The 6th annual Jaipur Literature Festival got off to a cracking start today, and I left this evening feeling very inspired, as I always do when I go to literary events of this scale. Some have suggested that the Jaipur Festival has become more of a celebrity event than a literary one, but I disagree. I was last here in 2011, and I remember feeling much more excited about the programme then than I did this year, but today I was very pleasantly surprised.
A uniting theme of this year’s festival is the Buddha in literature, and the morning started off with some devotional chanting by Buddhist monks. After this, we all had to stand for the Indian national anthem. Which took me back to Bream Bay College circa 1999, but here there was no assistant principal standing over us threatening that we weren’t allowed to leave until we sang nicely. Everyone sang nicely of their own volition, those who knew the words, anyway. The following opening remarks from the organisers seemed to drag on a bit, cutting quite substantially into the time allotted for the keynote, but organiser Sanjoy Roy made some important comments, and as the festival has been dogged in controversy since last year’s debacle with Rushdie and the readings from The Satanic Verses, such comments were probably wise: “We can’t let India be hijacked by one group. […] For the record I want to say we’re all against terrorism of the mind.”
The literary events started with iconic Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi’s keynote, “O, to live again!” At 88 years old, Mahasweta Devi is a much smaller and frailer figure than her fierce writing would suggest, but it was clear from her words that she still has a fiery spirit. She described her rebellious youth, how her family didn’t know what to do with her as they thought she was vulgar, not understanding her body’s attraction. Her tone was cheerful, but I felt melancholic, listening to this brilliant, brave woman clearly nearing the end of her years: “At my age, the desire to live again is a mischievous dream […] Better I don’t, considering the trouble I have caused already by living longer than expected […] Considering the situation from which I came, it is surprising that I turned out like this.”
The next session, “Flight of the Falcon”, saw Jamil Ahmad (The Wandering Falcon), MA Farooqi (Between Clay and Dust), and Ameena Saiyid (OUP Pakistan) in conversation. Mohammed Hanif (Our Lady of Alice Bhatti) was meant to be there, but wasn’t. No explanation was given, but it’s not unusual for Pakistani authors not to show up at the last minute, from what I saw in 2011, too. Visa issues? Jamil Ahmad was fascinating, like his novel, and defended the traditional tribal way of life against Saiyid’s attempts to draw him into any criticism of them. She was particularly keen to get him to critique the concept of “honour”, that pervasive and elusive thing with so much force across much of South Asia. Ahmad’s take on the concept demysticised and de-exoticised it, making it seem something that we can perhaps all recognise: “every person has a small island within himself where he will not let others trespass.” That is honour.
At this point, my pen ran out of ink, so I couldn’t take any more notes. I stupidly didn’t take a spare. Astonishingly, at a writer’s festival of many tens of thousands of participants and dozens of stalls, there was nowhere for me to buy a fresh pen. The organisers obviously weren’t expecting anyone to actually be doing any writing at this writer’s festival, at least not the old-fashioned way. I praise the organisers for the much increased security arrangements this year. Next year, a simple stationary stall would be a good idea, too.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama was scheduled immediately after lunch, at 2.15, so I was smart and took my seat at about 1 o’clock. I actually got a seat! I think the whole of Jaipur and half of Delhi was on the front lawns of Diggi Palace for this session, so I’m sure standing wasn’t comfortable. I have to confess I was a little sceptical about the decision to bring a religious leader to a literature festival. A better choice than Oprah Winfrey, certainly, but I thought perhaps it would be a gimmick. I was a bit wrong. Anyway, he is an author, his latest book being Beyond Religion. When Pico Iyer, the moderator and biographer of His Holiness, asked whether the title meant that somehow he thought there were some things more important than religion, His Holiness laughed that this was his publisher’s title, and that he was surprised by it himself! The atmosphere was amazing–people were actually quiet as he spoke, and anyone who knows India knows that quietness is something rarely experienced. His Holiness was as funny, gentle and sweet in person (if we can call an area filled with thousands of people “in person”) as he is said to be. I am not a religious person in any sense, but I did find him inspirational and very sane. His major message for India, it seemed, was to fight corruption. He has a way of softening the critical blows through laughter. He joked that Indians are very religious-minded people, who will pray wholeheartedly and regularly to their Gods, but after the prayers, too many will do corrupt work, thus making it seem as though the only point of the prayer was to ask for help in corrupt activities. He said that religiosity and corruption cannot mix. Sound advice.
Mercifully the crowds dispersed again after this session. Next was one of the highlights of the day, for me: Nadeem Aslam, an amazingly intelligent, sensitive and brilliant man. I read his wonderful Maps for Lost Lovers quite a few years ago now, and it is a truly memorable book, about the Pakistani immigrant experience in the UK. Aslam has three other novels, one only just released, and now they are at the top of my list of Things to Read Once the PhD is Over. Aslam is Pakistani by birth, having moved to the UK at the age of fourteen, when his father had to leave Pakistan in a hurry as a political exile. Not from a wealthy background, having only been educated in Urdu and Punjabi, his knowledge of English was very slim when he arrived in Yorkshire. Extraordinary, then, that he has become one of the UK’s best contemporary writers, often praised for his beautiful language. Two of his novels, including his latest, The Blind Man’s Garden, are set partly in Afghanistan. When the moderator asked why that was, Aslam answered that he wanted to explore some of the vast gulfs in understanding between the west and the Islamic world that have emerged particularly acutely in the past ten years. He then said something funny and disturbing at the same time, and which I just tried: type “Pakistan is…” into a search engine and the auto-suggestions are: Pakistan is… evil; in Asia; better than India. (My results might differ slightly from his: as I said, my pen ran out, I am writing from memory, and the search engine I just used is India-based, his might have been British. But the gist is the same). Do the same for the US and you get: America is… not the world; doomed; not the greatest; evil (and, certainly a result of my computer’s memory: “better than Australia.” !!?)
It was clear that Aslam was slightly uncomfortable on stage, until he had warmed up, anyway. He seemed shy and diffident, but at the same time very assured in the content of what he was saying. He admitted to being socially awkward, finding it difficult to mix with people casually. In researching his latest book, he spent some time with blind people, but found that he couldn’t interact with them as he wanted to because he was overly sensitive to how they must be feeling; he didn’t want to ask them any questions that he thought might prompt painful memories for them. So he took a different approach to trying to understand what it must be like to be blind: he taped his eyes shut for a week, three times, to experience blindness. Now that’s dedication to one’s craft.
I was planning on attending the session announcing the finalists for the Man International Prize, but Nadeem Aslam was on another panel on “The Novel of the Future”, and after hearing him in his own session I was so enthralled that I followed him there. The panel also consisted of Howard Jacobson, Linda Grant, Zoe Heller and Lawrence Norfolk, in conversation with Anita Anand. It was agreed by all speakers that suggestions that the novel is a tired form are rubbish, but that there is a crisis in readership at the moment, particularly in the UK and the US. Jacobson recounted statistics he’d heard that around 75% of teenagers in the UK wouldn’t admit to reading, ever, even if they did, because reading isn’t considered sexy. He contrasted this with his own youth, where boys would place books in their blazer pockets in the hope that girls would notice and think they were worth their time. He said this didn’t necessarily translate into success with girls, but that it was their only hope! I laughed very hard at this, because it spoke right to me. When I met my own partner at the tender age of seventeen, one of the first things that interested me was that not only could he read, but he had read novels, and did, regularly. And not just because he had to for school. Apart from my dad, I had never knowingly met a male who read. At least not in Whangarei, country New Zealand. A bit of “the youth of today” was thrown around by the panel, part of which I’m sure is true and part should be taken with a pinch of salt. Granted, I’m not nearly as old as Howard Jacobson, but I don’t think teenagers should necessarily be used as the litmus test of how healthy a society’s reading habits are. Hey, my brother, who infamously chanted “never read a novel, never read a novel” with glee when he won a family game of Scrabble as a teenager, is now quite an avid reader. There is hope for all, perhaps.
My brain is quite full by now, and thinking back to what I was listening to at ten this morning is a challenge! And there are still three days to go!
I started off the day in a session in which I knew none of the authors, but this is often a good way to learn something new, and spark new interests. Ariel Dorfman, Frank Dikotter, Ian Buruma, Selma Dabbagh and Sudeep Chakravarti were in conversation with Timonthy Garton Ash on the topic of “The Writer and the State.” All are writers of what could be called politically engaged literature, in various parts of the world, and expressed interesting and some rather provocative thoughts on the role of the writer in politically repressive, or at least troubled, places. Chilean Dorfman, who was exiled during Pinochet’s regime, admitted that while oppressive regimes cause physical deprivation and hardship, they can, for the writer, provide a sense of moral comfort, the feeling that speaking out and writing against authority is the right thing to do. Discussion moved to whether it is easier for one outside a state to criticise it: for instance, China historian Frank Dikotter believes he is really a coward, as he lives in Hong Kong and, with a Dutch passport, knows he can leave if he needs to. In his opinion, the truly brave are his colleagues and friends who write on topics (such as the Korean War and the Cultural Revolution) that the Chinese government doesn’t like, but continue to live in mainland China, with enormous risk to themselves. British-Palestinian Selma Dabbagh, too, has the luxury of outsider status, but this also comes with its own troubles and burdens. When asked whether she also feels the obligation to criticise her own side (Palestine), she answered that though that was an extremely difficult thing to do, she did feel that she had a responsibility to do so. The discussion then turned to the fine line between the necessity of telling the truth, and the wish not to give comfort, or ammunition, so to speak, to the enemy. Chair Timothy Garton Ash quoted Orwell: if you’re going to be effective as a poitical writer, you have to be most critical of your own side.
Question time opened up some heated discussion. One young Indian woman asked Sudeep Chakravarti–whose latest book has looked at Naxalites, and has attempted to humanise them, in contrast to the official Indian line–a question which she prefaced with “I am lucky to live in a country which has not seen revolution, at least not for some time.” I balked at the naivete of this, and was glad that Chakravarti did, too. He was obviously conscious of not wanting to embarrass the young woman, but the class implications of her statement were too staggering to ignore. “Which country do you live in!?” he asked. “Perhaps there are no revolutions in your India, but 800 million people in this land live with this reality.” Some people sitting behind me expressed annoyance of his talking down to her, but this was not a school classroom, and I think he responded properly. Who does it benefit if India’s young elite are ignorant of the troubles in their own country?
“What is a Classic?”, with Anish Kapoor, Elif Batuman, Tom Holland, Christopher Ricks, Ashok Vajpeyi and Homi Bhabha exposed some interesting gender politics. The discussion itself wasn’t all that interesting to me, but the question time got rather heated (as they seemed to do today!) Elif Batuman is a young woman writer (the other participants were all older men), and a lady in the audience obviously felt that she had been unfairly cut off by chair Homi Bhabha at one point in the discussion, so asked her to elaborate on what she had been saying, “there are a few of us who would like to hear what this young woman thinks.” At a later point in the question time, Batuman tried to say something but Bhabha didn’t hear her, and asked for the next question. A huge boo went up amongst the audience. It seemed significant to me that she was the only young woman on the panel, and she hadn’t indeed spoken very much. I doubt anything was done deliberately, but it did seem to be a bit of an old man’s club.
Over lunch I saw the launch of a new Zubaan publication, Of Mothers and Others, edited by Jaishree Mishra. This is a collection of fiction and non-fiction, published in collaboration with Save the Children, on the importance of mothering, the mother, and maternal health. I plan to buy a copy, as it contains writing by authors I like, particularly Urvashi Butalia and Mridula Koshy, but the book shop was so crowded every time I passed today that I’ll have to make an early morning trip tomorrow, before the hordes arrive. Shabana Azmi, acclaimed actress and activist, launched the book, and recounted some staggering figures: in India, the number of women who die each year of pregnancy-related issues is equivalent to four hundred plane crashes. If four hundred planes were to crash each year, governments would fall, but because it’s poor rural women who die, this tragedy is not given the attention it deserves.
In the afternoon, Homi Bhabha and Iranian-American Reza Aslan discussed “The Literatures of 9/11”. I found much of the discussion rather banal, to be honest. Or perhaps banal is the wrong word; repetitive, or boring might be better. They spent so much time rehashing what I think are now commonly discussed aspects of the 9/11 tragedy–the fact that Americans were ignorant and surprised about where the attacks came from, that they hadn’t seen themselves as victims since Pearl Harbour–that what was meant to be the topic of discussion, the literature of the post-9/11 years, was largely left until question time. The inevitable question came, from an elderly Indian man: “why is it that 98% of terrorists are Muslims?” Reza Aslan answered passionately, and was well justified doing so. I was impressed he remained as calm as he did. “That 98% figure is something you pulled out of your pocket.” He was very restrained in using “pocket”, I would’ve chosen a more colourful noun. He listed all the numerous terrorist groups, throughout the twentieth century and today, who have nothing to do with Islam. And he got a round of applause when he pointed out that most violence that is happening at the moment in this very country does not stem fom Islamic groups. The old man started shouting, but he wasn’t graced with the microphone again, and Bhabha told him to be quiet.
The final event of the evening was the announcement of the winner of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, in its third year. Half of the nominees were present–Jamil Ahmad, Jeet Thayil, Uday Prakash/Jason Grunebaum–and they gave brief talks about their novels. Amitav Ghosh, Tahmima Anam and Mohammed Hanif were represented by their publishers. Jeet Thayil was, finally, announced as the winner. I am not a fan of his novel Narcopolis, but I do recognise that it is a clever and unique book, so deserving of such recognition. His win was certainly popular with the crowd. I get the impression Narcopolisis popular amongst young, urban readers. His acceptance speech was gracious and honest, stating that the win meant all the more to him because it came from home, is Indian money ($50,000) and “any author who says that money doesn’t matter is lying. We don’t have jobs but we have bills.” And I know that he lives in Defence Colony, where the bills aren’t cheap. He doesn’t know it, but we sat next to each other in an Italian cafe in Defence Colony a few weeks ago. Perhaps I should’ve asked for his autograph. Well done, Jeet.
Today is India Republic Day (as well as Australia Day), and politics filled the agenda at the festival. It was also the first weekend day, and the crowds were noticeably bigger. I stuck to the same seat in the front row at the Char Bagh all morning, because moving around was just too stressful!
The first session I attended brought together Patrick French, Ashis Nandy, Tarun Tejpal, Ashutosh and Richard Sorabji, with Urvashi Butalia (she doesn’t know it, but I’m her biggest fan) chairing. On the occasion of India’s 64th Republic Day, the conversation revolved around what India is doing right, what it is doing wrong, and what should be done to make it a more representative and just democracy in practice, not just on paper. All of the speakers were very strong, and came from different literary and scholarly perspectives: French is a British non-fiction writer on India, Nandy a scholar of philosophy and politics, Tejapl the founding editor of newsmagazine Tehelka, Ashutosh is a TV journalist, and Sorabji a historian (who has written 102 books! That got a round of applause). Discussion turned for some time to the anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare, so naturally to corruption. Tejpal made some of the best comments on this, I think, though much of what he said was not popular with the audience. “When was the last time any of you got up and protested against atrocities against dalits? Against Muslims?” he asked. He got a clap for this, but I think was quite misunderstood when he said that he believed corruption is a great leveller: if you’re a servant for a wealthy family, who are wealthy because of the enormous class disparities in India and the educational and other conditions that keep them firmly at the top of the pecking order, how do you even hope to raise your children up to that level without some corruption? The analogy may not have been the best, as I dare say it’s not generally the servants who are the most corrupt, but I understood his sentiment. Some in the audience seemed to think he was condoning corruption in some way by saying this, but this wasn’t his point. There was quite justified uproar, however, when Ashis Nandy claimed that most of the corruption nowadays is perpetrated by OBCs, SCs and STs. I’m looking forward to what the newspapers may say tomorrow. Ashutosh and Patrick French rebutted this convincingly, conceding that these groups may be the most ostentatious in their corruption, but that the upper castes, who have been engaging in corruption perhaps for much longer, have learned how to conceal it effectively. “Can you honestly say that no politician has made more money than Mayawati?” French asked. “Of course, I can name several, but I won’t. They are of the upper castes and they cover their tracks.”
The next session was rather bizarre, and didn’t really hold together all that well. I don’t know if this was the result of weak chairing, or just four extremely different authors. “Rogues, Reviewers and Critics” brought together Anjum Hasan, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Christopher Ricks and Manu Joseph. Chair Chandrahas Choudhury tried to keep the discussion centred around the act of reviewing and criticism, but Spivak went off on all sorts of tangents, and Manu Joseph was being rather a spoil-sport and insisting that as a novelist he doesn’t really bother with criticism. I had heard, anecdotally, that Spivak is a more lucid speaker than she is writer, but I didn’t really see that in evidence. She was also late arriving. Anjum Hasan impressed me though (I love her writing) and she made some interesting comments about the state of book reviewing in India at present. She believes there is a lack of knowledge of what came before amongst book reviewers here, and that reviewers are quick with opinions but slow with argument. Joseph suggested three things that he thinks should be banned in reviews:
-the exclamation mark.
-Bengalis commenting on other Bengalis (!)
-the word ‘dystopian’.
I shall endeavour never to make any of those fauxs pas.
“Freedom of Speech and Expression”, with John Kampfner, Shoma Chaudhury, John Burnside, Orlando Figes and Basharat Peer, was a completely packed session, and generated much debate about censorship in India. Chaudhury, managing editor of Tehelka made some of the most passionate statements of the session, claiming the be a freedom absolutist when it comes to the artistic and creative realms, believing that people should simply abstain from seeing/listening to anything they don’t like. Her caveat to absolutism applies to more public discourse, where she believes restrictions should be applied only to those who incite violence, discrimination or hostility. She differentiated between incitement to violence, and hurt sentiments which can lead to the enactment of violence, and I think this is a very important distinction. The state should not pre-empt a law and order situation by stopping speech before it happens, but rather deal with any problems afterwards.
At lunchtime there was a booklaunch of a new Zubaan title. But I’m afraid I got rather distracted by probably my biggest ever dumb foreigner incident. There’s this guy that I’ve seen around the festival a lot, he is obviously very famous because he is surrounded by guards and fans the whole time. Yesterday he provoked a lot of ire (and quite a few laughts, too) by announcing that to him, “all religions are equal; I despise all of them” and that “if you’ve already decided that you want to hang yourself, what does it matter how you do it?” Well, he sat down next to me during this book launch, and immediately had to start brushing aside fans who wanting autographs and photos, while he was trying to listen to the talk. This doesn’t happen to me so much when I’m travelling alone (contrary to all the horror stories circulating at the moment about how bad travelling as a solo woman is in India), but when I’m travelling with my partner in India, we are constantly accosted by people trying to take photos of us. I think it’s because he’s tall and wears a hat and sunglasses that the Indian lads consider cool. I don’t mind much when people ask nicely, or when it’s children, but teengage boys trying to sneak photos of us when we’ve already told them no gets on my nerves. With this in mind, I turned to the famous man and said, “this happens to me all the time!” We had a brief chat, he asked me where I’m from. As the session ended, we were crowded again by young fans, and as I made my escape I turned to him and said, “I’m glad it’s not me for a change!” Well, I just googled this gentleman, Javed Akhtar, and discovered that he’s one of India’s most famous script writers, is married to acclaimed actress Shabana Azmi (whom I most definitely have heard of), and co-wrote the screenplay of Sholay. And Elen Turner commiserated with him over the perils of being too popular with the Indian youth. If I could be that un-cool with a celebrity whom I didn’t recognise, I’m glad it wasn’t Amir Khan or Ranbir Kapoor who sat down next to me.
The final two sessions of the day had a lot of parallels, and looked at two topics that are guaranteed to generate a heated question session in India: Kashmir and Pakistan. “Kashmir: Chronicles of Exile” had Kashmiri Pandit Rahul Pandita and Ladakhi Muslim Siddiq Wahid discuss the concept of exile with Asiya Zahoor. While Pandita, having left Kashmir in 1989, fits the conventionally understood definition of an exile, the panel tried to broaden the term to apply to others who had been physically or psychologically disconnected from their home. This was not popular with much of the audience, who seemed too quick to see things in black and white. The trauma of the Kashmiri Pandits was not discounted or negated by suggesting that other Kashmiris, too, experience dislocation and even exile, though there does seem to be a problem in India on a wider scale, or refusing to acknowledge the injustices that the Kashmiri Pandits faced in 1989/1990.
The next session, “Falling off the Map: The Question of Failed States,” with Mary Harper, Reza Aslan, Laleh Khadivi, Selma Dabbagh and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy in conversation with Barkha Dutt, was not specifically about Pakistan, but by the end Pakistani Obaid-Chinoy seemed to be fielding the most questions. The two panels were well placed one after the other, and had many substantive commonalities. Pandita commented that many within the Indian state and among the Kashmiri separatists don’t consider it in their best interests to resolve the problem. Obaid-Chinoy argued that the world cannot afford for Pakistan to become a failed state, as it appears to be heading at the moment. “This is not Afghanistan or Somalia,” she stated; Pakistan is the world’s fifth biggest country, and it has nuclear weapons. Yet despite this, she said she chose to remain hopeful that her country is not doomed, that there are enough progressive and passionate people in Pakistan fighting to make things work. And there seemed to be an encouraging number of Indians in the audience wanting the same thing.
I must confess to having a bit of a new literary crush, on Nadeem Aslam, and from talking to others at the JLF, it seems I’m not alone. So I started off today at a session with him, Kunzang Choden, (Bhutanese author of The Circle of Karma), and Chandrahas Choudhury, on the theme of “The Buddha in Literature.” Aslam’s third novel, The Wasted Vigil, is set in Afghanistan, and Aslam himself is a British Pakistani Muslim, so it may seem strange that he was put on this panel. But he started by saying that Buddhism has a long history in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as it does across South Asia, but it was so effectively airbrushed out of the history he was taught at school in Pakistan that it wasn’t until his twenties that he started to become aware and interested in this history.
The crowd for this was rather thin, but it was 10am on a Sunday morning, so I certainly wouldn’t put that down to the quality of the speakers. William Dalrymple was up next in the same venue, though, and he spoke to a packed house about his new history of the first British invasion of Afghanistan, The Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839-1842. Dalrymple is an engaging and extremely entertaining speaker, and he spent the whole hour actually summarising the history he recounts in his book, same anecdotes and all. He emphasised the tragic, frustrating fact that the west (Britain in particular in this case) have been following, almost exactly, the path that led to their utter demolition in Afghanistan in the 1840s. He said he’d received an email from Kabul not long ago saying that Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, was having trouble sleeping because he couldn’t put the book down, being haunted by the similarities between himself and Shah Shuja, the exiled Afghan king that the British tried to put back on the throne. The talk, complete with slideshow of pics from the archives, was a great advertisement for the book, but as someone who has already read it I did wonder why he didn’t provide more teasers rather than direct quotes and anecdotes, so that people could read the book fresh without picking it up and thinking “oh, this is exactly what he said at the JLF!” But of course it is a very long book, having been meticulously researched, with much more detail than he was able to condense into an hour’s speech, so for anyone who was there today who hasn’t read it, I highly recommend that you still do!
Over lunch a brilliant musical performance was held on the Front Lawns, in conjunction with the launch of classical musician Ustad Amjad Ali Khan’s book My Father, Our Fraternity. Two sitarists and a tabla player performed two pieces, the first composed by Tagore. Though I know next to nothing about Indian classical music (and just as little about western classical), sometimes I think it’s important to let music, or art, wash over you without intellectualising them. I wish I could still do this with literature, but I can’t because I’m too far down the rabbit hole, so I appreciated the sheer beauty of the music.
Anjum Hasan and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak were paired again after lunch, with novelist and literary critic Amit Chaudhuri, in a session called “The Vanishing Present: Post Colonial Critiques”. My friends know that Spivak has been a bit of a thorn in my foot for a while; as a postcolonial feminist literary scholar, much of her writing was essential for me to engage with in my PhD thesis, yet every time I thought I’d got my head around what she was saying it transpired that I really hadn’t. Anjum Hasan, as chair, seemed to be having the same problem today (and that is not a slight on Hasan in the least, it happens to the best of us!) Spivak was an entertaining speaker, taking us on stories and digressions, but she couldn’t leave her academic mantle behind, and she rarely answered the questions posed to her. Hasan’s attempts to paraphrase or summarise what she understood to be Spivak’s points were contradicted by Spivak, and I thought I saw the hint of a smile on Hasan’s lips when this happened. I did not envy her her task today! Having read much of Spivak’s work, though not her latest book, I recognised most of what she was saying. Her emphatic suggestion that people must learn languages, that it is not enough to read in translation but that we must all endeavour to read in another, I found both inspiring and disheartening. I am learning Hindi, and I am making progress slowly, slowly. I sometimes feel that starting at the age of twenty-five, as I did, might be a bit too late to ever be proficient, but Spivak said she started learning Chinese seven years ago, in her mid sixties. I take encouragement from this, and try to remember that the militantly monolingual cultures of the Anglophone west need not be a barrier to second language learning for the really determined. But Hindi is just one other language, and even if I add Urdu to that (I’m almost reading it now), it still seems so insignificant an effort, when there are literatures from all over the place that I want to read. This is where I find Spivak’s premise disheartening, because I would need ten or more lifetimes to learn all the languages I would need to read all the books I want, in the original. Spivak is a translator, and has written some great feminist translation theory (“The Politics of Translation”), and I think she should have given a bit more attention to this today.
Poetry is not my genre of choice, usually, but I’m really glad I attended a session of readings from Tishani Doshi, Gagan Gil, Sheniz Janmohamed and Jeet Thayil. A strong feminist streak was present in the work of the female authors, and Doshi’s powerful poems on womanhood, love and death prompted a few wet eyes. Thayil was very funny, and I’m sure he read many of the same poems in 2011, when I was last here: amongst them “How to be a Crow”, “How to be a Horse”, “How to be a Bandicoot.” Bizarre and side-splittingly funny.
The final session of the day, “Reimagining the Kamasutra” with Malayalam author K. R. Indira, Pavan Varma, and Urvashi Butalia, was a surprisingly frank discussion on sexuality. Both Indira and Varma have written on the Kama Sutra, but they have very different perspectives on the position of women within it (no pun intended). Indira noted something that came as a surprise to many: that what is nowadays commonly known as the Kama Sutra, a collection of illustrations of sexual positions, is in fact only one of seven books/chapters that comprise the full Kama Sutra. She believes that the whole work is deeply patriarchal and detrimental to women, teaching men to treat women as sexual objects through instruction on the dutiful wife, how to seduce a virgin, other men’s wives, and dealings with prostitutes. Varma disagreed on the negative implications for women, saying that the book encourages men to please women, and pointing out that it was only after the introduction of Victorian sexual prudery (my word, not his) that India internalised many of the sexual mores that have become commonplace nowadays. But the best line of the day went to Butalia: after a question from a young woman on why so many middle-aged and elderly Hindu women worship the Shiva linga, which is in fact a stylised penis, she replied: “I am a middle-aged woman and I do not worship the phallus!”
The last day today, which comes with mixed feelings. It’s tiring, doing all this listening and writing, but I feel so inspired by so much of what I’ve heard—creatively and politically—that it’s sad that it’s come to an end. And unlike academic conferences, I haven’t finished with a splitting headache.
It irritates me that the English-language newspapers here have been writing things like “JLF overshadowed by controversy” in such a sensationalist manner. Perhaps some peoples’ experiences of the event have been overshadowed by controversy—Ashis Nandy’s, probably—but mine certainly hasn’t been. I was at Nandy’s session on Saturday when he made the silly comment, but until I saw the throngs of police outside in the evening, and the headlines on Sunday morning, I wasn’t aware that there had been such an outcry. It didn’t surprise me, I was expecting it of course, but there were too many other fantastic things going on to let it overshadow the whole festival. I do think Nandy’s comments were stupid and he should’ve known better than to say them when and how he did, but I also think that he should have the right to say them and be rebutted in a reasonable manner, as he was by Ashutosh and Patrick French at the very time. I hope the JLF organisers, or the future of the festival, do not suffers out of this. And now I don’t want to discuss that any more, as it shouldn’t detract from the dozens of other speakers that continued to make the festival so lively and positive.
Started today at a session that aimed to discuss how to get from the idea of having a book to actually having a book, in the words of chair Meru Gokhale: “Maps for Lost Writers: Nurturing Creativity”, with Anish Irani, Prajwal Parajuly, Aita Ighodaro and Hindol Sengupta. Pretentious as it is, I feel like I’ve been a frustrated novelist since I was about fifteen, and what these kinds of sessions always emphasise, which is of course very sound advice, is that if you want to write, just do it. Don’t make excuses about the day job, or writer’s block, or lack of inspiration, just do it. That advice also got me through the PhD. I was especially encouraged by Sengupta’s comment that he flunked maths at school so didn’t know what else to do with himself, and Gokhale’s reply that a large number of writers did flunk maths! I didn’t quite, but I did hate it with a passion, so perhaps I am made of the right stuff.
Next I saw Howard Jacobson, author of the Booker prize winning The Finkler Question, among other things, in conversation with Samanth Subramanian, and it was almost like being at a comedy show. I haven’t read any of his books, but after hearing him talk I think I will, because he really is very funny, in a dead-pan, cynical British way. What he said led on well from the first session, because he spoke of how he became a writer, in his thirties. He’d ended up teaching literature at Wolverhampton Polytech (which, with Hamilton NZ, or Wagga Wagga Australia, is one of the worst places I can imagine ending up as a literature academic; I exaggerate, but only a little), and wasn’t happy. He’d written for a long time, and had cultivated a bohemian appearance of a novelist (ripped shirt, beard with holes, trousers with tippex smears), but didn’t have his first novel published until he was forty. All of these details he recounted in a much funnier way than I just have! And, unsurprisingly, he explained that he became funny after the realisation that his talents (ping pong, among other things!) weren’t those valued by most of society; that he wasn’t good-looking, and thus comedy was the solution. As he said, “if you can laugh at yourself, at your own ignominy and pain, then you’ve overcome it.” During question time it was suggested by a member of the audience that India, as a nation, seems to lack the ability to laugh at itself, and that does seem to be true. Jacobson ended: “calling in the police because someone has said something offensive is grotesque.”
The next session was one of the best of the entire festival: “Imagine: Resistance, Protest, Assertion” with Maya Rao, Aminatta Forna, Nirupama Dutt, Ambai, Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, Urvashi Butalia, and a dance/performance piece by someone whose name I foolishly didn’t note down (if someone could advise me of this I would be grateful, as she was stunning). Aminatta Forma read a passage from The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, perhaps my favourite book in the world, and certainly the single biggest catalyst for my interest in feminist literature, when I studied it at high school. Urvashi Butalia read an article dating from 1983 by a young woman who had been gang-raped. It argued that though some had suggested to her that perhaps death would have been preferable, life is far too precious, and that though the rape was horrific, the desire to live overwhelmed everything else. It also recounted the disgusting police response to her rape: what had she been wearing, why was she out in the evening with a boy, why hadn’t she fought harder to keep the ten men off, why had her male friend not done more to prevent them. All this was thirty years ago, and it could have been written today. Little has changed, in public or police or political responses to rape, we have seen this recently. It was the perfect piece for Butalia to choose to read today; one of the things that has been frustrating me, and probably numerous other feminists, with the increased public discussion of rape and sexual assault in India recently, is that suddenly the mainstream media has “discovered” something that feminists have been saying for years and years and years. It’s good that they have, that it’s being discussed, but why did it take another brutal gang rape in Delhi in December for these messages to be taken up? There are so many responses to this, there have been and there will continue to be, and this is good. But I imagine the Indian feminists are both laughing with relief and crying with frustration that this is happening now, in 2013. This session closed with an extraordinary performance piece by a woman whose name I don’t know. I cannot describe it, I wouldn’t be able to do justice to it. It was an agonised plea for women to be able to claim their space, their lives, their right to life. Those who were there know. It left many of us reeling, and a lot of tears were shed.
This was the highlight of the day, as well as being a punch in the stomach, and after that there seemed nothing else to do but have too many wines with lunch. I emerged late into the post-lunch session with Shobhaa De, completely by accident. I have read one De novel, just to see if I could, and it was a struggle. But I was impressed with the little I heard: “How can you make the west a scapegoat for the problems of our society?” she said in response to a question I didn’t hear. “As if women weren’t raped in India before.” Reminded me of the comments that rape doesn’t happen in the villages. No, reports of rape don’t happen in the villages.
Luckily though, Shobhaa De and her launch of Kareena Kapoor’s book didn’t get the last word. That went to Shoma Chaudhury, who led the team in favour of the moot “capitalism has lost its way” to victory in the annual debate. And a good time was had by all.