SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Two weeks in Paris

TRUST the French. Who else would have put so much energy and resources into bringing 20 Indian writers to their country for a series of "rencontres" with the public of this highly literate land? At a time when readership for literary novels is dropping everywhere like the stock market index, France remains devoutly wedded to the promotion and propagation of culture. And not just its own. Every year the French equivalent of the Sahitya Akademi — the Centre National du Livre — picks one or two countries and brings a selection of its writers to the Continent for a two-week programme known as the "Belles Etrangeres". This year was India's turn.

Nineteen of us — one Marathi writer, Kishor Shantabai Kale, was held up by the courts after his father-in-law, another writer, brought a case against him — spent the second half of November waxing literary under the grey skies of a drizzly Continent. It was an impressively motley group.

Five septuagenarian seniors — the legendary Mahasweta Devi, Jnanpith and Magsaysay Award winning Bengali novelist and social activist; the distinguished U. R. Ananthamurthy, Kannada novelist and former President of the Sahitya Akademi; the Rajya Sabha MP and Telugu poet C. Narayana Reddy; and the eminent Hindi stylists Nirmal Verma and Krishna Baldev Vaid — were joined by a variety of younger writers in other languages. We spanned the range from the trilingual 60-year-old M. Mukundan, a product of the former French territory of Mahe in Kerala who has published dozens of books in Malayalam, to the U.S.-based 31-year-old Akhil Sharma, who is working on his second novel. In between were the Dalit writers Bama (Tamil) and Narendra Jadhav (Marathi), the Hindi poet Udayan Vajpeyi, the Gujarati Jewish memoirist and novelist Esther David, the youngest-ever Jnanpith winner (for her Hindi novel Kali-katha via Bypass), Alka Saraogi, and five more English-language novelists (in alphabetical order), Anita Rau Badami, Shauna Singh Baldwin, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Mukul Kesavan and myself. The list was completed by the author-illustrator pair of Anushka Ravishankar and Pulak Biswas, who found enthusiastic audiences of children throughout.

Some of us worried about the burden of being expected to "represent" Indian literature: there was nothing particularly democratic or incontestable about our selection and I, for one, lamented the absence of an Indian Muslim voice. (It turned out that Soraiya Bibi, the former Kamala Das, had dropped out at the last minute, the great Urdu novelist Qurratulain Hyder had been unable to travel and a third Muslim invitee had been laid low by a stroke). There was also the question about what made us all Indian: five of the 19 currently live abroad, and three (Badami, Baldwin and Sharma) who have permanently made their homes elsewhere, no longer carry Indian passports. Is Indianness, then, a state of mind, or a badge of ethnicity? Nine Indian languages (including English) were represented; what about the other nine that figure on our rupee notes? The impossibility of doing justice to the breadth of Indian writing within a logistically-manageable number of writers pointed to the unfairness of the question. What we all had in common was that some of our work was available in French translation, that the event's literary advisor, the Paris-based Rajesh Sharma, had considered us worth inviting, and that we were all able to get away when the French wanted us. In the absence of other defensible criteria, that would have to do.

After a couple of joint events we scattered throughout France in smaller groups, and some us were even asked to make brief forays to Belgium and Holland. But the time we spent together was amongst the highlights of the trip — the opportunity for 19 Indian writers to get to know each other better, to convert names we had heard into flesh-and-blood companions whose voices, tastes and foibles added an invaluable dimension to their literary reputations. The literary encounters were fun, but nothing could match the joy of being embraced by the gentle affection of Mahasweta Devi, or complementing the inadequacies of French vegetarian fare by dipping into the bottles of chilli-achaar that Alka Saraogi had so thoughtfully brought along. If in the process we could also encourage the French public to read more about India — and embolden French publishers to go on to discover other Indian authors — so much the better.

The writers left France at the beginning of December full of tales of their experiences: of being received by the dynamically articulate French Foreign Minister, Dominique de Villepin (a veteran of the French Embassy in Delhi), whose discourse ranged from the importance of retaining a plurality of literary voices to the prospects of war over Iraq; of being startled when Narayana Reddy thereupon broke into a melodic Telugu chant, the likes of which had never been heard in the meeting-rooms of the Quai d'Orsay; of Bama being heckled by Tamil expatriates in Paris for drawing attention in France to the problems of untouchability, and of Esther David rising to her defence; of Shauna Singh Baldwin making side-trips to assorted French cities where much of the action of her next novel is to take place; of an overflowing reception by the Indian Ambassador, Savitri Kunadi, with writers, publishers, editors and translators downing champagne and samosas; and for me, of having to juggle readings and responses in both English and French as a packed audience at the city's "Maison de l'Inde" (House of India) included equal numbers of people who did not know one or the other of these languages.

But the defining moment of the trip came towards the end of the fortnight, when the group, returning from a reception at the majestic Hotel de Ville, found themselves accidental witnesses to the internment of the 19th-Century novelist Alexandre Dumas, more than a century after his death, in the magnificently-lit Pantheon. The Roman columns of this great Parisian monument were bathed in purple, red and blue light; a military band played outside, while a honour guard escorted the coffin of the author of The Three Musketeers to its final resting-place. Ananthamurthy, the doyen of the group, put it simply to me. "The French," he said, "really know how to honour their writers." And — in a smaller way — ours too.

Shashi Tharoor, Under Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, U.N., is the author, most recently of the novel Riot (Viking Penguin). His new book with M.F. Husain, Kerala: God's Own Country, has been published by Books Today, an imprint of India Today. Visit him at www.shashitharoor.com.

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