What use is it?
6 February 2012
Reflections on the tumultuous Jaipur Literature Festival 2012.
Why did tens of thousands of people flock to the Diggi Palace in Jaipur on the morning of 22 January 2012? Why did hundreds of men mob the same venue on the afternoon of 24 January 2012? And who were the others, milling in the shadows, trying to catch each other’s attention?
Diggi Palace has been hosting the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival for five years now, but this year’s program attracted more attention than in any of the years past. The Indian press seemed to have finally awoken to the magnitude and significance of the festival, but the focus of each section of the press was on wildly different facets of the festival: some questioned the very utility of literature festivals, while others focused on the nature of – and need for – freedom of expression and censorship in India. God made his presence felt, and atheists threw insults at him. The local press, as in past years, published pictures of smartly dressed women smoking cigarettes and drinking wine, enthralled by the opportunity to witness at close quarters evidence of supposed moral decay.
The programme sheet for the festival said that the festival had been able to create a democratic space where authors, politicians, film stars and the audience mix together as equals. Into this mix was thrown Oprah Winfrey, ostensibly a film star herself, and, through her book club, a most influential promoter of literature. But, she didn’t mix democratically. Instead, her presence at the festival brought hundreds of additional policemen to shoo away thousands of people who came as pilgrims to the shrine of celebrity. Pakistan, Jerusalem, and the literature of protest were being discussed in parallel sessions, but the press only picked up on Oprah, in a sari, smarming about the beauty of India and the good sense in arranged marriages. The press, the police, and the politicians even forgot Rushdie for the day.
Rushdie’s part in the absurdist play of politics around this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival has been much discussed, and most of the political, religious and intellectual backlash on the festival has been focused on him, his absence and his presence. More so than god, Rushdie seemed omnipresent and omnipotent: capable of stirring discord, manifesting himself in every session regardless of the purported topic of discussion, capable of speaking from beyond the seas. Even so, there were probably more people turned away after queuing for hours to see Oprah than there were on either side of the debate surrounding Rushdie and freedom of expression in India. On one hand was the grave struggle for an individual’s right to foster doubt alongside faith, and on the other was celebrity and glitz. On the one hand was Kiran Nagarkar, a writer’s writer, author of the critically acclaimed novel Cuckold, complaining about how his book hasn’t sold, and on the other hand was the Bollywood masala of TV personality Yana Gupta, batting her eyelids for the cameras, talking up her dieting book How to Love Yourself and Get the Body You Love. Girish Karnad, a towering personality in the Indian theatre scene, was refused a seat by a schoolgirl waiting for her friends, while Chetan Bhagat, bestselling author of forgettable fare, was being mobbed by schoolgirls filling up scented notebooks with celebrity autographs. Glitz often triumphed over gravity.
It seems natural, then, that a section of Indian intelligentsia would question the utility of literature festivals. An article inOutlook called the attending writers cronies of the festival organisers, lined up outside the temple for handouts. A retired judge called Rushdie a sub-par writer who actively fanned the flames of controversy in order to sell his books, and called Gulzar a middling poet unworthy of literary merit. Hindi-language reporters pestered Sanjoy Roy, the festival producer, about why the organisers had chosen to deify Rushdie, while other writers of greater repute – whether writing in English or in Indian languages – were being treated as second-class citizens at the festival. These dissenting voices called the festival elitist: a place where the rich congregate to listen to rich writers and film stars, and not the democratic idyll of arts and letters that the festival was billed as.
A literary pilgrimage
Even the clerics, who poisoned the proceedings by issuing veiled threats while proclaiming the absolute peacefulness of Islam, insisted that the festival was dear to their hearts, that it was their festival, happening in their city, except that they would never tolerate anything contrary to their beliefs. But when the motion for the festival’s final debate was ‘This house believes that man has replaced god’, when the entire festival was subtly designed around the idea of doubt and its pertinence to faith and around the nature of protest and censorship, the festival was always at the mercy of the intolerantly pious.
As the festival drew to a close, this sense of entrapment by a vicious, fanatical fringe became more palpable. Caged birds desperately clawed at the bars. The poet Ashok Vajpeyi, in a session hastily thrown together to replace Rushdie’s cancelled video-cameo, said he was gladdened by what had happened – the Rajasthani political apparatus colluding with Jamat-e-Islami-e-Hind to keep Rushdie’s face and voice off the video screen – because, ‘If a state feels threatened by a novel, we have already started winning a victory.’
Tarun Tejpal of Tehelka didn’t quite agree, but never got around to articulating precisely why. Instead, he said: ‘In a simple world, most lovers of books believe in the freedom of expression.’ But clearly it was not a simple world that day in Jaipur. Saleem Engineer, representing the Jamat, smirked and smiled his way through the debate, refusing even to utter the name of Rushdie, calling him ‘a criminal in our opinion’ instead. How do you start a dialogue with someone who refuses even to acknowledge the existence of reason – the person, or the idea, or the idea embodied by a person – on the other side of the debate?
But a literature festival is so much more besides what plays out on the stage or in the press. It is something between a picnic and a pilgrimage. There is a languid, warm casualness to the affair, and there is also reverence and wonderment. These ideas have more to do with celebration than with celebrity; as much as eyes and ears are directed towards the panellists and speakers, what they say and what they fail to say, what they suggest and what they show are directed towards the mind of each person in the audience. Everything writers such as Amitava Kumar and Hari Kunzru did not get to say because of their hasty, forced exit is compensated for by what a stalwart like Tom Stoppard got to say: ‘Everybody who is an artist feels in some [way] the recipient of something more mysterious than the rules of prosody.’ This, more than all the ranting of the religious right, was answer to Richard Dawkins’ insistence upon reason, and how it leaves no place for awe in ordinary lives.
‘Structure is a paradox: It has to build itself, prefabricated, as it were, but it can only be seen retrospectively,’ said Stoppard, answering an audience-query about craft. ‘We see things go by us; we don’t understand what it was. There is a prosaic reality, but it is open to different interpretations. I cannot deny anyone interpretation because the subjective interpretation has its own validity,’ he added. For me, sitting in the audience, these words spoke far more eloquently to either side of the debate at Jaipur than the hours of back and forth between believers and deniers articulating their respective stances. This – the meta-chatter, as it were – is the beauty of a festival like the one at Jaipur. Although Stoppard was answering questions about the craft of playwriting, he was preoccupied with the developments around the festival, as were the minds of the people in the audience. In a few sentences, Stoppard distilled reality and our relation to it in an open-minded, civilised society. To see it come off the cuff, dripping with wisdom and economy of expression, is to witness a rare and astounding feat of intellectual athleticism.
And then there were the lighter moments: Mohammad Hanif dozing off on stage; Rabi Thapa giving the audience a big grin and a thumbs-up for being called a ‘young writer’; Rahul Bhattacharya reading, in a high-pitched Guyana accent, a decidedly profane passage from his book The Sly Company of People Who Care; Charu Nivedita correcting himself to remind the audience that he is bisexual and not gay; Meenal Baghel praising Mumbai for being a city of opportunities where even Shah Rukh Khan can make a living using his talent, whatever that might be. These moments of levity and insight were the glue that bound the people in the audience to the people on the stage. This casual bond carried itself beyond the sessions. A young doctor interning at a Jaipur hospital sought out Rabi Thapa, gushing with pride that a Nepali writer is representing the country. Jamaica Kincaid stopped by to chat about her time in Nepal, a decade ago, when she trekked the mountains searching for plants for her garden.
So, what use was it? Jaipur brings together writers old and new, it brings together readers casual and devoted, and it renews the thrill of encountering ideas, be it on your own or in the company of likeminded people. It allows an aspiring writer to chat up an aspiring publisher and cook up the recipe for the next big thing in literature. It allows booksellers to scope out the next bestseller. It allows organisers to envision organising something similar, or vastly different, something more modest or something grander. It poisons the complacence and quietude beloved of despotic regimes and stirs dissent. Above all, it keeps alive the relevance of the writer and the artist in the lived world.
~ Prawin Adhikari is a freelance writer.