compliment is possible, in all its complexity.
I faced a brutal journey back home, a 5 hour flight delay from Dhaka making me miss connections and spending nearly a full day on the road, through Qatar, and being awake from nearly 40 hours all told, before I found a bed to sleep in. But I had time to think back, to retrace a mere week and reflect on what a beautiful and profound experience it was in Bangladesh, and to all those I had met, whom, in the spirit of Tim Cope’s words that remembering was giving, I would not forget.