Jibes from Amartya Sen, dull conversations on identity by feminist writers, LitCrit, conversations on the India connection and more. The writer on the sessions and personalities that held her interest at the just-concluded literature festival.
I have been on a magical little cloud ever since I heard Amartya Sen recounting his celestial encounter with the Goddess of Medium Things (GMT), it’s a joy to hear his irony and gentle humour that includes some fine rapier thrusts. His meeting with GMT also holds a wicked, elliptical reference to Arundhati Roy’s GST. Toting up his wish list for the country, Dr. Sen takes a swipe at the saffronites: “My big political wish is to have a strong and flourishing right-wing party that is secular and not communal.” Indian leftists get a punch in the belly too: “The Indian Left is the only remaining political group in the world on whom the mantle of fighting American imperialism has fallen… I would like the parties of the left to be stronger, but also more clear-minded and much more concentrated on removing severe deprivations of the really poor and downtrodden people of India.” Yet another jibe: “I would like the media to be more responsive to the needs of the poorest people, and less single-minded in their coverage of the world of glitzy entertainment and shining business opportunities. The most vibrant media in the world is so silent on the needs and predicaments of the poorest.” Only Amartya Sen could have carried off so many complaints and grouses with such grace.
But the next session brings me back to the ground with a thud. “Freedom” is meant to be a conversation with American novelist and essayist Jonathan Franzen. But it’s hardly a conversation; more like one-sided questioning that is met with hostile monosyllabic responses like “Nope” or “Good question”. There have been no introductions or preliminaries. Around me, I can hear restless voices wonder what the session is about. “Isn’t it supposed to be about Freedom?” “Yes, but that’s the title of his book. But they’re not talking about that novel.” “Well, why doesn’t he say what he’s talking about?” As the mini-exodus around me swells, I can afford the luxury of occupying two seats, lifting my bag off the floor to let it nestle by my side.
Ananda Devi from Mauritius, an effective and intelligent speaker, is cleverly interviewed by Urvashi Butalia, who is one of the most hard-working and consistently-prepared moderators to grace the Jaipur Litfest’s panels. Devi talks about her childhood in Mauritius and her lifelong fascination with violence. She speaks eloquently, even passionately of her connection to India. What is more, she makes perfect sense. Why, then, are her books so bad — precious, laboured, over the top? Like most writers from former French colonies, (Camus and Franz Fanon being notable exceptions), she has been bitten by the French yen for intellectualism that leads her into... an intellectual wilderness.
Unlike Amartya Sen’s Goddess of Medium Things, I cannot be everywhere at the same time. and these jottings are perforce just that — mere musings, an incomplete itsy-bitsy recounting of the Jaipur Literature Festival 2014, with its gathering of over 200 authors. Certainly, the event was better organised than it has ever been; the volunteers were wonderful. Although there was a wide variety of subjects including heavy matters such as war, the environment, poverty, equality or democracy and a few very personal sessions on individual writers’ craft, this was far from being an unforgettable Jaipur. The quality of discourse was not always of a very high standard. A few discussions, despite boasting a bevy of well-known literary names, were downright pedestrian (e.g. “The Global Novel” or “The Literature of War and Revolution”). A couple of moderators stood out in their ability to cleverly steer sessions forward while keeping modest profiles themselves. A rarity.
Litcrit. Not a woman on stage but a gang of vociferous, jousting lads, determined to get the better of each other. “What do you want from reviewers? What makes a good review?” asks Homi Bhabha in his plummy, pontificating voice. The two Indians on the panel, Rana Dasgupta and Chandrahas Chaudhury, say little allowing the likes of Geoff Dyer and Philip Henscher to get into early quarrels with Carsten Jensen, the only European on the panel, whose ideas Dyer dismisses as “daft and unsustainable or the other way around”. Carsten later confides that he cannot “bear the arrogance and the self-sufficiency of the Anglo-Saxons”. That said, the session is both rewarding and entertaining and Bhabha, for all his plumminess, is able to extract several interesting opinions from his somewhat boisterous lads-only panel.
The same cannot be said about the rather plodding Antara Dev Sen whose panel ‘Burdens of Identity’ with three women writers — Israel’s Zeruya Shalev, Namita Gokhale and Salma — becomes a dull discussion on essentially how women manage to keep their careers as writers going with their other identities. Salma is, by far, the most interesting when she talks about how she was practically ostracised by the Muslim community for what was dubbed “semi-porn”. “I lost the election,” she confesses with a half-smile, recounting how voters were sent “shocking extracts” from her writing.
There is too much happening in Jaipur. Running parallel to the main Literature Festival is Bookmark, a commercial event that tried — for the first time — to bring together publishers, agents and translators at a separate venue. Bloomsbury’s Alexandra Pringle makes a weak attempt to justify the pathetically small number of books published in translation by Anglo-Saxon publishers each year (four per cent compared to over 30 per cent in Europe), saying there has been a massive increase in the number of books penned in English across the world, essentially by citizens of former British colonies. In fact, Spanish is the world’s fastest growing language and the Hispanic publishing industry offers an astonishing number of books not only by Spanish and Latin American authors but works in translation as well.
Has history struck back with the likes of Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington getting their just deserts? Has globalisation collapsed? Former French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine, a sharp and sanguine observer of the power play between nations, shared the stage with John Ralston Saul, essayist, novelist, and President of Pen International. Shashi Tharoor was to have moderated but couldn’t and the festival erred in not providing a substitute. Vedrine was at a disadvantage since he was speaking through an interpreter and his views on how power shifts could be negotiated in a fast-changing global landscape were completely overshadowed by Saul who made little effort to include the Frenchman in the conversation. What could have been a good discussion became a soliloquy. “I don’t agree with his views. I don’t think there is room for global negotiation of that kind,” Saul told me later in emphatic self-justification. Thanks to the lack of a moderator, the audience was deprived of the views of an intelligent and observant man who has huge experience of raw power as manifest in wars and coups d’ etat and the more rarefied spheres of high diplomacy.
“Justice: What is the right thing to do?” Michael Sandel’s lecture on the notion of justice was immensely impressive especially in the way in which he managed to elicit reasoned responses from dozens of young people. Is it right and just that Sachin Tendulkar earns $ 22 million a year? If so why? Is it only merit that counts? What about social equality? Should there be reservations for the so-called lower castes and for women? It was clear where the majority of opinion lay. No reservations, only merit. Sachin is a God and, as such, deserves every penny he gets by way of endorsements... India has taken to free-market economics and globalisation like duck to water. Sandel, a renowned Harvard Professor whose lectures are packed to capacity, was astonishingly agile in weaving together cohesive arguments, forcing the audience to think. You could literally hear the gears grind as long unused mental wheels began to turn….
‘Magnificent Delusions’. A wonderful analysis of Indo-Pak relations by Hussain Haqqani and Robert Blackwill ably steered by Shyam Saran. Pakistan and the U.S. with India squashed in-between. Some welcome frank talking there. A salute to Namita Gokhale, the festival’s co-director, for raising the question of our disappearing languages — Andamanese, Himachali among others.
End Piece: If there was a medal this year for the most narcissistic, self-obsessed and pushy writer at the festival, it would undoubtedly go to the impossible Iranian Fariba Hatchroudi. She pulled every trick in the book, bulldozing her way onto panels, haranguing publishers and arm-twisting agents. Not to speak of journalists — for interviews, of course!