Jaipur Literature Festival 2012: Day 4

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Many sessions have been cancelled or rehashed due to the early exit of the 4 controversial authors. Annie Proulx couldn’t make it due to bad weather in Canada. This only makes my ‘avoid the big names’ theory more valid.

Anyway, Day 4 has been an up and down sorta day.

To start off, we had the Bollywood-focus session with Javed Akhtar, Prasoon Joshi, Gulzar and Vishal Bharadwaj titled Kahaani Kise Kehte Hain: Script, Story, Screenplay. It seems like crowds from Delhi had arrived only for this one session. A catfight erupted in the row in front of us regarding seats, and had to be settled by security staff. And then the MC Catriona introduced the session totally butchering the Hindi title to much laughter from the audience. I have a theory about the use of British Council people introducing sessions that I will elaborate on a bit later.

Anyway, I am typing this while waiting for the Richard Dawkins session to begin, and I’m glad to report the crowds have finally reduced and there have been smaller queues, less jostling and a more good-humoured crowd, which makes for a pleasanter experience.

There has also been some buzz generated on Twitter through this latest piece by S. Anand who I covered yesterday in a JLF session, and who has now resorted to LitFest-bashing in the news: http://www.firstpost.com/living/the-tragedy-and-farce-of-jlf-the-greatest-literary-show-190696.html

Whether you think it’s warranted or not, is of course, up to you.

So to begin with, the Kahaani session was moderated by Samit Basu who began by saying the moderator of the previous day’s session made him want to go put a plastic bucket on her head to shut her up. People cheered, and so did I. The panel then discussed the difference between script and screenplay, Javed Akhtar called the script the ‘what’ and the screenplay the ‘how’. Prasoon Joshi then spoke on how cinema is experential, a collective consumption whereas a book is individually absorbed. Vishal Bharadwaj spoke about his films and how his trick in pinpointing the story and screenplay was in explaining the premise of the film in a single line, and then splitting it into 3 parts which will form the 3-act structure. For instance, Omkara’s premise, based on Othello. was ‘Jealousy — destroys both itself — and the object of jealousy’, and the 3 parts it splits into are also highlighted.

Javed Akhtar interjected here, and talked a bit about the differences between the Indian narrative style and the Western narrative style. Akhtar performed a wonderful impromptu scene from an old school theatrical film, with flowery, overtly dramatic dialogue to highlight Hindi cinema’s Urdu-Parsi theatre heritage. He had a very valid point to make that India had inherited its form of narrative, and had not invented it. This was a critical point of debate in newly independent India where critics often pointed to Kurosawa and Kieslowski and the lack in Indian cinema’s artistic intentions. But Akhtar explained how cinema in Japan and Europe have been practically made extinct of late through the onslaught of Hollywood, while Indian cinema still occupies a unique cultural space in the Indian audience.

He gave an example of how European cinema could show a boy and a girl who meet at a train station, stand on opposite corners of the platform, wait for the train and with no dialogue and minimal music, board different trains and head off on their own journeys, but an Indian audience will not be satisfied with such cinema. At this, Gulzar added that the Indian version of this would involve a significant backstory about why the girl had run away from home, a musical interlude of their falling in love while waiting for the train, and for added drama, maybe a crisis where the girl realises that the boy is not rich or employed, and faced with the very real complications of having to live with him decide not to be with him and so at the end of the film, they decide to board different trains and with a tragic song, the credits would roll. Loud applause immediately followed this improvised scripting. They also did a similar reworking of the hare and tortoise story, but to repeat it prosaically here would be downplaying the marvellous spontaneity and humour of the whole process, so I’ll just say, you HAD to have been there.

I’m not entirely sure why I picked this session; there wasn’t any other interesting session at the same time, and I wanted to stay for The Short Story one that was to follow. Plus, I do like Gulzar and Akhtar’s humour, and Vishal’s earthy logic, so this was a hugely interesting session. Let me also say, Javed Akhtar is a skilled raconteur, and watching him match wits with Gulzar and the others was a treat. The session ended when Gulzar surprised Akhtar by revealing a copy of his latest book – yet to hit the shelves – and had him read from the new collection there.

The next session was The Short Story. I was really looking forward to Annie Proulx in this session for her beautifully sparse, minimalistic style that complements the short story form so well, but we were informed bad weather had made travelling impossible for her, so we had the remaining authors moderated by Michael Ondaatje, who was filling in for Hari Kunzru. This session was strictly so-so, because I think Ondaatje was unprepared and was hoping the writers would guide the discussion themselves, but as they were too disparate a lot, that didn’t quite happen. Linda Spalding made some cliched crack about how the short story was like a one-night stand, and the talk got minorly interesting when they discussed notions of time within the short story. The only other memorable moment was when an audience member asked the authors why there wasn’t more of a platform for short stories apart from The New Yorker. I thought it was an incredibly juvenile question to ask, and if anyone calls themselves a good reader they should be aware of several magazines and reviews out there that do publish short stories, particularly by new, lesser known writers, and many of them have a highly active net presence. JLF’s own Little Magazines session could have been a start, surely. It seems to me Indian writers don’t read anything beyond the big names and publications in the limelight, and unsmart readers are just plain silly. But you have to hand it to the brilliantly droll Jamaica Kincaid who in the tone of your favourite aunt giving advice said, “I don’t believe it’s right to make us responsible for your publishing woes. This is not a workshop for aspiring writers,” which of course went down great with the audience.

The next session I sat in for was the Adaptations one, moderated by the excellent Girish Karnad who handled the guests like a pro. I wasn’t extremely keen on this session as much of it had to do with adapting from book or stage to film, and issues with fidelity to the source material, and directorial intentions, etc. I did find out Lionel Shriver was a woman only at this session, which was kind of embarrassing, and Karnad also handled some really imbecilic audience questions with some tact.

It seems from all of the various sessions over the last few days, the average JLF attendee is not very well-read, extremely ambitious and so self-important. Someone on Twitter snarkily remarked that JLF was a great idea until South Delhi got a hold of it, and there have been more than a few mutterings abut how the elite Delhi crowd has taken over the audience. It’s embarrassing to think international guests of the calibre of Steven Pinker, A. C. Grayling, Richard Dawkins, Arvind Mehrotra have to deal with immature juvenile questions, but it’s infintely bad as well that Indian guests of the calibre of Vishal Bharadwaj has to be accused of disrespecting Shakespeare from an audience member claiming to be ‘from literature’. Hell, I’ll just go on saying that, shall I? “Excuse me, Mr. Dalrymple, I am from literature, and I think Rushdie is from literature, and we should all just love each other and not ban books, kthxbai.”

Anyway, I don’t know if we should blame this as a South Delhi or South Bombay or South Indian phenomenon or whatever. I think the generations of substandard arts education in our schools and colleges are seeing fruit in arts events of this kind. We are not really a culture that understands critical thought and debate, especially when it hasn’t been taught to us as a valuable method of understanding the world. So when an audience member confronts Richard Dawkins by arrogantly stating, “You need to know about atheist traditions in India”, only someone with profound humility can say to the crowd listening in, “Yes, there is a lot I have to learn about India.” When you consider the man is a much felicitated academic and scientist from Oxford, it underscores the huge difference in this South whatever attitude and a scholarly modesty.

Okay, I’ll get off my high horse for a bit.

In the afternoon, I attended the Writing and Insularity session, which was about writing on or about islands, but as most of the authors on this panel from the island nations had migrated to the UK or US, I didn’t think the debate was as meaningful as it could have been. Again, the only person who stood out from that session was Jamaica Kincaid, who on being asked if her racial identity was ever an issue as an author from the West Indies, said very poker-faced, “I think everyone is black until someone tells me that I am in fact, black or that someone else isn’t”. How can you not love her?

I did attend the Stalin session by Stalin biographer Simon Montefiore, mainly because I think my knowledge of 20th century Russian history is a bit lacking, but this probably wasn’t the most useful session that way. It dealt a lot with the personal Stalin, his relationship with his wife and family, how his politics unfolded with the politics of the USSR at the time, and was interesting from an anecdotal point of view.

I tried to hang around the Afropolitan discussion just as the Dawkins event began, and briefly heard the start of Okri and Teju Cole speak about being African, and I have to say Teju Cole is just… awesome. He’s witty and articulate and hot. Yes, yes, I have a wee bit of a crush, but how can you not when the guy says he’s a pessimist but an ‘open-minded’ one? Anyway, I’d dearly have loved to stay, but I wasn’t going to miss out on Dawkins, so I had to sacrifice.

Finally, I started this post while waiting for Dawkins to take the stage for a reading from his latest work. I don’t think Dawkins has the best approach of the Four Horsemen; my favourite is the softer, more humane Sam Harris or even Hitchens’ acerbic wit, but Dawkins is clearly the best writer of them, with a rich appreciation for poetry and art. So his reading from Unweaving the Rainbow was articulate, lyrical and yes, confronting for any believer. What astonished me – and I don’t use the term lightly – was the quality of audience questions. There was only one real idiotic question that I covered above, and the rest were intelligent, respectful and appreciative of Dawkins’ fearful intellect. Javed Akhtar surprised the audience but speaking up and saying he believed Dawkins was one of the 3 greatest intellectuals in the world, which an abashed Dawkins waved off, and proceeded to also ask an intelligent question. Dawkins will be at the Intelligence Squared debate tomorrow,which I am hugely looking forward to. I have attended an I2 debate in Mebourne before and it’s a traditional British form of back and forth argument that makes for delightful watching, and Akhtar and Dawkins are on the same panel and I’m quite looking forward to it.

Also, fingers crossed for Salman Rushdie. I think it’s time everyone else shuts up and lets him talk, no? So, I wholeheartedly recommend you sign the petition here:

http://www.change.org/petitions/prime-minister-india-reconsider-the-ban-on-salman-rushdies-the-satanic-verses#

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