“I am interested in the question of love. What happens to us when we fall in love and how human beings are capable of entertaining contradictory emotions, sentiments, attitudes,” Orhan Pamuk, Turkey's only winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, said at the jam-packed sunny lawns of the Diggi Palace here on Friday, as the sixth edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival got under way.
Mr. Pamuk, one of the main draws at the first of the five-day festival, Asia's largest with an expected 40,000 visitors, was discussing one of his most acclaimed novels The Museum of Innocence. “I wanted to look at the infatuation of an elegant Turkish man in the 70s and 80s and examine issues such as sexual politics, the taboo of virginity and the everyday rituals that make up a love story. I do believe, rather naively perhaps, that the human heart is the same everywhere, though our histories, cultures, classes and individual stories make us different. I deliberately wished to write about love but not to put it on a pedestal. Love attaches itself to objects, because collecting, gathering, cataloguing, categorising lend meaning to objects. They bring the past back to us,” he said.
The celebrated author, who has been translated into 58 languages, said he was not naturally of a political bent, but he felt forced to take up positions that could be seen as political because he had to defend his integrity and dignity when attacked. “I do not have a political agenda. I do not have a utopian or political message. These things fall on me or rather I fall into political debates because I have to defend my dignity and integrity as an author.”
Several celebrity faces, including those of Junot Diaz, Vikram Seth, Gulzar, Pawan Verma, Javed Akhtar, Neel Mukherjee, Roma Tearne, Gita Hariharan, Mamang Dai, Rana Dasgupta and Sheldon Pollock, often surrounded by hordes of admiring fans, mingled with the hundreds of visitors and delegates. In all, more than 200 writers will participate in over a hundred sessions of panel discussions, individual interviews and workshops over the next five days.
The Pakistani mother-daughter duo of Kamila and Muneeza Shamshie, in conversation with Urvashi Butalia, Director of Zubaan publications and an advisor to the Festival, discussed questions of partition in the conflicting comparative Indo-Pak national narrative in a session entitled Two Nations, Two Narratives. “The two narratives on Partition do not meet at all and until they do there cannot be a way forward,” said Muneeza Shamsie, an eminent critic, writer and anthologist.
Kamila Shamsie read out two passages which reflected astonishingly similar attitudes to partition, one from Attia Hossein's famous 1961 work Sunlight on a Broken Column, which many critics continue to regard as one of the most perceptive accounts of the division of India as seen from a wealthy zamindari point of view, and a passage from her own novel Salt and Saffron, published more than three decades later.
“While the breakup of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh is important to us and has figured prominently in my novel Cartography, my generation which is the Zia-Ul-Haq generation, is more preoccupied with Afghanistan, the Islamisation of our society, and what is happening to us today,” Kamila Shamsie said.
Asked about the blasphemy law and the recent assassination of Salmaan Taseer, the Governor of Punjab province and father of writer Atish Taseer, both mother and daughter said they felt insulted that their opinion had even been sought on an issue of that nature. “I am too deeply hurt. I find it offensive that we should be questioned on such an issue,” Kamila said, while her mother was so choked with emotion that she was unable to respond.
These Hills Called Home, a book by Temsula Ao from Shillong, brought together three women writers from the Northeast — Anjum Hasan, who grew up in Shillong, and Temsula and Mamang Dai from Arunachal Pradesh. The discussion, chaired by Sanjoy Hazarika, revolved round issues of leaving, and returning to, the place we call home.
In his introduction, Hazarika pointed out that Shillong is closer to Kunming and Hanoi than Delhi, but that distance was not just physical — it was also in the head and the heart, with the discussants repeatedly referring to India as the “mainland” for want of a better word.
“How does one deal with nostalgia, memory, irony, humour — maybe, the place I left behind is also the place I belong to,” Anjum Hasan said.