Jaipur Literature Festival 2012: Day 3


And the drama only continues around JLF.

First, let me link to a couple of statements surrounding the Satanic Verses issue, if you haven’t already read about the whole thing through Twitter.

Hari Kunzru’s statement on the events: http://www.harikunzru.com/archive/reading-satanic-verses-jaipur-2012

William Dalrymple’s statement on how things unfolded: http://www.firstpost.com/india/i-had-no-idea-reading-from-the-satanic-verses-is-a-crime-dalrymple-189924.html

I’ve already said much of how I felt in yesterday’s post, but this quote by Dalrymple is quite telling, “We can support free speech right up to the point that they break the law.” Really, should anyone have to point out the fallacy of that statement? Either free speech IS the law, or it isn’t.

Anyway, there have been several WTF moments throughout the day, starting with the very first, when Namita Gokhale introduced the Kabir and Dadu Dayal session by saying Kabir was, ‘Another Oprah Winfrey of another time, but who just wasn’t on TV’.

*crickets sound in the silence*

Yes well, Namita was saved only by the awesomeness of this session that included the likes of the awesome Shabnam Virmani, the awesome Purushottam Agrawal and the awesome Arvind K. Mehrotra – absolutely no sarcasm here. Shabnam started the session with a Kabir gem in her typical tambura-enhanced voice, and went on to quote the Kabir couplet that translates roughly to, “Reading a way, you become a stone, writing a way you become brick, and then you become unable to be melted by even a little bit of love”. Shabnam asserted that her knowledge of Kabir is through song, that the knowledge of the mind is divisive, it involves fragmenting and labelling, but the knowledge of the body intuits deeper connections. In particular with Kabir’s poetry, her experience with Kabir panthis has evolved her spirituality through song and experience, rather than just words and poetry.

There was one thing Shabnam said that struck something in me, that songs tend to fly across borders and godmen and corporations and governments, while words remain frozen on a page, ad that’s why the medium of song matters to her. I didn’t quite agree, don’t books fly too? Can’t they be passed on translated, collected and recited? I just have to take the side of literature on this.

Monika Boehm-Tettlebach was next, an academic on Dadu Dayal, who was a Gujarati-Rajasthani devotional saint who lived on similar non-orthodox spiritual lines as Kabir. Monika spoke briefly on the importance of lay people keeping alive oral Bhakti traditions, and how folk singers competke with a shallower music of the media.

She was followed by the highly impressive Agrawal, who emphasised two aspects of Kabir- that while Kabir is unique, but he is not alone in the tradition of Bhakti poets, he isn’t an accident of history but part of an ongoing culture of bhakti. The second point he made was that Kabir’s idea of love is disturbing, as it involved not just ruthless self-interrogation but interrogation of everyone around you. Kabir’s poetry is often seen in today’s Hindu-Muslim context, but when you consider it was written 500 years ago in a highly orthodox religious, casteist setup, Kabir’s notion of love was not anti-intellectual, anti-rational, but quite the opposite. He challenged traditional classical Sanskrit mantras with colloquial talk of faith. Agrawal is very much an expert on the rational, intellectual, argumentative Kabir, and stresses that he was drawn to Kabir as a poet much before any spiritual fascination took ahold of him.

This is polar to Arvind Mehrotra’s interest in Kabir, who he says is a poet of hatred, a poet of death. Mehrotra is a staunch atheist, but he drawn to the fact that had Kabir existed today, he would probably be arrested for disturbing the peace. Another interesting aspect of Kabir Mehrotra mentioned was the fact that there is no historical Kabir, he exists entirely in the oral imaginations of bhakti poets, practitioners and singers. It’s fascinating to think that Kabir could well be a literary hoax, a created romantic figure, were it not for the efforts of a community to sustain facets of his spirituality.

Anyway, if you are not a Kabir-fan (I hesitate to use the word bhakt — I am not a believer in any tradition, but a student of Kabir’s poetics), you are probably bored by this so far. But no fear, the drama in the next few sessions would have been enough to last you a long time. Because most of the Kabir session was interrupted by security and preparatons for Oprah’s grand entry at JLF.

What can I possibly say about Oprah that hasn’t already been said on Twitter?

OMG youguyz, Sabya’s totally designed her like the perfect outfit!

The 3 things she’ll take back about India, “The traffic – what ARE you guys doing out there? Red lights, are they there for your entertainment?”


“And the fact that you all have altars in your house, I mean even the slum people have altars, Aishwarya has altars, it’s like you all LIVE your religion!”

Hmmm, altars? Whatever, Oprah said ‘Aishwarya’. *more applause*

“And the living with the family, I sototally didn’t get that, but after having dinner with three generations of a family, I sototallydo. It’s all about the family, y’all!”

*wild whistling and clapping*

“We love you Oprah!”

Anyway, if you’re wondering how I sat through such riveting conversation, I didn’t, I got up to just about make it to the Literature of Protest session, which I am very glad to say was sototallymoreawesome than Oprah’s biggest giveaway.

I walked in just in time as the session moderator, publisher, S. Anand read a symbolic passage from Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, which I want to quote:

What kind of idea are you? Are you the kind that compromises, does deals, accomodates itself to society, aims to find a niche, to survive; or are you the cussed, bloody-minded, ramrod-backed type of damnfool notion that would rather break than sway with the breeze? – The kind that will almost certainly, ninety-nine times out of hundred, be smashed to bits; but, the hundredth time, will change the world.

The session proceeded with Sri Lankan Tamil poet in exile, Cheran, who did a reading of his poetry. S. Anand followed with some direct, attacking questions to the other guests starting with Malayalam writer, K. Satchidanandan, asking him his opinion on the level of corporate corruption versus the state, which is the form of protest most people take up, in particular highlighting some of the venue names at JLF, for instance, the TATA Steel front lawns, the IDFC Durbar Hall, etc. In his own words, Anand suggested that we were getting into a lifestyle where we were being co-opted into corporate funding and sponsorship. Satchidanandan admitted it is a problem but when direct confrontation is not effective, We had to find modes within the system. He asked, ” Can we keep our words clean and the protest burning?”

S. Anand then went on to ask “What do we do with banned books?”, in the sense, once a book is banned,what next? To this, Satchidanandan replied, “When a book is banned, you have already failed as a society.” That was probably my favourite comment of the day. He also suggested that sone writers were of the opinion that certain subjects were untreatable, like people say poetry is impossible after Auschwitz, but it’s not. The question should be what kind of poetry is now possible, because we need to adapt, to evolve, rather than to treat subjects only in acceptable ways.

Then, it came to my favourite find of this year’s JLF, Charu Nivedita. Charu spoke of having to self-publish because his protest didn’t really have a space in Tamil Nadu’s literature. He said, “I exiled myself”, because apparently no one reads anymore in Tamil Nadu. Charu also called Karunanidhi the ‘Kapil Sibal of Tamil Nadu’ – to much applause – and had much to say about Tamil pop culture. He then read a wonderful section from his short story “Message Bearers from Stars and Necrophiles”. I am starting to despair most of his work may remain untranslated, and I may have to learn to read Tamil if I am ever to read all of it. Also, Charu was interrupted by Anand in his reading, which seems to be a habit of the JLF moderators – is it so hard to talk to a writer before the session starts telling him/her how the talk will be structured, how long you’d like them to speak and when he should do his reading? It seems much of the moderating is spontaneous, but more significantly, just downright rude. To compound it by saying, “Or we’ll run out of time” is even more insulting – next time, maybe these sessions should actually be planned by the moderators in advance?

The final speaker was Gogu Shyamala, a Dalit Telugu writer who wryly said her identity at JLF was the Telangana Telugu writer. She spoke of how her writing didn’t feel like a protest; she wrote for her aesthetics, and others call her writing a protest. Some of the conversation was in Telugu, so I couldn’t follow it. But what was again appalling was the patronising way Anand stepped in to correct Shyamala’s English pronunciation. I don’t think any of us in the audience minded her slower reading and painstaking effort in pronouncing the words right, but Anand interrupting to correct her like she was five years old was just not right.

The real drama hit the roof when the floor was open for discussion, and an audience member asked Cheran about the Indian government’s role in the Tamil genocide. Cheran said he spoke with the risk of never getting an Indian visa again, but yes, he believed the government of India was complicit in the Tamil genocide.

Another audience member stood up to ask Anand about the reading of the Verses, and Anand said quite openly that he found it problematic that not only were writers who defied the ban by reading asked to leave the festival by its organisers, but that they were also made to sign statements absolving the festival of all responsibility. When an organiser in the audience tried to say something, Namita Gokhale stormed in and chose to respond to Anand, saying that it would be a disservice to the 260 other writers and the the 50,000 participants to focus on just one writer and his book. She also said that while we should discuss Rushdie and read Rushdie, and it’s perhaps for the worse that his book was banned, but that writers should read and discuss it at their own time.

It seemed in between that Namita tried to deny that organisers had asked their authors to leave, but when Nilanjana stood up to point out that she had been personally present when Thayil was asked, Namita diplomatically stated that they were concerned for the well-being of the four authors in question. One of CNN IBN’s journalists – I think it’s Anubha Bhonsle – stood up to point out that the authors on stage were also banned in their own states and hometowns, and that maybe too much focus was on Rushdie, which many agreed with. Clearly, the audience was abuzz when Anand closed the session with Satchidanandan’s reading of a poem for Irom Sharmila.

I only stayed for one more session, Writer as Exile which had an interesting mix of speakers from Pakistan, Iran, Lebanon and Burma and nearly all of them were living in exile in the UK or US. The crowds had clearly come for Fatima Bhutto, and were impatient when Kamin Mohammadi and Hanan al-Shaykh spoke of their experience of being in exile. William Dalrymple who moderated the session seemed a little too pally when conversing with Fatima Bhutto, but that may have just been my snarky side making up for my frustration with the insane number of people in Diggi today. I didn’t quite enjoy this session as much as I thought I would have, because I was hoping it would explore the idea that the writer’s act of writing is itself an exile, and their circumstances could mirror that experience well. But much of the talk was around romanticised ideas of the homeland, which I don’t necessarily subscribe to, especially considering most of these people didn’t seem like they’d be willing to give up their cushy First World lifestyles in exchange for living in their homeland again. There didn’t really seem that much of a sense of nostalgia in their words either, but I’m willing to admit I didn’t quite get it. I also wondered at this crush to see Fatima Bhutto. Would there be such interest in her if she wasn’t young and pretty?

Anyway, hopefully tomorrow JLF will get a post-Oprah lull and I can finally find some seats in the sessions. Also, Nilanjana Roy will put up her petition to Unban the Verses online tomorrow and I’m hoping to link that in.

I also think I’ve figured out how to select the best sessions in JLF – avoid the big names and the celebrities, and I find that those have often been the best sessions, whether it was discovering Oloixarac and Nivedita, or watching Virmani and Mehrotra and Agrawal talk about their passion for Kabir, or Grayling and Pinkers uber-intellectual discussion on the context of the Enlightenment, or even the little magazines session where I think I found some new reading material. The big names have so far been a disappointment. I’m hoping Annie Proulx won’t be, so fingers crossed.


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