The eighth Jaipur Literature Festival featured fewer superstars but sustained its literary value. Also, a swansong for a great writer—and another way of festival life
Rajni George | 28 Jan, 2015
“I wanted to be a writer without having anything to write about. I had to find out what I wanted to write about,” said the old master. “I had no training or ambition.” He was preaching to the great Indian choir in more ways than one. At 82, VS Naipaul was speaking to a roaring sea of people, many of them aspiring writers, who claim him as one of their own despite past grievances with his idea of this ‘wounded civilisation’. His mother had told him “to leave India to the Indians”, his wife Nadira interjected. But the author who wouldn’t be boxed in by the idea of the Commonwealth—as novelist Hanif Kureishi reminded us in a commemorative panel for Naipaul’s seminal A House for Mr Biswas—wasn’t quite done with us either. The biggest star of the eighth Zee Jaipur Literature Festival and its most magnetic literary presence was woefully absent, in his long pauses and flagging speech. Yet, as he arrived onstage in a wheelchair, it was clear that his physical presence was an event in itself.
Despite the crowds and the aggressive marketing of every kind of good, ‘JLF’ (what it still goes by in conversation, as it began in the days before the ‘Zee’) remains the stage for every big cultural debate, however much we quibble. This year, it brought us such special guests as that champion of libraries, Argentina-born Canadian writer Alberto Manguel, whose A History of Reading pulses with bibliomania; Kate Summerscale, who alchemised the ultimate Victorian country house murder in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher; and terrifying Will Self, author of numerous volumes of hallucinatory prose. And, it also brings us lesser-known writers closer to home; Rajasthani poet Aidan Singh Bhati or Vinod Kumar Shukla, whose Naukar Ki Kameez many of us have yet to read, though it has been adapted into a film. Plus crossover regional writers like Bengali novelist Sangeeta Bandhyopadhyay, whose Panty, now published in English, is still a revelation with its wonderfully authentic descriptions of a kind of middle- class sexuality. What people have called explosive and shocking in India is finally appearing on almost the same stage as its English equivalent, importantly, as are ‘marginal’ voices.
QUEER EYE FOR THE STRAIGHT CROWD
The slickest integration of a socio-political agenda came from within the festival’s queer contingent, easily absorbed into the mix. There was the requisite session devoted to gay anthropology (‘Coming Out: Tales They Don’t Tell’), but the charismatic writers shone individually and on their own panels. Well out of the literary closet were speakers like South African writer Mark Gevisser, who is researching the ‘Global Sexuality Frontier’; Australian novelist Christos Tsiolkas, of Barracuda fame; the prolific mythologist and leadership consultant Devdutt Pattanaik; Damon Galgut, who most recently gave us his lush reimagining of EM Forster’s inner life in Arctic Summer; novelist Sarah Waters, the winner of multiple awards for historical novels like her breakout hit, Tipping the Velvet; and, most recently journalist Sandip Roy, whose debut Don’t Let Him Know, is one of the year’s buzzy new novels. Grandmothers and patriarchs crowded the Google Mughal tent (that wonderfully named festival institution), and, touchingly, fathers and sons.
“The boy next to me looked like he had come a long way for this session, exhausted and curled into himself, appearing to be looking for affirmation,” said one writer who attended. “But it wasn’t one of those emotional sessions, it was very lively and fun. Almost everyone seemed to know someone who was gay, and wanted to talk about it.” So, when Roy quipped, “In India, the whole family goes into the closet with you,” the audience thrilled with laughter and began to tweet.
Waters, one of the festival’s big draws for her six novels, gorgeously described and historically brilliant, was a quiet surprise hit. A thoughtful speaker, if not as compelling as her prose, she spoke of her particular fictional province, the lesbian who is written out of history.
“To me, who we desire is very fraught, in a society which is not friendly to any kind of queer desire,” said Waters. “I would say all my characters in one way or the other live in eras where it’s difficult to live as a gay person. Partly because the ones who live in the 19th century, including Maud and Sue [of Fingersmith], were living when Western ideas about this were just being formed. This was a time when women could set up house in London, some as friends, some as companions, but others as lovers. Whereas when I moved in, they had an identity, they had a community. It does make you vulnerable. You have to be brave to pursue that identity. Inevitably if I’m writing about this kind of love, there’s a huge overlap between the personal and the political.” Of course, her province is also London, old and new. “I love it with a passion, precisely because I can be anonymous there, I have a community there,” she said. “Sometimes when I go to Pimlico, I think, my god it’s haunted. It’s haunted by my characters.”
REIGN OF THE HISTORIAN
Several very accessible scholars, equally comfortable with library stacks and hashtags, offered a wealth of riches—one of JLF’s strengths. Historian and broadcaster Bettany Hughes, a specialist of the ancient and medieval periods, brought us her best-selling biography, The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life, which became the ‘vivid political and social history of Athens in the 5th century BC’ (The Times). Her Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore put one of history’s most glamorous women into context, and at JLF she joked about writing the biography of a man who never wrote anything down. “Socrates is the first person in the world to be described as ironic,” said Hughes. “He has utter relevance today. He sees us as a society. He questions unquestioned materialism. He was operating in a world where there was no separate word for religion, spirits were in everything.”
Hughes’ contagious energy found a cosy home in a discussion about Herodotus, father of history, with one of England’s hottest young classicists, Tom Holland. The writer’s recent translation of Herodotus’ pioneering narrative, The Histories, is much admired, and he read out a scene from the Battle at Thermopylae for initiates to sample. “Herodotus is not just the father of history, he is the father of writing about India and getting it wrong,” said the brilliant Holland, whose audience came prepared for a dullish lecture and got a rousing performance. He was referring, of course, to observations such as the idea that Indians’ ears reach down to the ground. “His history is marked by insatiable curiosity, a desire to understand and record the world as it is,” said Holland. His highlight on the second day of JLF? ‘Arvind Krishna Mehrotra reading me his poem on Herodotus, his mother and civets,’ he tweeted.
In ‘The End of Antiquity and the Rise of Monotheism’, a stimulating double lecture on religious and socio-cultural history, came another triumph for nerdy historians. Holland, whose In the Shadow of the Sword explores how great empires came to terms with new ideas of the divine, explained that monotheism was not necessarily a break with antiquity; the Darwinian reason was that it worked. “India is one of the last places in the world where the ancient gods have not been banished,” he added. His ideas were debated with cultural historian Barry Flood in a session chaired by Peter Frankopan, director of the Centre for Byzantine Research at Oxford University. Equally charismatic and another festival favourite, Frankopan had spoken from within his research on the history of the First Crusade, earlier. “Every single video released by Osama bin Laden after 9/11 mentioned the Crusades,” he said, explaining this period’s continued significance. “In the West, the word ‘crusade’ has had a positive spin. In the Muslim world, it is associated with injustice, barbarity and dispossession.”
STORY OF THEIR LIVES
Biographies and autobiographies are always yummy. My Salinger Year author Joanna Rakoff spoke of her initiation into the world of publishing through her year at a literary agency in New York, the subject of her memoir, with candour and humility. The novelist discussed the kind of privilege typical of the girl who became a part of this world; partly admitted, Rakoff was still an outsider in relation to the usual prep school network that sent the children of book editors into the trade. “I do think I was hired for the job because I hadn’t read Salinger,” she said in response to a question on whether her obliviousness on this front and subsequent potential for discretion had qualified her. The role models women had at the time were vastly different, she recounted; either you were like the previous generation of women, homemakers, or you were like her boss at the agency, with her mink coat and the exquisite urgency of author care replacing children.
A triple biography over several generations made her famous, but the author of Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China was oddly among the less-trumpeted big draws. Jung Chang’s tales of the legendary Empress Cixi, the subject of her new book, were fascinating; the one-time concubine rode a tricycle and a hot air balloon but never used cars, as the driver could not kneel or stand in her presence. “In China, we don’t keep up with the Joneses, we overtake the Joneses,” said Chang, in her clipped British-Chinese accent, speaking of the increasing commercialisation of Chinese people, on a panel with her countrymen. “Parents think, ‘What good is it to bring up children as non-conformists? It’s not good for their future’.” Together with the mesmerising Anchee Min— whose own stories of revolution and resistance are told in her memoirs, Red Azalea and The Cooked Seed—and Beijing Coma author, Ma Jian, she helped narrate the story of modern Chinese life.
ALL IS NOT FAIR IN CULTURAL WAR
“We saw religious wars in Europe for 200 years,” said Pakistani journalist and best-selling foreign policy expert Ahmed Rashid. “We have the same battle in the Middle East with Sunni extremists.” ‘Terror and Faith’ addressed one of the most pressing issues of our time with examples from 18th century India, Tudor England, Rome and the very current spectre of ISIS. As always, Rashid warned of Pakistan’s battle with a potential ‘descent into chaos’ (the title of one of his books).
Libyan novelist Hisham Matar spoke from a similarly troubled world, that of his Anatomy of a Disappearance, wherein the protagonist’s father is taken away by the authorities; much like his own political dissident father. “Revolutions don’t happen just because there is an extraordinary level of injustice,” Matar said, speaking on a crowded Middle East panel with regional experts. “Revolutions happen when societies can collectively imagine a different future. Something beyond the injustice. In exile, you take refuge in the pleasures of your language.”
Political and religious wars overlapped with culture wars. In ‘Ankahee: What Must Not Be Said’, the big issue of pre- emptive censorship was taken on, at last, by a panel which included Kalachuvadu’s Kannan Sundaram, the Tamil publisher of Perumal Murugan, who recently gave up his pen when an RSS-led mob protested against his novel, One Part Woman, whose depiction of temple rituals had offended the sensibilities of the Goundar community. “Apparently, there is a Hindutva group sitting in Delhi, scanning all the Indian language books appearing in translation, and they then decide what should be objected to, what should be banned and what should be withdrawn. But I can’t be sure about this,” said Sundaram. Reading from the book in Tamil, he was followed by journalist and director of policy at the Institute for Human Rights and Business, Salil Tripathi, who read the same, sensuous passage in English, to a sympathetic audience. “Why did the police ask him to leave? Why didn’t they say, ‘We will protect you’?” asked author and Zubaan publisher Urvashi Butalia. The most important question.
Even a session as esoteric as Jeremy Brotton’s, on map- making, or Neil Rennie’s on pirates, found takers, though a quirky little talk about bumblebees (Dave Goulson) was less gripping. But the most unusual of all was social historian and biographer Jenny Uglow’s presentation on a group of experimenters who became the Lunar Society of Birmingham, the subject of her book The Lunar Men. A panel of teenage writers, clearly birthed by the era of the writing program and literary festival, and given to fanciful titles like There is a Tide (Simar Malhotra’s novel) and Saudade (Jaspreet Kalra’s collection of poems), was more evidence of the width of the literary market. Every writer finds a reader at JLF.
So, was Naipaul’s visit a success? He drew ‘a larger crowd on the front lawn than anyone else we’ve ever hosted—just under 6,000—more than Oprah, more even than Amitabh [Bachchan],’ tweeted festival director and writer William Dalrymple. At the numbers level, and at the dramatic level of literary satisfaction—his reconciliation with former protégé Paul Theroux enacted for all—Naipaul’s literary homecoming was a real victory. At another level, came a sense of sadness over how belatedly we were hearing him speak and how little we heard from his formerly sharp, wicked mind; even guilt, over the claims everyone was making on him. Coached by writer Farrukh Dhondy, his wife Nadira’s arm around him as she supported his microphone, Naipaul’s presence was either a triumph of his will (he insisted on speaking, though he faltered) or the proverbial epic fail, people argued alternately. This is part of what we need to consider: who is getting what from whom at a literary festival? A participant is giving by attending and adoring, subsidising the lives of writers; they are also taking, by asking for the investment of the writer’s time and effort. But while a literary apprenticeship is the ultimate transactional relationship, it is a lasting one.
And so, we continue to attend literary festivals, even as they burgeon and explode; a mela of the mind can be a messy thing. Diggi Palace recorded more than 200,000 entries—to watch and listen to 300 authors and 140 musicians from around the world, and we felt it. Is the old kind of JLF, a clubby vacation and literary salon for established writers and rising stars, underwritten by publishers and benevolent construction companies (DSC was a former sponsor)—a thing of the past? If writers in this crowded market want to continue to be underwritten by big corporate brands (even Rajnigandha paan masala, this time, a presence that was felt everywhere) and the masses, they will continue to have to deal with having them drawn to their doorstep. Though, what do we do when the world’s biggest free literary festival outgrows itself? JLF has always been the stomping ground of big-ticket speakers and nuanced debate. This time, the sheer numbers threatened to overwhelm what has so far been a precarious equilibrium. “The quality of questions and interventions from the vast number of young people who turned up was noteworthy,” said festival director Namita Gokhale. “And yes we weren’t quite prepared for the incredible number of fans and admirers that Dr APJ Abdul Kalam attracted—he was a magnetic draw for the young and old!”
When I, like others, was caught in what was a near-stampede at the entrance around Kalam’s visit, we started to question how safe it is to continue to admit all, at least at no price and at this venue. (The festival’s USP is that anyone can walk in without having to spend a rupee.) “What I love is how many young faces you see in the crowd,” said Infosys founder NR Narayana Murthy, a popular speaker. But there are, equally, eveteasers, attention-seekers and picnickers. Fun and reading go together, no doubt, but the weekend took JLF’s Woodstock-like feel to a new level: near chaos. And the Amazon store was another disappointment; more than one reader and publisher commented on how they missed the presence of the wiser brick-and-mortar store. Wading through people to find books jumbled on shelves like junk food, it was as if my online shopping screen had materialised.
Yet, even as it struggles to continue to address censorship head on, and glosses over some of the issues at hand, JLF must persist. “A writer has to learn all the time,” said Naipaul, in his deep, sonorous voice. “One never stops learning.”