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ZAFAR SOBHAN
DATELINE DHAKA

Zafar Sobhan is editor of the Dhaka Tribune, a daily newspaper.

A creative stirring in Bangla

Tahmima Anam

ou heard it here first. Bangladeshi writers will soon be making a name for themselves on the international stage. Indian writers such as R.K. Narayan and Anita Desai already had good reputations, but it was the publication of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children three decades ago that really opened the door to the flood of Indian writers who now dominate the international literary scene. And now with such assured voices such as Kamila Shamsie and Mohsin Hamid, Pakistani writers have made a name for themselves on the world stage, as well.

Now it is our turn. Bangladesh already has a small smattering of writers who have been picked up by major publishers, among them Tahmima Anam, whose second novel The Good Muslim has been long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize, and Mahmud Rahman, whose short story collection Killing the Water is also worth any reader's time.

They are just the tip of the iceberg, and they are already being jostled by a new crop of talented writers who I confidently predict will be hitting the shelves in the next few years. Khademul Islam, Abeer Hoque and Farah Ghuznavi are three who spring instantly to mind, but there are another half dozen names equally promising, whom it will be worth looking out for.

Last week's Hay Festival in Dhaka was a great expression of the new energy and excitement to be found in the Bangladeshi literary scene. The Hay Festival is perhaps the pre-eminent literary festival in the world, famously described by Bill Clinton as "the Woodstock of the mind", and has in recent years taken the show on the road. This year Hay Festivals were held for the first time in Kerala and Dhaka, and the Dhaka festival was everything the organisers could have hoped for.

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It may not be the Bengal Renaissance of the 19th century, but something is stirring creatively in Bangladesh today. And it is not just the writers, Bangladeshi art and music have never been healthier.

Even though the festival was held on a weekday, it attracted hundreds of attendees and all the sessions were packed, even the ones outside on the lawn, under an unseasonably hot November sun. Writers, publishers, editors, litterateurs, critics, essentially every hack, scribe, and literary smart-arse (to paraphrase a fine Posy Simmonds line) in town, I couldn't help but note what an impressive collection of talent and insight had been assembled.

Even more impressive, though, were the numbers in the audience. It is clear that Bangladesh has a huge appetite for events such as these. The discussions and question and answer sessions were trenchant and vibrant, and left me certain that the pre-conditions for a literary flowering exist in Bangladesh today.

It may not be the Bengal Renaissance of the 19th century, but something is stirring creatively in Bangladesh today. And it is not just the writers, Bangladeshi art and music have never been healthier, and it looks as though we are finally ready to take our place on the world stage.

This has been a long time coming, and long overdue, but when you are a small out-of-the-way country grabbing a foothold, getting your voice heard is no easy task. But with Pakistani writers deservedly all the rage today and with Indian writers having (also deservedly) dominated the literary stage for some decades now, the ground has been laid for Bangladeshi writers, who, happily are up to the challenge, and are now producing works of increasing maturity and interest.Image 2nd

Ms Anam's second novel is very good indeed, exploring the ambiguous aftermath of independence, with its disappointments and frustrations and contradictions (actually, a more arresting and relevant topic, to my mind, than 1971), and is much murkier and more emotionally wrenching than her first work. Similarly, Mahmud Rahman's spare, bittersweet stories in Killing the Water are strangely arresting and form a quietly disturbing mosaic of contemporary Bangladeshi life.

hese are interesting times in Bangladesh. As we leave behind an idyllic (only in the poets' telling, of course) pastoral past and move towards modernity and urbanisation and industrialisation at breakneck speed, with all the attendant dislocations and possibilities, as we stand on the cusp of generational change, 40 years after independence, a new Bangladesh is being born, bold, brash, rude and crude, to be sure, but also vibrant and pulsating and thrilling.

It is no wonder that the literature which is being born of this milieu, this churning, is equally exciting and explosive. Bangladesh is finally coming of age, demanding its seat at the table, insisting that the voice of fully 2% of the world's population be heard. But don't take my word for it. Grab a book, and read all about it.

 
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