Kalpana Mohan mulls over beginnings, endings, transitions and voices gleaned from The Hindu Lit for Life 2013.
Last October, as I flew over to Chennai from the San Francisco Bay Area, I felt as if shards of my soul were adrift in the cold of the Pacific Ocean below. Would my father be alive when I arrived? Would he walk again? Would he ever again read The Hindu?
Luckily, my father recovered. Once again The Hindu became his beacon of light in the day. “In Palghat (now Palakkad), in the 1930s, we couldn’t afford to buy the paper. We’d run to my uncle’s place to read it. We’d tug at bits of the 20-paged paper and devour the sections,” my father told me the night before The Hindu Lit for Life on February 16 and 17 in Chennai.
“All great newspapers thrive because of their ceaseless engagement with the issues of the day,” observed Dr. Nirmala Lakshman, director, Kasturi & Sons and curator of the festival, during the inauguration. I went back to what my father had told me the evening prior, about how the paper was legendary for both reporting and its support of the arts and culture. Another statement from Lakshman resonated with me in my own journey as a writer, that “much of life’s experiences and truths can be gleaned from literature”. As the last panellist closed the festival at Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao Hall on February 17, one thing stayed with me: great writing was about drilling down to the heart of the matter until it hurt.
A scrutiny by two intellectuals — both unrelenting in their search for the truth — was curated by Gopalkrishna Gandhi in an opening show. My Dear Bapu showcased how his grandfathers peeled the oppressive layers of tradition, belief, superstition and hypocrisy to reveal themselves. Their epistolary exchanges debated, among other things, religion, science, untouchability, fasting and the role of khadi. Rahul Bose (playing Gandhi) and Yog Japee (playing Rajaji) evoked laughter, awe and tears.
Rajaji did not approve of Gandhi’s attraction towards feminist Sarala Devi Chaudhurani. In a blunt letter written in 1920 that went unanswered, Rajaji wrote: “She is like a hundred other women that education makes attractive. It would be like comparing a kerosene oil lamp to the sun. Pray, disengage yourself completely. Come back and give us life.”
Unfortunately, the truth may not always be pleasant to hear, as we saw again in a session titled South of the Vindhyas: Stories from the Southern States with Vaidehi Rao, Sarah Aboobacker and Benyamin that was moderated by Anupama Raju. When Aboobacker first wrote about Muslim women, they were not attending school. “Now they are. But fundamentalism has pushed Muslim women back,” she said.
Like Aboobacker, Benyamin exposed the realities of his world, that of expatriates in the Middle East. Many of them colour the truth to their families in India. “Ninety per cent are leading a pathetic life,” Benyamin said. He hoped that by reading his stories, people would understand that they do in fact “have a choice, a country that they can go back to”; unlike many displaced people who do not have a home due to political turmoil.
The truth is often unsettling, as we heard in the readings by Meena Kandasamy, Jeet Thayil and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra in Rhyme and Reason: The Power of Poetry. The truth makes your teeth tingle and your cheeks burn, as when Kandasamy told us, in a poem titled “Cunning Stunt” that the vagina by any other name is the same and scoffed at the term yoni, a spiritual euphemism in a land where the worship of the woman ended outside the ramparts of a temple.
Many of the presenting writers were preoccupied with authenticity. Nilanjana Roy summed it best during the session with Jerry Pinto in Fiction First: Writing a Stunning Debut Novel. “Before you tell your story with honesty you have to learn to choose honest work.” Pinto reflected on the process of producing the best work: “Only by being the sternest parent you can be can you make a child that someone else can love.” The most truthful writing, however, is one that you do for yourself, not for others, observed Ashok Ferrey in a session called Border Crossings that featured Farah Ghuznavi and Mridula Koshy. As a Bangladeshi writer, Ghuznavi wanted to move beyond stereotypes of South Asians. “People from this part of the world need to be considered exotic also to reinforce stereotypes.” Mayank Austen Soofi attempted to break stereotypes about sex workers in his book, Nobody Can Love You More. He wanted to bring out “the ordinariness of these people who live in an extraordinary world”. They’re so normal, so boring, as bitchy and as nasty as any one of us, he observed. Soofi and Meenal Baghel, author of Death in Mumbai, talked to Ranvir Shah about reporting the fine details to capture truth in non-fiction.
Truth is sometimes stomped on, kicked, disembowelled, killed and buried. Justice has to clean up the mess. Is justice being done at all exactly two months to the day after the gang rape in Delhi, asked Kalpana Sharma, moderator of No Country for Women, in a panel with Kalpana Kannabiran, Nilanjana Roy and Rahul Bose. “There is no way that the law will speak for us if the reality within which the law is operating is unchanged,” said Bose.
A woman in the audience said she was trying hard to raise her daughter without instilling fear into her and stifling her. Why do we ask our daughters to sit properly, wear a dupatta and inform us where they’re going? Should women treat their daughters differently?
A contrast was Shriya Saran’s stance on the objectification of Bollywood women, bothering several in the audience during Kingdom of Dreams moderated by Jerry Pinto. “If you don’t do the role, it will go to someone else. It is, unfortunately, about money,” she said. Decision about dance sequences happened on the fly on a movie set and actresses had to be flexible. Sharmila Tagore, the other speaker, agreed.
Chipping away at the truth, then, is complicated. It’s hard to catch yourself when the truth is at loggerheads with your passion and your ambition. But what happens when your truth tells you to sacrifice your passion because you know that you’re not the best anymore?
In what was one of the best panels of the festival, The Making of a Champion, in which Suresh Menon talked to Michael Ferreira and Sambit Bal, Ferreira was impassioned. “I’m now losing to people who aren’t fit to shine my shoes,” said the billiards world champion, “Can you imagine Sachin leaving the one thing he loves to do?” Sticking to the truth often calls for extraordinary sacrifices of the mind.
The Hindu Lit for Life 2013 ferried me on a journey through art, craft and heart. When I fly home, I will remember Jeet Thayil’s words from his opera, Babur in London: “To be alive is to live in a prison of the senses.”
As I pack to leave, my mind juggles the nuggets I gleaned from the festival about transitions, voices, beginnings, endings and those infinite moments in our daily lives that light up our path towards the universal truth.