Despite it being trying times worldwide for free speech and thoughts, the international literary festival formerly known as Hay Festival Dhaka started in the capital yesterday for the fifth time under a new name, Dhaka Lit Fest.
Defying security alerts issued by many countries advising their citizens on travelling to Bangladesh, over 60 experts from different fields including literature, science, journalism and filmmaking joined the three-day festival, produced by Jatirik and hosted by Bangla Academy with the cultural ministry as a special partner.
Different discussion sessions, speeches by Nobel laureate scientist Harold Varmus, cultural and literary performances and events including launching of stand-up comedian and The Daily Star columnist Naveed Mahbub's “Humorously Yours and Counting” published by Daily Star Books in the evening marked the first day of the festival.
Following a lively discussion by Naveed and comedian Asif Baul at a session “Comedy: What Can't It Say?”, the book, available at The Daily Star Books stall on the festival premises, was formally launched by noted writer Hasan Azizul Haque.
Intolerance, extremism and challenges faced by free thinkers, however, were present in almost all the sessions of the day starting from the keynote speech by Indian author Nayantara Sahgal, who recently returned her literary award to India's premier literary institution protesting the rising religious intolerance in the country.
“When iron curtain comes down to our imagination, then it is time to act,” Nayantara said, explaining to the audience why Indian writers and scientists resorted to such actions of returning awards.
“A country has no religion, it is the people who have religion,” she said, emphasising the secular characteristic of the neighbouring country that writers felt must be preserved.
Cultural Affairs Minister Asaduzzaman Noor, at the inaugural ceremony, noted that the holding of the festival proved how Bangladeshis too would not bow to religious extremism that had in recent times taken the lives of bloggers, publishers and foreigners in the country.
Religious extremism and its roots dominated the discussion at the opening plenary “The World is Round” where British journalist Jon Snow, South Indian historian Ramachandra Guha and British theatre producer Jude Kelly talked about Saudi Arabia and the conservative ideology of Wahabism and how world political leaders shy away from speaking on the topic because of national economic interest.
The trio, after an interactive period with the audience, conceded that the world required a reconfigured United Nations with a truly egalitarian and holistic outlook to settle the issues of inequality of power generating so much violence worldwide.