Jaipur Literature Festival 2012: Day 1

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I’ve been mostly quiet on this blog for more than a year now because I’ve found it quite hard to maintain consistent flow with reading. Combined with the fact that I’ve moved countries, it wasn’t easy finding enough inspiration to blog, but with some determination, I made it JLF 2012 to find out for myself what the literary scene in India is like, and I’m blogging about it so I can ruminate a bit about some of the stuff going on.

First, Salman Rushdie is officially not attending because of security concerns, so that’s one question answered. It’s disappointing because I’ve missed Salman Rushdie on another occasion at Melbourne Writers’ Festival too. It is however not surprising, considering India’s current political climate. It’s enervating though that several writers took to reading The Satanic Verses on stage at a session. Bravo, Amitava Kumar, Hari Kunzru, Jeet Thayil and Ruchir Joshi.

Now, I really wish I had made it for last year’s festival because some of the guests on this programming list are of questionable credentials as far as writing goes, and I wish I had a better frame of reference for JLF. Instead, I’m reviewing it in the year they invite Oprah Winfrey and Kapil Sibal – the Union Minister for Telecom and something-something in the current Indian government. Aren’t they published, you ask? Yes, but so is Paris Hilton, for what it’s worth.

So I began Day 1 with middling expectations. The morning’s keynote was on the tradition of Bhakti poetry, which Namita Gokhale, festival co-director announced was the overarching theme for this year. The speakers were Purushottam Agrawal, critic, academic and Hindi poet and and Arvind K Mehrotra, both of whom spoke on the different Bhakti saints. Both quoted Kabir – who I adore. Both of them also quoted Kabir in the specific context of the Rushdie incident and the question of free speech. Agrawal spoke almost entirely in Hindi, and I was quite relieved I could follow most it. Arvind Mehrotra mainly read from a selection of Bhakti poets such as Appar, Nammalvar, Janabai, Tukaram and Kabir. I also wound up sitting close to Shabnam Virmani of the Kabir Project, who assured me she’d be performing in the coming days.

The next session was a Michael Ondaatje talking to Amitava Kumar. I’m not the biggest Ondaatje fan, so this was just about alright. One interesting thing was that Ondaatje uses a montage, pluralistic style of storytelling, something he said he felt affirmed through Japanese cinema which has a similar list-like style. I’ve heard other writers mention they prefer this to the modern first-person narrative, which they find limiting.

The ‘Little Magazines’ session was a cheery interlude with the editors of four small press and independent publishers in India, except they seem to prefer the term ‘little magazines’. What was great was the amount of passion they clearly shared for discovering new, emerging writers. K Satchidanandan went as far as to call these publications avant-garde for daring to attempt writing that would never be published in mainstream magazines, particularly in the Malayalam literary scene.

Post-lunch was one of the best sessions of the day with Argentinian writer Pola Oloixarac, who spoke to Chandrahas Choudhury. Pola was funnyand modest and more importantly very well-read. Choudhury has a casual, deft approach to steering the discussion,especially as he’s known Pola for a while, and the conversation had some interesting tangents, such as Argentina’s reputation for being an avant-garde literary culture, the internet’s cultural position and possibly as a sentient being (??) and Pola’s own skeptical criticism of Latin America’s romanticised left-wing ideology. Pola is also a Nabokov fangirl. Respect! The end of the session involved some heavy referencing on other books exploring themes like formal inventiveness, internet architectures, exploring Third World violence, etc. I have a daunting list to refer to, and I higlhly enjoyed this session. A note to commend Chandrahas’ skill as a moderator, one of the very few goodnes in the festival, from what I can see, and he’s also one of the better bloggers on Indian literature at The Middle Stage.

It was at this time that I was slightly late to the Hari Kunzru session with Amitava Kumar, and snuck in at the back just in time to hear them start reading and talking on stage. I heard later that Jeet Thayil and Ruchir Joshi did a controversial reading at another session.

While waiting for a session to finish at the venue where I next needed to be, I overheard snatches of Kapil Sibal’s session on his “poetry” collection. That his poems are terrible is no surprise, expected even. But what was unexpectedly heartening was the crowd that refused to play sycophant to Sibal’s preening personality. When you consider that Sibal was making statements like, “In my last book, I was still discovering myself. In this book, I hope you will see that I have found myself,” I felt like cheering when a woman in the audience Q & A grabbed the mic to ask, “Why can’t Sibal the poet talk to Sibal the politician?”, and a young girl asked the standard Anna Hazare question. The icing on the cake was hearing the ruckus when a man is supposed to have jumped on stage, and on having Namita Gokhale reprimand him quipped back in a poetic couplet, and then proceeded to complain about his lack of education, and how poor he is, and at a point, he burst into tears. A nonplussed Sibal started mouthing political lines like “I understand your pain, I represent people like you,” and that was the end of the session. Let me add, I second Manu Joseph’s comment in his Open magazine piece, that it is appalling that Sibal would think it was okay for him to speak at JLF when Rushdie was clearly pressured and feared into not doing so, but nothing like some good trolling to cheer you up.

Finally, the Imagining India session began with Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal and academic and writer, Sunil Khilnani. I was hoping Tejpal’s intellect would make this a riveting session but it quickly disintegrated into an India-lavishing session with atejpal saying things like “India has been the most unique creative experiment in the last 1000 years,” and “India had the most brilliant set of founders”. I found Teal’s aggrandising hard to take after a while.It’s hard to imagine someone could be this lacking in historical perspective, and I’m not even the most diligent history buff. So I succumbed to my increasing weariness and left for the evening, just as the night revellers were beginning to arrive for the party to begin.

It was a bit ironic to be stuck in traffic with an auto guy on the way back to the hotel, who asked us if we were famous writers, and then proceeded to give us his own 2-paisa philosophy on what would make India more progressive, and I honestly thought he had his finger on a stronger pulse than Tarun Tejpal. The guy – who happens to be a college graduate – said quite simply, “India has a culture where rich people live off the woes of the poor people. The politicians were always like that, but now, the middle-class man has also become like that. We will never progress unless that changes.”

I want to make a final comment on something unusual. Having attended a few literary events overseas, but none in India, I am bewildered by how fashionable the Indian literati seem to be. In the sense, that they are completely overdressed for people who are not authors or speakers in any of the events. There are innumerable women walking around with Chanel handbags and Prada shoes, and in anarkali sakwars and full-suited corporate armour and I’m wondering if there was a memo about the dress code somewhere that I missed?

Anyway, tomorrow, I look forward to some discussions on transgressive, politically dissenting literature, and I’m hoping the sessions will be worthwhile. More coming, so watch this space.

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