Chennai leg of ‘Lit for Life 2011' kicks off

Does the struggle to affirm one's humanity through literature facilitate healing? Is the travel writer bothered by having to edit out the dull portions? And, do writers hold back what they want to say for fear of persecution? These and a lot more questions livened up the proceedings of the morning session of the Chennai leg of ‘Lit for Life 2011'. The Hindu's first literary festival began on Saturday and will conclude with a grand award ceremony on Sunday evening when The Hindu Best Fiction Prize 2011 will be awarded.

An animated audience was quite unwilling to bring the session on ‘Is writing a healing?' to a close, and it might have well eaten into lunch but for moderator Siddharth Varadarajan, Editor, The Hindu, putting his foot down. A lively discussion, peppered with questions - controversial, provocative, and introspective - had Dalit writers Bama and P.Sivakami, and academic Susie Tharu in conversation.

In India, caste follows you wherever you go, even after death, Ms. Bama said. “When we segregate people as ‘high' and ‘low', we inflict pain on one section of society… There is the humiliation of being in someone's power. When you write does it ease that pain?” It is a step-by-step process, she went on to explain. The first stage is to accept the pain, then examine the causes for the pain, and finally, when one writes, one realises the need to come out of the victim's role and turn militant against the oppressors, she added. Clearly, for her, when one writes, there is a possibility of healing to a certain extent – for the writer, and to some extent, for even the victim.

Words are double-edged, Ms. Sivakami, Tamil Nadu's first Dalit woman IAS officer who later took up voluntary retirement, said. They can heal the victim, and punish the guilty. Dalit authors write as witnesses of atrocious cruelties constantly perpetrated on members of their community. “That is why it is impossible [for writers] to leave Dalit society behind. The atrocities are like seasonal rains, they keep happening,” she added.

Ms. Tharu provided a perspective that sought to examine both Dalit and feminist writing from the perspective of how writers respond to their conditions through a state of non-resolution. Anger at one's own position or condition is absolutely essential for the writer, whether feminist or Dalit, she added. The writer tackles issues that are most personal and most important to her or him, she said in response to a question on whether Dalit writers would move on to writing about ‘other issues'.

The morning sessions began with Ziya Us Salam who heads The Hindu's features section in Delhi, engaging Mohammed Hanif, Pakistani writer, and author of Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, in a conversation on topics ranging from diasporic writing, identity, censorship and influences and inspiration. Geeta Doctor, journalist, introduced the writers.

“The writer is a citizen first, he lives somewhere,” Mr. Hanif said, answering a question on his association with his home. Having lived abroad, he made the choice to come back home and make a life there. As rooted as the book is in a nation, Alice Bhatti, for instance, is about the life of a woman from a particular city and community. “However, people tend to pick up the novel and expect it to tell them every thing about Pakistan.” But yes, the reader has the freedom to interpret the novel after it has been written, he added. Just as a writer must have the freedom to write without censorship. Mr. Hanif claimed he never held back anything he wanted to say in a book. Humorously, he added, to thunderous applause, that as “most people in Pakistan cannot read; those who can, do not read, and the type of people who do read my books can laugh at themselves.”

‘Destination Detectives' had Rahul Bhattacharya, author of The Sly Company of People who Care, in conversation with Latha Anantharaman, a travel writer, and translator, as Ranvir Shah, cultural activist, stayed on to moderate. Once one has left home, he or she becomes an outsider, and the state of not being at home produces a sense of irritation that every writer needs, Ms. Anantharaman explained.

Travelling also changes the writer's perception of the place, Mr. Bhattacharya said, elaborating on how his stay in Guyana took him on a journey into indentured labour, slavery and the anxiety of dislocation. After a period of time, however, he added, you start to feel like an insider. He also read a passage from his book, complete with the Guyanian creole accent.

Most writers do not have the time to write about their experience while living it, and therefore when one writes, there is automatic editing. The writer tends to leave out the dull bits, and tries to make it interesting for the reader, Ms. Anantharaman said. While every writer wants to keep it honest, there are constant acts of omission. On the other hand, Mr. Bhattacharya said the thing with writing a first-person account gets “people thinking that all those things in the book happened to you.”

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