Verse, prose, a story of the past, the current feminism scenario… all rounded off with a dash of multi-cultural music. The author provides interesting nuggets from Day 1 of The Hindu Lit For Life 2014

Poetry With Gulzar

At the launch of a new book of verse Pluto on Day 1 of The Hindu Lit For Life 2014, the Chennai audience got a rare peek at the writing process of Gulzar and the challenges that translation poses. Introduced by The Hindu’s senoir deputy editor Ziya Us Salam, Gulzar, who has written poetry and lyrics for Hindi films besides directing some of Bollywood’s finest films over the last few decades, was in conversation with Pavan K. Varma, who has translated several of the poet’s works.

“In the recent past when scientists announced that Pluto was not a planet, I really related to that. I was an oddity in my family — a poet. So I wanted to write around this theme,” said the poet. Describing Gulzar’s blank verse, Pavan said, “In his works, you can see what it means to chisel a point to its highest potency so that it strikes you with physical force! In Hindustani, simple blank verse, he covers hitherto unwritten subjects such as Mumbai’s underbelly.”

The two proceeded to read their respective works. While Gulzar read a poem in Hindustani, Pavan read its translation. At times, Pavan even attempted to translate a few poems spontaneously. Two poems that stood out were ‘Books’ and ‘Old Lady’. While the former was a beautiful lament on books losing out to computers, the latter was a moving poem about how we live together, but die alone. “When I was the Indian ambassador to Bhutan, one day we had an informal reading of poems by Gulzar in my drawing room,” said Pavan. “When I asked him to read the poem ‘Old Lady’, Gulzar asked me for the page number and the King of Bhutan who was in the audience replied with the page number! That’s how moving it is.” The two also read from Yudhister Yudhishthir and Draupadi by Pavan and translated by Gulzar.

Hill Vale And Many A Tale

Introduced by Stephen Alter, Hill Vale And Many A Tale directed by Neela Venkatraman, a film on writers in Mussoorie and Dehradun was screened as part of the fest. Mussoorie Writers, which produced this film, is an informal organisation of writers who call Mussoorie and Dehradun their home. The short documentary captures what the hills mean to writers — from Ruskin Bond to Tom Alter — and why these mountains make for the best setting for writers.

Launch Of Idris: Keeper Of The Light

Between the many sessions during the first day of the fest, Naomi Wolf launched Anita Nair’s newest book Idris: Keeper Of The Light. “This historical novel set in Southern India is important because, I understand that the history of these periods in India are recorded by outsiders and the stories we know are from their perspectives,” said Naomi.

“Everything that we know as our reality today was different or perhaps didn’t exist in the 1700s. Caste was much more rigid; the world was different... For this novel I researched everything about that period, from what plants were there to what people ate. How many of us know that there were many diamond mines in India. Where are they now?” asked Anita Nair.

The book is about a man from Somali who spends a passionate night with a Nair woman, who then becomes pregnant. The man returns a few decades later and the journey of the father and son together is what Idris is all about.

The Art Of The Literary Novel

The conversation between authors Jim Crace and Abraham Verghese — The Art of the Literary Novel, moderated by David Godwin, was peppered with pearls of wisdom that kept the audience hooked. Discussing the differences of non-fiction and the beauty of literary prose, the panellists spoke about the importance of imagination and storytelling. “We must tell lies because unlike other animals we have been given the gift of making up a tale,” Jim Crace said. “Sometimes making up a tale is a generosity. For instance, when you ask someone how their day was, how boring would it be if they just repeated their day just as it was?” The audience laughed, and Jim added, “Wouldn’t it be better if we rearranged the day to reveal nuggets and finished it off with a punch line?” More laughter.

Abraham Verghese added that in his opinion literary novels are works of collective effort. “The writer provides the words and the reader provides the imagination!” And Jim agreed. “When I read a novel I am always curious as to what the character looks like and I imagine them to be a certain way. And when it’s adapted into a movie I do feel a sense of loss.” The duo also discussed why while one (Abraham) uses autobiographical settings for his works, the other (Jim) invents whole new landscapes, people, norms and even animals! The writers spoke of their favourite literary novels such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and R.K. Narayan’s works as well. Abraham, a renowned physician, also told the audience that he insisted all his students read The Death Of Ivan Ilyich by Tolstoy.

Answering an audience question, Jim Crace said that the role of a news journalist — be it television or print — is a lot more pivotal than that of a literary writer for, he deals with people of varied interests and has to appeal to them while a novelist knows exactly what his readers like. “My readers think exactly like me. While I was a journalist, I wrote Leftist articles on Right-wing newspapers. I would say that is much more impactful!”

Women In The 21st Century

In this final panel discussion of Day 1, Naomi Wolf and Barkha Dutt spoke about ‘what it means to be a feminist’ and why feminism is, in fact, nothing but a logical extension of democracy and the values it stands for. “Your book The Beauty Myth had a profound impact on me in the early 90s when I was in college and was still negotiating my position on gender politics,” said Barkha to Naomi. The duo then discussed if things have changed since Naomi first wrote the book with each bringing to the table assessment of women’s status based on their own experiences. “The fact that people realise that wage inequity, child marriage and other fundamental issues — once considered to be topics discussed by weirdos called feminists — are being discussed as a central part of poverty, education and development issues is a big change,” Naomi said.

The two discussed issues of rape and victim shaming. Barkha spoke about the state of women’s safety and how over time women who protest against harassment are told they should be glad they weren’t injured further or raped. When Naomi expressed surprise at how institutionalised this acceptance of harassment was, Barkha asked the audience, “How many of you have been harassed physically on the streets?” To which nearly every woman in the audience put up her hand, as did Barkha sitting on the stage! “There are studies which show that the way people think changes because of the continuous trauma they have to go through if they live under these conditions. And if it is this serious, then legislators must wake up to it immediately,” Naomi said.

Barkha also brought up the eternal question of what sort of feminism is right. Is it the right of a woman to wear a hijab or is it feminism to ask a woman to not wear one? Naomi’s most gracious response was met with applause. She said, “Everything is secondary. What matters is giving women — whether they are wearing a veil or not — a voice and equal opportunity. Especially in the Middle East, the hijab is seen as an important symbol of anti-Westernisation. And feminists don’t have to dress a certain way. And there are people who don’t call themselves feminists but they are feminists. I met a 16-year-old girl here in Chennai today who gave me her book and said she has won awards for writing. She wanted my feedback. Isn’t that feminism? That confidence and the self-belief,” she said. After discussions on a few other interesting topics such as body image, sexuality and the commodification of both genders, the event ended with an interesting Q & A session with the audience.

Evening Entertainment

The first day of The Hindu Lit For Life 2014 came to a close with a performance by the group UNK: The Radha Thomas Ensemble. Jazz, bebop, hip-hop, blues, Indian classical music and rock and roll are some of the genres that have influenced the band. The ensemble, which has an album I Only Have Eyes For You to its credit, performed soulful compositions to an intimate gathering. With tracks such as ‘Bangalore Blues’ and ‘The Morning After’, the artistes transported the audience to a jazz bar-like space. While the first track brought in an element of the local with its Bangalore motif, the second track did so with the soulful Indian raga vocals even as the instrumentalists kept the rhythm up with their jazz. The event saw the presence of a lot of young college students in the audience.

Remembering Bhopal

It has been 30 years, and yet, the images that Pablo Barthalomew shows on the screen continue to hurt as much as they did when they were first taken in 1984. Introduced by Rahul Pandita, the award-winning photographer narrated his experiences in Bhopal during the time of the gas tragedy through his unforgettable images.

Pablo began his photo presentation with pictures of himself as a child and a young man, talking about his father who introduced him to photography. He then showed snapshots from his early work, recording the hippy culture of students at that time. “Many of them are parents now and their children are unable to accept how hip their parents were back then,” he laughs. In the collection was a picture of the Rock Fest in St. Stephen’s College in 1974. There were also pictures of Satyajit Ray on the sets of Shatranj Ke Ki Khilari.

In 1983-1984, Pablo took to news photography and shot many images of Operation Blue Star and the riots that followed. When the Bhopal gas tragedy took place, he rushed there and landed three days later. The images of J.P. Nagar, men wearing scarves around their noses and mouths, people sporting glasses to shield their eyes, are haunting. There are more and more pictures of hospitals, doctors checking patients, dead livestock, mass burials and so on. The most haunting image, which won him the World Press Photo of the Year, is of an infant being buried and a hand reaching out to caress. Pablo visited Bhopal many times afterward, on the first, ninth, 10th and 20th anniversary to document whatever changes have happened. “Memorials have been erected for those who died and more people are agitated and getting on the streets,” he said. He promised to visit Bhopal again soon.

Visit the new website: www.thehindulfl.com

Like us on Facebook: www.facebook.com/TheHinduLitForLife

Follow us on Twitter @hindulitforlife

YouTube: www.thne.ws/playlist-lfl