Friday, January 29, 2010

Himal South Asia blog on the Jaipur Literature Festival, February 29, 2010

I eat god, I drink god, I sleep on god...

I eat god,
I drink god,
I sleep on god…

It is the first day of the Jaipur Literature Festival and Girish Karnad, who is supposed to give the keynote lecture, along with heavyweights like Wole Soyinka and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., are missing in action. They are possibly lost in the Delhi fog, or the traffic, or maybe they didn’t even depart their home cities and countries in the first place. The roads, you know, says one of the organizers. Apparently this is a good enough explanation and the crowd asks no questions and asks for no explanations—we start off the day with a remarkably serene and unhurried shift to readings of Kabir instead. The day is beautiful, the sky is blue, there are long runners in pink, yellow and orange fabrics above our head and two dhol-players are causing a tremendous ruckus and making us all feel invigorated. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra is on stage and goes from Kabir to Arun Kolatkar with effortless ease. And that is why, instead of a lecture on “Entertaining India”, we are listening to a lovely poem that eats god and sleeps on god and talks about how the poet hopes his mother-in-law (plus all his other in-laws) would drop dead so he could be alone with his lover.

So starts the day. I have never heard of Arun Kolatkar but I am ready, at the end of the reading, to run out and buy his book. The bookstore is full of books by the authors who are present at the event, but first a writer should look around and check out the people who are present—a colorful assortment of women and men dressed in drop-dead gorgeous Indian fabrics, and where the Westerners look rather plain and pale unless they invested in some Indian fabrics and trinkets. No doubt the place is teeming with literary celebs—the problem with spotting them is that everyone looks the part, right down to little girls who carry their books around like devoted readers and writers. I spot is a group of local Jaipurians who are looking at the schedule with deep concentration. I savor this scene for a while—locals immersed deeply in their own literary event.

Then a minute later I realize why people are concentrating so hard on the schedule—basically, half the speakers are absent, there has been a drastic change of plans and nothing is going according to schedule. The people who have arrived early are asked to be on panels, and before long I find myself listening to Vikram Chandra (scheduled to present on the last day) talking about his latest book about the underworld, as well as the banality of evil. He talks about criminals and murderers that he met. The most horrific thing that he came to learn, he said, was that most people who did these terrible things were ordinary people like you and me. They were not monsters. They were religious, god fearing men who kept shrines at the back of their homes, and yet they were able to commit horrific acts that the ones that occurred during Partition. “The frightening thing is to realize that the people who are murderers and criminals are not so different from us,” he said. “There’s two degree of separation between criminals and people in the audience.” I had met Vickram Chandra when he was teaching at the Breadloaf Conference in 2002. I noticed that eight years in the United States seem to have trained him to become more charitable to the world than condition of the rest of the world allowed for.

Claire Tomalin (scheduled to speak on Saturday) gave her talk on Jane Austen promptly and with joy. There is nothing more delightful than a Jane Austen scholar who loves the writer and treats her with the greatest respect. Claire talked about the conditions of Austen’s life—her poverty, her lack of money, her lack of publishing success, her ten years of depression and being unable to write—all of which added up to a literary phenomenon. Austen talked about taboo topics that other writers didn’t touch, she said. Tomalin gave her talk with humor and intelligence, and the audience responded in kind. Jane Austen appeared to be required reading for women in India, from the questions—half of the questioners also insisted that Claire MUST see “Bride and Prejudice”, which was the final word on the book. Claire insisted, politely but firmly, that she did not see these adaptations. ““Bride and Prejudice” made me realize a lot of things I hadn’t learnt from the book,” gushed one reader enthusiastically. I belched. One reader, however, did add an interesting tidbid—Austen’s horrid Mrs.Norris had been reincarnated as a cat in Harry Potter.

Then we went on to see Geoff Dyer and Amit Chowdari, moderated by Amitav Kumar, talk about “Visible Cities”. Geoff talked about his latest book on Venice and Benaras, and read a short chapter about a monkey who steals a man’s sunglasses in Varanashi and holds it hostage, while the man tries to get it back from him by bribing him with bananas. All would have been well and good and we’d have thought it was just a good piece of comedy if he’d not read about how the monkey could “evolve” (be careful with that word, writers!) as a species if he gave back the sunglasses, and if he didn’t, he’d always be a monkey. Then he talked about “history”, just a line or two but enough for an audience member to wonder if he didn’t know, as a smart man of the twenty-first century, how colonial culture categorized Third World peoples as “monkeys”…Hmmm… this bit of monkeying around was possibly smart of him, or maybe it wasn’t. Not in a tent full of people who are too aware of post-colonial criticism. Amit Chowdari read about Calcutta—a beautiful and evocative piece. Then he referred to Susan Sontag’s “Under the Sign of Saturn,” and how Walter Benjamin had talked about how he was a man born under this sign, therefore he never finished any of his projects, and this was the line she’s picked up and written her essay on. A literary throwaway aside, kind of like strolling through the streets of an old city as a flaneur.

The afternoon ended in the front lawn with the delightful Mr. Alexander Mc.Call Smith talking about his “#1 Detective Agency” and how he came up with this idea. He and William Dalrymple, who was interviewing him, had a good laugh at the expense of the Scots, who apparently indignantly protested the ten thousand pounds allocated by the Scottish government for the festival—the money, suggested the critics, could have been better spent on fighting illiteracy in Scotland. “There are actually Scottish secret agents out there in the audience, dressed in kilts, trying to keep track of this money. They think we don’t see them, but we do,” chucked the writer, as he burst out in a fit of laughter.

Himal South Asia Blog for the Jaipur Literature festival, February 2010

The Jaipur Literature Festival : Twenty-First Century Identities

Kancha Iiliah, writer of “Why I am not a Hindu,” talks about how Dalits are not just outcastes, they are “outwriters.” Their literature is not seen to be valid, people are not interested to read what they write. People ask and say: Can there be such a thing as Dalit literature? If there can be Vedic literature, and Bhakti literature, and Marxist literature, and Gandhian literature, why can’t there be Dalit literature, asks Iiliah.

Om Prakash Valmiki also picks up on the same thread: “We are not Hindus, we are Dalits.” The violence still faced by the majority of Dalits in India and other parts of the subcontinent is directly caused by Hindu thought. God cannot be touched by the untouchables in Hinduism, and this, says Kancha Iiliah, is spiritual fascism.

P.Sivakami, a Dalit female writer who shook up her community with her critiques of patriarchy within the Dalit community in her book The Grip of Change, talked about one incident in which she was in charge of distributing bicycles to Dalit schoolgirls. The girls chosen, the government bureaucrats exclaimed, couldn’t be Dalits—because they were too beautiful. What they meant, explained P. Sivakami, is that they expected girls who were poor, malnourished and ill-dressed.

Iiliah couldn’t resist taking a dig at S Anand, the khadi-dressed organizer of the panel—and a Brahmin. “Look at him, he’s still wearing Hindu clothes while we wear these suits that Ambedkar told us to,” he joked. “Give me your coat!” responded S Anand, pulling at Iliah’s coat in mock dismay. Illiah also points out that caste has a distinct racial history. “Why do you think he looks like this, and we look like this?” he asks. After a bit of discussion, the panel agrees that caste has become pretty mixed up and there is no longer any racial purity left–however, discrimination is still deeply entrenched. “A group of Dalits changed their names and started to use Sharma,” said Valmiki. “And now the Brahmins in that area no longer use Sharma.”

“How can you people be so backward,” exclaimed one foreign-returned Indian, who cited South Africa and his puzzlement that Indians were apparently the only people in the world still practicing such racial apartheid. Of course, this enlightened gentleman’s observation immediately brought to the room the sense that the Dalit case was not unique–indeed, racial and religious discrimination still existed all over the world still.

Next out in the front lawn, Wole Soyinka, Nobel Prize winning author from Nigeria, gave a beautiful rendering of a praise song. “Praise songs are meant to be hypnotic and mesmerizing,” he said. “Sometimes people who return from foreign countries and hear praise songs of their lineages and they become dizzy. You feel your head expanding.” I for one had to press down on the top of my head for a few seconds to make sure nothing was exploding out of there after that mesmerizing moment. Wole explained that he had staged a play with a praise song and certain suggestible actors had to be asked to leave since the drumming, the incantation and all the other powerful forces was getting too much for them and they were getting into a trance. It was better, he explained, that they be off the stage. The oral storytelling power that Wole brought to his reading, the sense of a griot out on the podium hypnotizing the crowd with metaphors of the road, the search, the constant dissatisfaction…It was almost as if, like a line in his poetry, that “strange voices were guiding my feet” and the horseman galloped on to a new sense of being as I listened to him read.

Wole Soyinka, asked about the religious conflicts in his country, said: “This is a virus.And it has spread all over the world.” Two hundred people died recently, he said, in one of these incidents. He grew up, he said, listening to church bells next to the muezzin’s call for prayer. Muslims sent over meat to their neighbors on Ramadan, and the Christians sent over rice and other gifts on Christmas. “I’m right, you’re wrong has now become I’m right, you’re dead,” he said dryly. He sounded bewildered, a little bit, that those tolerant times seem to be past.

Soyinka then talked about his year of solitary confinement, and how he used bones to make pens, and coffee as ink, to write poetry in the margins of books people brought in for him and then smuggled out. “I believe in forgiveness and reconciliation,” he said. “But sometimes you have to be careful since these people are incorrigible, and you can’t be too forgiving. But most of all, I believe in restitution.”

An audience member, responding to his beautiful rendition of a poem in Yoruba, asked him: How do you maintain your Yoruba identity in this age of contamination? “You must maintain a core identity even in a contaminated world,” said Soyinka.

In the Mughal Tent, Isabel Hilton and Tenzing Tsundue debated another fragment of the global story on how to hold on to an identity in another kind of pulverizing force—a nation state intent on wiping out the identity of a people. Hilton talks about Tibetan nomads who are being resettled in barracks in the middle of the desert, with no work. They are given some compensation which they finish within the year. Then they are stuck there, with no work. Herding has been made illegal, and not just a way of life could be gone. Tibetan nomads are to be “settled” within the next two years. “It could be too late very soon,” she says. There is silence in the audience as we digest this.

“How can Obama dare to give our country away?” Asks Tsundue, who has just been asked by William Dalrymple, moderator, about that famous President’s statement that Tibet will always be part of the Republic of China. “What right does he have?”

Hilton had different views. Since China will never give up Tibet due to its strategic location, its water resources, and the sense of it being a part of larger China, she said, it may be more practical to think about ways in which Tibetans can have an easier life, and how their way of life can survive, in this reality [See The new relationship in Himal December 2009 for the evolving political relationship to Tibet in the region]. This is what we should be negotiating about, she said. “The Chinese government is not a monolith,” she said. “As somebody said, government is often a big issue run by little people.”

Tsundue, with the undying hope of the exile, didn’t agree. “Freedom cannot be given: it has to be taken,” he said simply. “It has to be worked at. It is not what China will give or not give. They will leave when their interests are exhausted.”

“It is very dangerous for Tibet,” Isabel Hilton said, “To see the Dalai Lama as the embodiment of Tibet. After his death, there will be a big void. We need more secular voices. Where is the cultural Tibet–the writers, artists and thinkers? We need to work to create a new cultural idea of Tibet.”

And this, perhaps may have been the food for thought for today—that all the discrimination faced by Dalits, all the religious terror wrought on minorities in Nigeria, all the persecution faced by Tibetans–all of this could perhaps be moderated, perhaps even shifted to another level, by bringing down the religious volume and putting more secular voices on the dias. And by creating new cultural identities of what it means to be a Dalit or a Bhramin, a Nigerian Christian or Nigerian Muslim, or a Chinese or a Tibetan of the twenty-first century.

Himal South Asia magazine’s onling blog, February 4th, 2010

Freedom for sale

Why are people willing to trade freedom for prosperity and material comfort, asked John Kampfner. His book, Freedom for Sale, looks at eight countries as examples of places which have traded in freedom for material security and prosperity. He was born in Singapore and lived in China and Russia—where except for a group of “fearless troublemakers,” most people have bowed down to the imperatives of prosperity in exchange for public freedoms. The UAE and Dubai have a Disney quality about them, says Kampfner, where everyone is trading freedoms for other things, including slave labor. In India, pollution is the tradeoff, while in Italy, Berlosconi has dismantled the independent judiciary and media. In the UK, the ascent of the Left has dismantled civil liberties, and in the USA, self-censorship after 2001 is at an all time high, with people trading in public freedoms for public security.

Niall Ferguson tried to play the Oxford don and questioned Kampfner about his assumptions. Ferguson brought up Tocqueville. He said that there was a tradeoff between liberty and equality. He talked about totalitarianism. The Oxford questioning (in a nutshell, he said that some freedoms had to be given up for material prosperity, and that material prosperity in turn brought freedom) brought forth quick retorts from the author, who pointed out that his questioner didn’t seem to have read the book. “I am not talking about totalitarian regimes—North Korea, etc. I am talking about liberal democracies. When a government says: we need to do whatever must be done to protect you, that’s fishy,” he said.

Steve Coll, jumping in this fray, said that one freedom he was glad of was the freedom from an Oxford education! The middle class is always trying to protect itself, he said. He said he was recently in Saudi Arabia, a place with no culture of public freedom, no free press, no human rights organizations, no tenured professors, and no Constitution other than the Koran. Even though people were consigned to these private spaces, they still talked about public freedoms because the discourse of it was global, and it was everywhere. In the USA, private security took over public freedoms after 9/11, he said. Americans were deeply frightened. Like India, Americans are now learning to deal with the notion of persistent terrorism, he said. Despite everything, there is a pervasive culture of redress in places like India—people speak out fearlessly even when the state is murdering its own citizens. In the USA, people don’t challenge the state as much as in India, he said.

Tarun Tejpal of Tehelka concluded the session by saying that “India needs a lot of activism on the part of its elites. I’m agnostic, but I was born a Hindu, and philosophically we have to do what has to be done. India has a social contract but it’s still a country in progress. The promise of democracy still has to be delivered.”

Himal South Asia blog on the Jaipur Literature Festival, February 29, 2010

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