When your day starts with Shabnam Virmani singing Kabir with a tambura and owning the otherwise empty stage, life feels pretty good. I have been a fangirl of Shabnam’s since I saw The Kabir Projects’s documentary Chalo Hamara Des early last year, and getting to see her and hear her at the festival has been a joy.
The morning session on Day 2 was on Creativity, Censorship & Dissent. Ironic I know, considering the series of events yesterday regarding Rushdie. The speakers on this panel were a numerous bunch, moderated by Tehelka’s Shoma Chaudhury. I’ve been dissatisfied with the quality of moderators JLF has been selecting – they all seem unprepared, nervous, unable to relate to the speakers and generally unimpressive. Shoma Chaudhury in particular made a grave faux pas in introducing one of the speakers in this session, saying poet Cheran was from Tamil Nadu, when in fact, he’s a Sri Lankan Tamil exiled and living in Canada. I was even more appalled when Cheran gently corrected her and she didn’t even apologise or acknowledge the enormity of her error. Are these moderators selected on the spot and not given any background material? Are they not supposed to have read at least some of the speakers they are dealing with? And then there is the tendency to go into lengthy introduction regarding the topic – Shoma went on to talk about the ‘profound purpose of art’ and how it cannot exist as a ‘supermarket of liberal sensibilities’ and when she kept going for ten whole minutes, I started getting frustrated. There are 5 specific writers on stage meant to be talking about their experiences with censorship, and instead we are listening to Tehelka’s editor talk on dissent. This was all the more problematic when at the end we ran out of time and could not hear the speakers respond to anything more than 2 questions. In addition, when a cheeky audience member mentioned that censorship talk was rubbish when a bad poet like Sibal was a guest, Shoma tried to defend Sibal as a choice of speaker. Now Sibal has been an idiot, we know, but defenders of Sibal’s idiotic poetry deserve to be called bigger idiots, no? But then, I doubt Shoma has actually read his work either, she seems consistently clueless. Okay, okay, I’ll stop my rant and come back to the speakers.
Siddharth Gigoo, a Kashmiri writer spoke briefly and diplomatically about the Kashmiri Literary Festival fiasco, and said nothing really new. The three speakers who stood out for me were Cheran, Tamil author and activist Charu Nivedita and Hindi/Bollywood lyricist Prasoon Joshi. Cheran spoke first on 2 aspects of freedom of expression – that the freedom should be absolute with no restrictions, and that it comes with responsibility, but one which is not constitutionalised or legalised. It’s when either is not fulfilled that grave issues affect our right to expression. Cheran also highlighted the different ways in which writers can deal with censorship – either maintaining a strategic silence, or write and be burned or write about one thing when you actually mean to say something else. His example of writing about war by writing instead about chana dal was hilarious. Prasoon Joshi was unexpectedly impressive. He noted how China used the Grass Mud Horse or Cao Ní Ma internet meme to escape internet filters for obscene content, and how a new language lexicon, a parallel subversive language can be created when pushed up against a wall. This ties in with the kind of literature I’ve been very interested in for the past few years, censored Soviet Russian dystopias and futuristic stuff, Borgesian world-building, Cortazar’s meta-narratives, all of these tie in with a kind of dissent against the establishment.
Charu Nivedita came in exactly at this point to talk about the tragicomic situation in Tamil Nadu that borders on the ridiculous, how a naked Jain monk was hounded by fanatics of both believers and rationalists, how dress codes are imposed on girls in universities by claiming the men will be corrupted. He also mentioned Lacan who once wrote “Women don’t exist”, and that he thinks in a parallel way, “Writers don’t exist in Tamil Nadu”. One troubling aspect that Charu brought up was the failure of the literary artistic community in India in supporting writers, and in fact, it is often that community itself that censors, much more than state restrictions. Charu’s fiction has been described as transgressive and postmodern – words that are not used often for contemporary Indian writers in English much, and it sounds very very interesting. Now that I’ve bought his Zero Degree, I hope to review it very soon. Oh, the last writer was Tahmina Anam, who spoke a little on the Taslima issue, but nothing significantly memorable.
The next session carried on the theme of dissent with Transformations and Transgressions: Two Voices, with Charu Nivedita again, and Dalit Tamil writer Bama Faustina. The session was moderated by Namita Gikhale, and again, awkwardly managed. First, her questions to Bama were vague and overarching – what kind of response do you expect when you ask an author to talk about her life, and all the experiences that led her to write her novel? Then 15 minutes in, Namita realises this could go on for a while, and interrupts the speaker to tell her to wrap it up in 5 minutes so the other speaker can have his turn. And then she rhapsodised about Tamil as a language, incredibly she turns to the audience saying, “You know, there is no other country in the world that has the multilinguistic diversity that India does, we have 29 official languages and hundreds of dialects and thousands and thousands of mother tongues. And I’d love to hear the real flavour of Tamil, the language that these writers write in”. I quickly survey the room and 99% of us are sure enough Indian, and I’m not sure who Gokhale is patronising here.
To come back to the writers, Bama was wonderfully simple and honest with her story and picking a small scene in her novel Karukku highlighting the caste focus, did a dramatic entertaining reading. Charu continued to impress with a highly evocative section from his short story Karnadaga Murasu, dripping with sexual imagery and lyrical intensity. If I were to compare Charu’s style to anybody else, I’d say he was an Indian George Bataille, but slightly more poetic. The writers read segments in Tamil as well , Bama read the same excerpt, and Charu read from Zero Degree. If it wasn’t for a forcedly cheerful Gokhale, this could have been a great session.
The afternoon sessions saw a very ordinary Ben Okri, who disappointed, despite a humorous Chandrahas Choudhury trying to keep the discussion from getting too airy-fairy, but Okri was on a roll. He read poems like “They tell me that the world is rich with terror, I tell you that the world is rich with love unfound.” His effort at humanism could have given Deepak Chopra a run for his money. Okay, maybe I’m being harsh, but that kind of talk is really not my thing, especially when he talks of words becoming consciousness and reality…? I don’t know, I probably just wasn’t getting all of this. Just when he started on, “To see something, one must first be something” and ended with “It takes a work of art to see a work of art”, everyone started applauding, and I decided I needed a chai to wake myself up.
Most of the other sessions were not my cup of tea (haha) so I tried wandering around the enormous hordes of people at Diggi to catch bits and pieces of random talks, and came across the A.C. Grayling & Steven Pinker intellectual session on the Enlightenment period. Frankly, both are intensely cerebral and entirely wasted on an audience that only made space for idiotic questions like “I’m surprised you didn’t mention the Indian enlightenment period, Mr. Grayling”, and “Why are there no inter-disciplinary studies in universities anymore, Sir?” Grayling’s classic “Um, but there are, where I teach” (Oxford) was unintentionally hilarious. I’m going to try and reserve judgment on the audience quality for the remaining days, but I have to tell you the odds are slim that there are any smart people around in JLF. Also, moderator Vijay Tankha for this session was a total saving grace who handled his conversation with the luminaries with ease and humour.
I have been ruminating on the role JLF should have and could have played in the Rushdie fiasco and I am coming to the conclusion that Charu’s point about the artistic community letting us down has held true. The organisers of the festival want debate and discussion within the purvey of Indian law. But when censorship itself becomes law, what kind of debate are you expecting? The whole affair reeks of a sordid, tepid response. Kumar and Kunzru who so intrepidly read out of Rushdie’s novel yesterday are reported to have fled the country overnight, like this was a bad espionage film. Now the festival wants to look squeaky clean yet moral. As someone responded on Twitter, one can almost hear Pontius Pilate calling for the water at JLF. At the height of Stalin’s purges, Soviet writers willingly went to labour camps and faced firing squads, Lorca was executed despite being apolitical in the Spanish Civil War, and today’s writers want to rock the censorship boat but flee when the consequences get a little hot.
Anyway, tomorrow is D-day, rather O-day, when the Queen of daytime soap makes her daytime JLF appearance.I am dreading the crowds – the start of the weekend has been bad enough, but tomorrow, I’m honestly predicting a stampede to see Oprah Winfrey, who will no doubt wear a saree. I hope I live to tell the tale.