There is a moment in Vahid Mousaian’s 2011 film Golchehreh when the central character Ashraf Khan, who owns a cinema theatre in early 90s Afghanistan, is informed that the Najibullah Communist-led government has fallen and the Taliban have control of the city. Ashraf Khan has struggled to keep his cinema alive in the early part of the film, and the news that the increasing opposition by Taliban mullahs will now ban anything cultural etches a profound sadness on his face, along with worry and angst.
Much of that sentiment was echoed at 4 pm in JLF’s central lawn yesterday when festival organisers had to announce that a video link by Rushdie would not go through as planned, because the increasing protests by orthodox Muslims across India had escalated to the point that there were Muslims in the audience who were threatening violence if the video conference was aired. There were rumours also that a large crowd of Muslim protestors was heading towards the venue to create problems. The organisers called it an ‘idiotic situation’, and that they were ‘pushed against the wall’, but made a call to put the safety of attendees first. The responses have been covered over numerous TV channels, including the blistering impromptu panel discussion by Tehelka editors and public figures that included Salim Engineer, secretary of Jamaat-e-Islami explain his side of the protest. For the first time in my life, I started to look around me and actually spot the Muslim faces in the audience, and wonder if a riot would break out any moment. This was bad, we realised, not only, because of free speech, but because we were looking at Muslims as potential rabble-rousers, not as spectators. Couldn’t it have been possible that several Muslims were here to view the conference, to hear what Rushdie had to say?
But yes, these are dark times for India, and we have been in the dark times for a long while now, despite what most people will be willing to admit. There have been several situations all over the country where artists, writers, activists are often subdued by force and debates are silenced in the name of extremely orthodox religion. But to play a little Devil’s advocate here, I’d like to point out that things are not perhaps as bad as they seem – if free speech were such an issue, would Salim Engineer be allowed to have his say on the same stage and media space as a Tarun Tejpal or Javed Akhtar? Would several writers banned in their own states be able to speak on the same platform as Ondaatje and Dawkins? Would this whole Rushdie video link debacle be followed by an Intelligence Squared debate on man vs. God? India exists in plurality, and perhaps we need to see this situation as both bad and good, both unfree, yet free.
So it’s ironic in retrospect that this last day was a day that had a full share of the godly and ungodly sessions. A session on Rumi for instance, had a debate about whether Rumi occupied an Islamic philosophical position in the literary world especially in the West, and the answer was that he usually sat in the self-help feel good section in bookshops. Sunil Kumar astutely pointed out that perhaps Rumi had a different value for different persons depending on your own state of spritual awareness.
And then Javed Akhtar came forth to speak on some of the poems in his new collection ‘Lava’. Akhtar also extrapolated about the ghazal and its traditions, and how it was perhaps under-utilised as a poetic form in the West. The more interesting aspect of this session came from audience questions. A query on how to improve as poet involved some discussion on the difference between art and craft, and how Akhtar thinks ‘All art is the practice of a schizophrenic’, in the sense, that even as an artist is immersed in the imaginative muse, s/he has to be calculatively aware of what kind of craft is being used. The one thing that bothered me was a discussion on critics, and Akhtar jokingly said that critics don’t like anyone who is popular and alive. They have no problem with popular and dead, or unpopular and alive, but it’s popularity in a living, free world that bothers them. This is not the first time I’ve come across artists who dismiss what critics say. Most Indian art forms in the last few decades have been extremely disdainful of the critic’s role in the artistic community. This is a very big problem, because art is rarely standalone pieces of work so much as a cultural discourse of its time. And cultural discourse is impossible without the critic, an external analyser, if you will, who is able to put the art and its cultural value in a certain context. Akhtar went on to say that critics also like to be THE authority on what’s good and what’s not, and perhaps that’s why they dissect art and artists; it’s a validating platform to them. I was not impressed that Javedsaab for all his intellect and liberal attitude was not so different from other egotists who like to think they and their work are above critiquing, and who don’t see the value of criticism in the Indian literary movement. It’s also helpful in noting why the crticial review is a piece sorely missing in the Indian publishing scenario; there are very few widely read film or literary journals in India that respectfully place a critic in the context of discussion.
The next session was the always impressive Richard Dawkins who spoke extensively on his concept of the meme – a cultural unit of society that he likens to a cultural gene. His book The Selfish Gene talks about this in much more detail, but basically, anything like a song, a poem a fashion trend, etc. are all memes as they copy information socially so it can be retained. My favourite part of this section was when Dawkins expounded on a genetic explanation for altruism, something that theists often believe is God-given. Dawkins is funny, unexpectedly modest and a through and through rational, something people in the audience around me kept commenting on, like he was a freak. Dawkins also said that he believes vegetarianism is the humanist rational choice for anyone who wants to be ethical in this world, especially referring to his work on the Great Apes project with Peter Singer. I can keep writing on the Dawkins session – I have four pages of notes from his talk, and being a science buff, it leaves plenty of food for thought, but I will refrain because it does not have too much literary significance.
I briefly attended the Tom Stoppard session, mainly because the Mark Tully session got cancelled. Tom is good, if a bit altruistically misguided when asking the audience for questions instead of randomly talking, and one silly festival attendee asked him to comment on the influence of quantum physics on literature. Like, seriously? Anyway, Tom is a seriously smart playwright and for anyone in the audience who is a theatre-buff, I think his session was hugely useful but for me, it’s not really my area of interest, so I drifted.
Finally, came the Intelligence Squared debate, which I had much hopes for, but which anti-climactically bad. Firstly, the question framed was just stupid – This House Believes That Man Has Replaced God. To what context, I am not sure they wanted to mention, but the question already pre-supposes the existence of God, in which case having a debate or polarised argument is pretty moot, no? A better way to phrase it would have been ‘Man has replaced the concept of God’. But then they compounded it by having guests such as Swami Agnivesh and Salim Engineer who are not apologists of any order. You may as well have invited Zakir Naik, the so-called apologist for Islam as a guest and it would at least have been entertaining. Or Sri Sri Sri Ravishankar who possesses some reasoning capacity. Instead there were 5 atheists facing off 3 irrational ambiguous rhetoric-spewing theists, in a totally pointless argument. Considering Dawkins has had magnificent debates with the likes of Alistair McGrath and A.E. Wilder Smith, and has often said he doesn’t want to debate with creationists in a public forum (as it validates theism to the public that both stances are viable, whereas creationism is just unscientific and unsupportable), I wonder why he agreed to this so-called debate. I am now afraid Dawkins may think India and its idiotic illogic may not be worth a revisit, and I hope if he is here for any other talks, he finds a more intelligent, nuanced audience. i should mention Akhtar and Aruna Roy was surprisingly good in this debate too.
So, that concludes my roundup of this highly dramatic, eventful Jaipur Literature Festival. I intend to write one more post, perhaps comparing this experience to my experience with Melbourne Writers Festival, and maybe speak a little bit on the programming and infrastructure of JLF as far as liteary festivals go. There are some interesting points of difference and worth noting, and they deserve some commentary so I hope soon, that I can post again.