“A star as we see it may not exist.
The time it takes its light to travel to
Our eyes and constructs may sometimes exceed
The lifetime of the star — and so Bachchoo
It may be that your perception of things
Is just the illusion of something which
Went before and merely remains
The signature of light that we call time.”
From The Stroke of
My hosts in Dhaka tell me that every time I turn up, there are mobs on the streets, political alerts, sloganeering and stone throwing, police retaliation and tensions mounting in the country. They imply that my presence is the mystical cause, through some cosmic connection. I was there a week ago for the Dhaka Lit Fest, an event boasting 60 writers from all over the world and a barrage — sorry, heavenly choir — of Bangla poets and pop singers. The disturbances were anticipated as two felons, one a minister in the former government, now in Opposition, were found guilty by the lower courts of war crimes and mass murder in the 1971 war of liberation from Pakistan. Their cases and resulting capital sentences were being reviewed by the Bangladesh Supreme Court. In the final days of their hearing, the day before the Lit Fest kicked off, the court ruled that there were no grounds for a revision of the verdicts or capital sentences. One of the defendants had submitted documents to prove that he was not in the country when the murders he was accused of took place.
The court declared the documents forgeries. The fellow was guilty as charged, proved and condemned. The two would be hanged. The papers said their fate was left to the discretion of the jail authorities as to when they should be executed. The Opposition parties protested on the streets. A “hartal” was called which attempted to paralyse Dhaka. It coincided with the first day of the Lit Fest, but no paralysis of the city seemed evident to me. The traffic on the streets was just as bad as on any other day. I was told that public transport was curtailed but from the evidence of the crowds at the gates of the Bangla Academy in whose compound the festival was held, it didn’t seem as though literature fans had been deterred from attending.
The sessions were swarming and the cameras and their crews were all over the place. The ministers of culture and finance inaugurated the Fest. As is the tradition in most contemporary literary festivals, the writers and participants are lodged in five star hotels and in the evenings coached or taken in fleets of cars to parties given by patrons of the festivals — sometimes an embassy, sometimes a cultural organisation and sometimes an individual host or hostess. On this occasion, each conveyance was escorted by police vans. It was a bit disconcerting though the organisers didn’t explain the precise reason for the escorts. We all assumed that “foreigners” were targets of the scare as the Bangladeshi papers were full of stories about a Japanese and an Italian being murdered on the streets of the fashionable district of Gulshan. Features and complexions were a target.
The American government had through its embassies issued advice to all American citizens not to go to Bangladesh and several people who were scheduled to come to the festival had backed out. Some, braver or more foolhardy than the rest, including the Nobel Laureate for his work on cancer research Harold Varmus, ignored the advice and turned up. My hosts noted, of course, that the last time I was invited to the festival the same two people who had their pleas rejected by the Supreme Court were undergoing their earlier trial and had been condemned by the lesser court to death, provoking riots and dissent. The time before that when I visited Bangladesh, a disputed election was just over and again the tension had mounted in the city. They announced these coincidences to other delegates to the festival and I could see that if any disaster befell them, they would be in a position to blame the jinx that followed me to Bangladesh. Not comfortable.
It reminded me of the performance I once saw of a pop group called U2. One of its members, a person, whose unlikely name is Bono, took the stage and in an egotistic display of humanistic caring addressed the thousands of pop fans and began clapping at one second intervals speaking into the microphone, saying that every time he clapped his hands a child died in Africa. A few people in the audience immediately shouted back “Then stop f***ing doing it!” Recalling which I wondered whether I would be banned from “Bangers” forever or whether there was always, regardless of my presence, a state of dissent and demonstrative fury in Dhaka.
Returning to Mumbai from Dhaka I find a controversy raging over a statement Aamir Khan made on TV about his wife feeling insecure in a climate of intolerance in India. Of course, Aamir wasn’t saying that there were threatening demonstrations on the streets of Mumbai where he lives. His comment about the intellectual atmosphere becoming intolerant was just that — and it was accurate. The establishment of the chappaterati (on whose side I openly declare I am) are giving back their national awards, protesting against intolerance, demonstrating against the appointment of narrow talents to important positions etc. They demand that Narendra Modi and other senior ministers denounce the individuals who perpetrate this manifest intolerance.
This may be a vain demand as the Bharatiya Janata Party is helplessly dependent on its democratic structure, which gives power and credence to these forces of darkness. This tolerance of intolerant voices couldn’t happen in the undemocratic Congress Party. Or for that matter in the Awami League in Bangladesh whose ministers, speaking at the Dhaka Lit Fest, toed the secular party line, denouncing extremism and supporting the death sentences and presumably the executions.
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