This was my first time in Asia and I am now filled with a great desire to go back and see even more of this lovely continent. My three highlights from the festival.
1. THE STRENGTH OF THE FEMINIST AGENDA IN BANGLADESH - Prior to my trip I had assumed that the country would be an ultra-conservative one in which the women would be subdued and not have much visibility, but I was impressed to find out that there are very many women whose contribution to society is acknowledged. A female prime minister, several Bangladeshi authors in their 70s who were self-proclaimed feminists, female garment factory workers who walk around the city at all hours etc. There was even a performance of the Bangladeshi version of the Vagina Monologues, "It's a she thing." I would never have expected that to be showing in Bangladesh.
The opening speech was by an 88 year old Indian feminist writer - Nayantara Sahgal. There were various sessions on gender inequality and calls from both men and women for a more gender equal world. One particularly interesting and heated session was on _India's daughter. The film-maker_ behind this film on the Delhi gang rape was in attendance. The anger in the room was palpable. But of course who is able to think about the delhi gang rape without getting enraged? The film-maker said something disparaging about Indian feminists - who she felt had been against the film and one of the veteran Indian feminists in the room did not take kindly to these remarks. All in all - the festival brought up discussions that are needed in several places including in my country. After all I am from the country where three men who recently gang-raped a teenage girl were told to cut some grass as a punishment from the police, a country where only last year women were getting publicly stripped and a city where the Nairobi governor slapped the Nairobi women's representative and there was no recourse for that. It was great to have a platform for such tough discussions.
2. THE SUPERB ORGANIZATION OF THE FESTIVAL AND THE SUPPORT IT GETS FROM BANGLADESHI GOVERNMENT AND PRIVATE SECTOR. It was great to see the value the society places on literature. Despite various security concerns prior and during our visit, the festival was extremely well-attended. One got the feeling that this was where everyone wanted to be that week. All the sponsors were local and the festival was free to attend. The festival was opened by the Minister of Finance. Can you imagine a whole minister of finance opening a literature festival? With the way politicians in Kenya are behaving, I wonder if any of them has ever read a book other than the set-books they had to read in high school!
Each of the visiting writers had a minder assigned to them. The minders were amazing. I have a theory that mine had a GPS tracker on me - she would always manage to find me. I am ashamed to say I never got to know the layout of the festival because my ever helpful minder was always there to take me to whichever session I wanted to attend. We all got phones with a local sim once we got to Dhaka - with all the relevant festival contacts pre-loaded on the sim. Everything ran like clock-work.
3. THE CONNECTIONS - The writers in attendance were wonderful and I made some great connections. Even better than that, I got exposed to all these great novels that I might not have otherwise known. My bookshelf is quite full at the moment and there are some interesting Bangladeshi and Indian books in my collection. Meeting readers and writers and getting exposed to new contemporary works from countries I might not know much about is always the best part of book festivals. On my plane ride back, I could not put down a collection of short stories called "Voices" by Bangladeshi author Munize Manzur. To be honest, prior to my trip the full extent of what I knew about Bangladesh could be summed up as "Used to be a part of India. Prone to horrible natural disasters. Extremely poor country. Home of MFIs after the great work Mohammed Yunus did." After my trip, meeting Bangladeshi readers and writers, getting books on contemporary life in Dhaka (that's what _Voices_ mostly focuses on - 26 short stories representing people from all walks of life in modern day Dhaka,) I now feel that I have been exposed to many different sides of life in Bangladesh. I also have a great feeling about the Indian friends we made. I suspect that Muthoni and I might find ourselves in a festival or two in India in the coming years. Some of their festivals get one million visitors. I cannot even imagine how exciting it must be to be at such a well-attended festival.....and how long the bathroom lines must be when you have one million people at one venue...
I will close with a quote from Nayantara's opening speech, "We may belong to different nations, but we are all from the country of imagination."