Offering hope and refuge
“I want to be with those who know secret things or else alone” – Rainer Maria Rilke
He walked up the stairs— his bearing deliberate, his progress incremental. He clutched in his right hand a satchel. It had a tiffin box inside. His lunch, probably — he seemed here to stay. Slightly bent with age, he was in polyester pants sagging with the weight of his wallet, from which stuck out a bus pass. That this old man walking past me wanted a literary afternoon, that of all the afternoons he could’ve had he’d chosen this one — it spoke to something in me, to some hazy, romantic idea I had of literature and what it was meant to do. Even with my inherent scepticism, I had a vision of something being redeemed, although I would not know until later just what it was.
It’s possible, even desirable, to generalise, to paint The Hindu Lit for Life in broad strokes: it had irreverence, passion, humour, nuance, pathos. In the new India where material markers increasingly dictate the value of things, Lit for Life offered both hope and refuge: fiercely protecting the traditional model of art in its quiet triumphs and glorious discontents, while simultaneously embracing the wide variety of its forms. Writing, Cinema, Dance and a multitude of other art-forms were elevated - but not reduced - to metaphors, symbolising in some small way the world in its infinite inchoateness, waiting to be created. The fest spoke up, like panelist Kamal Haasan, for artistic and intellectual freedom. It was precious breathing space in a country slowly being asphyxiated by growing intolerance.
When Naomi Wolf and Barkha Dutt featured in a session that virtually crackled with rage against rape and impunity, it was clear to me that the fest wasn’t going to descend into abstruse theoretical discussion. The credibility of the enterprise was bolstered by the fact that the ideas espoused therein did not emanate from entrenched ideology but from profoundly personal experiences. Nowhere was the source of such experiences — the complex, ambiguous journey into the self - more movingly explored than in the sessions featuring Colin Thubron, that subtle chronicler of faraway lands. Whether it was the recitation of the raw, earthy lyrics celebrating nature, from Silappatikaram or William Dalrymple narrating the 175-year-old Anglo-Afghan War, I could not help but detect an undercurrent of urgency, generated by the fear of environmental destruction in one case and the foolhardiness of similar contemporary imperial wars in the other. In such ways did The Hindu Lit for Life effortlessly transcend both space and time.
The eclecticism on offer was a gratifying treat. For instance, two of the most popular speakers were the Carnatic maestro T.M. Krishna and the ace tiger conservationist Valmik Thapar. Krishna’s heavenly voice punctuated the invigorating conversation between him and Gopalkrishna Gandhi, while Mr. Thapar’s booming baritone filled the darkness of the hall with the poetry of the tiger’s motion and the spirit of freedom it represented. I felt shaken, and grateful for being allowed to be shaken. It was as impossible not to be lost in the magic of his narrative as it was to be unmoved by the bounteous writerly wisdom from Jim Crace and his simple unyielding promise of the transcendence that lay beyond the tyranny of the blank page.
Orhan Pamuk once said that when he spoke of writing the first image that came to his mind was of the person who shuts himself up in a room, sits down at a table, and, alone, turns inward. As I sat, not alone, but with that boundless solitude that materializes in the presence of crowds, my mind kept returning to Jim Crace speaking of the difficulty of writing — of even writing badly. Did I imagine that he also spoke of redemption? Perhaps. Perhaps, I dreamt of saving stillborn sentences: those unhallowed children of meaning and falsity. But gazing idly at the gleaming paperback in a friend’s hand, I suddenly knew. That old man, his long walk up the stairs — I understood that these redeemed for me the idea of literary kinship, of shared books and thoughts, of dazzling words joyously partaken of. I decided, somewhat one-sidedly, that it was time for my friend to share his book with me. “Not yet”, he said, “I’m going to finish it. I think I know where it’s going.” “Believe me,” I told him. “Books lie. They’ve always lied.”
IV Year, ECE, GITAM University, Visakhapatnam
If a person is being completely honest about being a liar, does that make him a liar or does it make him honest? This was the question which chewed my brain during the three days of The Hindu lit for Life in which a number of writers confessed to being liars who made their living by lying. Starting with Jim Crace who said, “we must tell lies because unlike other animals, we have been given the gift of making up a tale” to Ashwin Sanghi who said, “myth is a lie which reveals the truth.”
The Hindu Lit for Life wasn’t just about lies; there were candid discussions, freedom of expression (well, at least for those who got the microphone and the chance to speak), frank comments, shocking truths (for and from Naomi Wolf), epic statements worth quoting, clashes between fans (and sometimes the volunteers) at the crowded book signings, quite a few japes and a lot of people slipping on the floor on the second day (yes. On the second day and I witnessed five of them). To describe it in a few words, I would say it was full on drama!
The topics of discussions ranged from myths to marketing. While writers like Aravind Adiga and Paul Zachariah ventured into the alternative versions of history and myth, Jim Crace and Abraham Varghese gave new definitions to literary novels. While Abraham Varghese’s idea of a literary novel is similar to the reader response theory, which says a text is the collective work of the writer's words and the reader's imagination, Jim Crace said that a literary novel should pose new questions instead of answering them.
Ashwin Sanghi became a personal favourite of the audience because of his funny one-liners and catchy statements. When asked to comment on how a novel is marketed, Sanghi said “be drunk when you are writing, sober when you are editing and be passionate as a drug addict when you are marketing”.
There were two power-packed women-only sessions where the panellists discussed what it means to be women of the 21st century and how rough their paths have been. Nandhini Krishnan and Radha Thomas agreed on the fact that the society is gradually but definitely changing to accommodate and accept the modern woman. Nandhini Krishnan’s comment that “men have it harder than women (in the present society)” elicited out thunderous applause and many hoots from the male audience.”
Writer-blogger Madhuri Banerjee confessed that she would still think twice before she sent her daughter out in shorts and spaghetti straps because she feels that the Indian society has a long way to go to becomeing progressive. Moderator Ira Trivedi declared that being able to discuss women and their issues on a public forum in front of male and female audience is in itself a form of freedom and feminism. Naomi Wolf insisted that feminism is not really the questioning of social structures; if women are confident and empowered, that, in itself is a form of feminism.
Naomi Wolf and the audience had our exchange of sorts. She revealed many scientific facts regarding women, pleasure and rape, busted many myths and graciously allotted enough time for the audience to ask her questions; in exchange, the audience gave her ugly truths about how the Indian society treats rape, women and sex, judgements based on their own experiences and of course, so much of applause that Wolf had to ask if anything was wrong whenever they were quiet. There were so many discussions on sex, pleasure and marriage that at times the audience was trying not to blush collectively. Chennai-based Nandhini Krishnan said that arranged marriage is for pragmatic people and that when there is physical and sexual compatibility, the marriage clicks.
Poetry with Gulzar and The Flora and Fauna of the South induced periodical silence, rapt attention and appropriate reactions from the audience (wah-wahs and oh-ahs respectively). Poetry with Gulzar created the ambience of a typical Hindustani durbar and the interactions between Pavan. K. Varma, Ziya Us Salam and Gulzar were heart-warming. Valmik Thapar’s Tiger Fire was packed with emotion because of the writer-wildlife conservationist’s obvious disdain towards the government policies regarding wildlife. A school boy from the audience took the words out of everybody’s mouth and asked him what he can do for the wildlife as a civilian. The audience expected to hear the usual ranting of typical wildlife conservationists but Valmik Thapar gave a curt and shocking reply— I don’t know, which ultimately proved to be food for thought for the audience.
William Dalrymple’s Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan was as interesting as it sounded. Dalrymple’s presentation was not only detailed but also full of interesting facts we cannot hope to find in history books and so was The Past before Us: Historical Traditions of Early North India by Romilla Thapar. Rujuta Diwekar Fit for Life brought out the essence of what she wanted to convey because she brought her funda of human beings should move to life by making the audience move around.
What was interesting was that Diwekar not only broke many weight loss myths but she was also sharp enough to use Pongal as the model of her session which helped the audience relate to and remember her session well. After the book readings of the finalists, Manu Joseph was my favourite though Anees Salim won. These discussions were impressive and yes, I was so glued to my seat that I couldn’t (or didn’t) even go to the other workshops and events.
III Year, BA in Literature, Stella Maris College
Memories to keep
Sylvia Path once said, “I can never read all the books I want;
I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want
And why do I want?
I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations
Of mental and physical experience possible in life. And
I am horribly limited.
I am beginning to relate with this greatly. Who would have thought that a mere three days in an auditorium filled with charismatic authors and eminent media personalities could have such a profound impact on me. It felt like I was living in a utopian world of literature where knowledge and imagination knew no boundaries. Taking a casual stroll around the premises of the Sri Mutha Venkatasubba Rao concert hall, I saw a variety of people, some with telling make-up, others dressed down, some were there to discuss, other had come to watch, some were energetic teenagers and others were composed adults. However, I noticed among all of them a passion to read and explore the world of literature. You could catch nips and bits of conversations that started with a ‘have you read..?’ or an ‘I am now writing...’ over a hot, steaming cup of filter coffee. The Hindu Lit for Life 2014 had indeed set up a great show.
I have so much to share with you. Let me plunge into the details of the first day. Aravind Adiga in his conversation with David Godwin explained to the audience on how the idea behind his “The White Tiger” was cultivated. He gave credit to pulp fiction that is popular among bored drivers in Delhi where the plot always revolves around the driver killing the master. How interesting! The next session left me swaying with bliss. In our busy lives these days, how many of us stop to admire the chirping of birds, scent of a newly bloomed flower or perhaps the rustling of leaves? The booming voice of P.C. Ramakrishna and the elegant dance routines of Anita Ratnam, Revathy Kumar and R. Rohini were undoubtedly beautiful. The performance transported me into a completely different world. In the light of recent crimes against women in India, a topic such as ‘The coming age of a New Indian Woman’ is highly challenging. However the women in conversation, Madhuri Banerjee, Mamang Dai, Nandini Krishnan and Radha Thomas completely justified their topic. The icing on the cake was one of the last sessions of the day, Naomi Wolf in conversation with Barkha Dutt. They opened up about topics such as sexuality and feminism. “Women are entitled to a life of dignity and freedom just like every other human being”, said Naomi Wolf.
Day 2 started on a very musical note. A conversation between T.M Krishna and Gopalkrishna Gandhi was one of the few sessions to have received a standing ovation. “Art is something that is done alone, a beautiful path that draws you to it.”, said T.M Krishna. How true? One of my favourite sessions has to be that of Ashwin Sanghi and Samantha Shannon on fantastical stories from the east and the west. Imagining a world without fantasy is difficult. They clearly defined the thin line that separates fantasy from reality. The next session, I am sure touched a lot of people’s hearts, the courtyard was brimming with eager fans of Gulzar Saab who was in conversation with his editor, Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri, on his latest verse. It is very hard not to smile at Gulzaar’s funny and witty replies. His poetry leaves you wanting for more.
I might be exaggerating, but getting into the hall on the last day was quite difficult. The crowd was at its best and not a seat was left empty. After all, the morning was to start with a conversation with Kamal Hassan. His talks on how stifling the censor board has become, left the crowd nodding their heads in agreement. Another highlight of the day was Naomi Wolf’s talk on her new book, “Beyond the Vagina” Her session was highly interactive. Through her talks she tried to break the barriers that stop women from exploring their sexuality openly. Every good thing has to come to an end. The Hindu Lit for Life ended with Anees Salim bagging The Hindu Literary Prize for his book, ‘Vanity Bagh’ The experience of being there was one of a kind. I am now sure where I am going to be the same time, next year.
I Year, BA Journalism, MOP Vaishnav College for Women