Monday, January 21, 2013

In the Satanic company of people who verse – notes from the Jaipur Literary Festival 2012

It's already time for the next Literary Festival and my friends are asking me, so are you going this year? You seemed to have had a great time last year.

That's true you know, I really had a great time last year, the crowds, the Salman Rushdie hungama , the Oprah Winfrey invasion and the whole of Jaipur wanting to attend! Siting in the beautiful winter sunshine outside standing room only tents and on the sabz lawns as Gulzar would have said; and, listening to Gulzar himself, as he read from his achingly poignant Sarhad Ke us paar poems.
So as I get ready to pack for this year's trip I realise I had promised a dear friend to post my notes on the festival but somehow I never really managed do that . So maybe now that I am all set to go again, it is a good time to gather my thoughts and see what I remember, what stayed in my mind from the 2012 Lit Fest.

And as I sit down to write this the news channels are all agog with how the four authors who read  from THE Verses ought to be banned and how there should be no Pakistani writers welcomed .
So dear Amogh , maybe the timing is right after all.

Let me begin with some moments that stayed with me or moments that come to me ….
Definitely it was Dalrymple saying . “ No one says no to us anymore." Yes I guess so, except when they are telling the organisers No Rushdie, No Hanif, No Ruchir , No Jeet , No Kunzru nor Amitava……

 The place was teeming. And here is an image of  Dalrymple siting on the floor just in front of the stage as a full to capacity crowed listened to Samanth Subramaniam grill David Remnick of The New Yorker.

And Dalrymple once again posing gamely for a photograph with me. Now that I am done with William Dalrymple - yes, this is mandatory,  for I think the best book I have ever read on my beloved Delhi is his City of Djinns and for that I owe him big, big, very big  time - I can move on to other highlights .
Yes I was really like this thrilled-to-bits-fan of favourite authors, happy to be alone and not really missing having a companion to keep me company. Every day, I would set out in the wintry chill of the morning and wander through the day, the charming locations of the various readings, the book stalls, launchings, discussions ...enter happily into random  conversations with random people and move on . All that were exchanged were just smiles. No names or business cards or anything. And everyday lunch time brought revelations too. One did not seek them out, but finding interesting people and known writers seated at your table was a chance to engage in some interesting conversations.  Even when I realised that the shy, engaging, incredibly handsome guy with a slight lisp I was chatting with for a few minutes as we stood outside a tent and to whom I lent my pen,  was Tabish Khair, it seemed right he remain just a fellow lit fest bug. Pssssst...  I follow him now on Face Book 
At first it was difficult to decide which session to attend; one did not even know initially, what was going on and where.  I decided to  follow my instinct and that was just fine.  So there I was ,with many more of my ilk,  women  in  winter finery,  glowing in pink and orange, bright reds and blues  and the men, poor guys ending  up always wearing dreary winter clothes - brown and grey and sometimes again, brown and grey. I guess it is called role reversal as we make up for the dreary females in the animal world .

Some forays into the teeming tents held pleasant surprises, some others, known and expected excellence, while in some you knew you were better off looking for the cup that cheered.

So the sessions that surprised were New Yorker's David Remnick's conversation with Samant Subramaniam. I say that because I am not someone who follows political commentary at all but Samant is this childhood friend of my nephew who told me I must look him up while at the festival and so I had walked into the Mughal Tent which was hosting this event on the first day itself I think. 

Well, the tent was lovely, sunshine streaming in through the white and purple material and David Remnick  saying Obama campaigned in poetry but governed in prose and that the prose has not been as good as the poetry and then a cow mooing her assent from outside the tent .
I tell you it’s downright eerie that I have chosen to write this today – Prez Obama’s inauguration is happening, once again! and prose or poetry he’s back now to read reams of it to the Americans for another four years . Maybe that is why the cow mooed so knowingly ?
Over the course of a few more sessions in the Moghal Tent, Ms Cow appeared to be a frequent and vehement commentator on the proceedings within . Had the good luck to bump into her and her (brooding and silent though) mate while exiting the tent one time. Ensconced regally in their tabela,  benign and chewing the cud in ruminative silence. I guess she was the prime provider of the milk and mewa consumed at the Fest and felt it was her due to express her views as well. Would have loved to know what she thought of Chetan Bhagat.

Fatima Bhutto was another surprise. I chose her over the Tamasha that was Oprah . All of Jaipur had landed at the venue and by 10 am that day they closed the gates . Thank God for my delegate pass that got me entry through all the chaos. Not sure who in the Bhutto session said this. Was it Karan Thapar who was talking to her? Something about how Power is transient and does not belong to one person and how in In India it is the government that determines the age of the Army chief (there was this issue that was hot at that time right? The Army Chief's DOB being fudged ? ) while in Pakistan it is the Army chief that determines the age of the ruling Government ! Hmmmm… relevant today again.

And it brought a smile to everyone’s face when Fatima Bhutto said , well it is my uncle by marriage who is the Pakistani  President now, so mind it. Also when, tongue in cheek, she quipped how she is sure Oprah in the maidan from across the Mughal Tent was not being asked the trying questions about Obama that she was. Oh well, as I am writing this, that  same Oprah, on my TV screen,  is asking Lance Armstrong some tough questions.

Now to the expected excellent ones - Michael Ondaatje has been a favourite author ever since I read Anil's Ghost; yes I read Room with a View and the English Patient much after that. His latest, The Cat's Table had held me enthralled. So it was great to know that he was there and it was a superb session that had Amitava Kumar talking to him (above). 

I do believe there is nothing more satisfying than to hear from a writer what goes into the creation of a book that has given you, as a reader, so much pleasure; hours of thought provoking pleasure. Especially if you have already read the book.

If you haven’t, then it is interesting for sure, but I do feel it takes away from the reading, ruins a bit of the excitement of your own discovery of what the book holds for you. I am afraid that listening to Katherine Boo at another session the next day, in my book, so to say , did her some dis-service in this department . When I eventually did read her much touted Behind the Beautiful Forevers , it was her Lit Festival Interview voice that drowned out what she was actually saying in the book  albeit she said it well . But it destroyed the book for me.

 Films are larger than life, the telly smaller than life and theatre? Well, theatre is the same exact size! I walked into a session that had Girish Karnad and David Hare talking about screenplay adaptations of books. Dare I say they came across as very, maybe too sure of themselves.  I guess it is an art, not to intimidate your readers / listeners. They do go out there and patronise your work so you credit them with intelligence and some discerning capabilities. Well it was interesting I guess.

Am not sure if this thought came to me during this session, but yes, many writers did speak of their work as their children. You know, about how the damaged one receives most love from the parent and the good ones are anyway loved by so many. Karnad, David Hare and Ondaatje said that too.
At another place on another day of the festival , I remember how Arun Kolatkar's translations from Tukaram's work left me so moved bringing a lump to the throat that took a long while in dissolving .  

A very pleasant surprise session was one on Tamil writers. Bama of Karruku fame was simply, mind-blowingly inspiring. She began easily, saying she was a Dalit woman and her dream was to uplift her peers. She spoke of how she joined a convent but was not able to reach out to her inner self and find out who she really wanted to be. She spoke of how realisation came to her that the theory of Christian teachings in the convent was so different from reality as she lived it and how her Dalit culture it was that elevated her. She wanted to be of use to her people but her convent training distanced her from those very people. And, since abandoning her convent was seen as a disgrace by her community and family she decided not to go back to her parents. She began to write to first heal herself and she wrote in her own colloquial tongue. Not the accepted classical Tamil of the literature of the time and region.
She was frightened to publish her work for she had not made an attempt to change the names or hide the identity of the people she was writing about. And she had no idea what genre her work would belong to.  It was not a novel and not an autobiography and yes she was turned away by publishers who wanted to define the book. She was not ready or willing to define it. She called it  Karrukku because it was the  double edged palm leaf stem of the caste system that cuts , maims and bleeds the life spirit out of the oppressed while they needed the other side to cut themselves free of the cruel  system Literary and religious circles criticised her and her own villagers were not with her. She felt angry and was upset. And felt Betrayed . 

But all that was now behind her. I was proud to stand beside such a woman as she. And I am not sure if my recollections of that session have done justice to her spirit and character and work.

Something that another feisty writer in that session said stays clear in my mind. Charu Nivedita, another author who wrote in Tamil , saying that you do not exist if you do not find a translator and that is the Tamil writer's tragedy today. He is amazing, telling us that he was a school dropout, did not know English and learnt it from reading Blitz and Mother India and owes B. K. Karanjia and Babu Rao Patel. Somewhere, he talks about how Jeans, the second skin of the working class is now adopted by the rich He is so modest, he says he feels frightened to be here among his peers who are from Oxford and so on and he a drop out reading in Tamil .As he reads, he transforms from a writer into an actor and you feel it as he pours himself into the character.

Vishal Bharadwaj is someone else who impresses so deeply. He is humble but so dignified in his humility. I think he said something about riding on a master's work and making it work for you. Making it your own.  He went on to confess how he was intelligent enough to know he was stupid. His goal was just that he wanted to make a film on the underworld. Apparently all he read of Macbeth as a version as a short story for the play had scared him stiff, the Language of the Bard  intimated him so much. But he felt he must read and then he went on not only to make his own tribute to Macbeth in Maqbool but also gave us Omkara to Shakespeare’s Othello . I think Tom Stoppard was also in this session and I remember him saying how he would feel nauseous to know someone was messing around with his work.

And yes, that day, that bleak day for India and  Indian literature, Indian culture and the lost cause of Freedom of speech which is the freedom on which all  other freedoms depend – that day I found myself sitting feet away from Ruchir Joshi, Amitava Kumar, Jeet Thayil and Hari Kunzru as they read from the banned book. Well, they did not read from the banned book, you know. They just had a printout they had made of some pages from a favourite work of art they had downloaded from the internet. Now what or who can stop any of us from downloading work we want to revel in?

Then there was this session on Meera I was keen to attend – It had my dear, dear friend Kiran Nagarkar of Cuckold fame (now, how many of you know this is the most fascinatingly told story of Meera and her husband). It would be wonderful to hear Kiran hold forth on the Meera he had so lovingly re-created for his readers in Cuckold.

It was also obvious that just seeing the words Meera,  people have come to sit in on this session Whoever were the speakers regardless we would have come was the buzz. This then was the force of Bhakti! Gandhi ji has said he learnt his Satyagraha from Meera’s silent, self effacing seva to her family.  Bhakti hai to Sadhan hinsa nahi ho sakata hai. If there was devotion, then your means to attain your goal could never harm.  Did someone say that mothers still feared naming their daughters Meera, much the same way fathers did not want to name sons Rahul?

Then Rahul Bhattacharya talks to  Kiran Nagarkar who is saying his only agenda is to tell a story. And oh can he tell a story , and how !!

Two people whose sessions were always Standing Room Only were Gulzar and Javed Akhtar.

While I will lay down my life for Gulzar and his beautiful verse and while I do believe Javed Akhtar, son of Jan Nissar Akhtar and son in law of Kaifi Azmi has his own wonderful worth as a poet, I fear their crazed fan following at the Festival is coloured more by their Bollywood  persona. 

There were some gems in their sessions –a bit blurred in my memory now . There was reference to a poem in the Raavi Paar session; a young man in the Punjab (undivided?) who after being in jail is released and he is now on his way back to meet his wife. The speed of the train, he tells us, cannot keep up with the flight of his imagination. Words in his mind configure into his wife's face .

 Dear Naresh Fernandes bringing with him and his Taj Mahal Fox Trot gem the whole style and panache of my Bombay to Jaipur

And one enchanting interlude at lunch chatting with journalist and writer from Karachi, Hanif  Mohammed  of Exploding Mangoes and Alice Bhatti fame – both awesome books and both Hanif and his lovely wife charm personified.  And then this other couple seated in front of us at the next event who had their lackeys save their seats for them an hour before they ambled in – Big Boss Bureaucrat written all over him ordering innumerable cups of  chai that was NOT allowed inside …..oh well what else are lackeys for eh?  Our artists are so, so humble and  our beaurocrats -  they so , so  are unbearably like this only.

So, dear Amogh , that’s it for today, for now , for last year’s Lit Fest . I have kept my word to you . And now as I prepare to get set for Lit Fest 2013 hope I remember how to go grab a seat in the Mughal Tent and keep it !!!  And maybe Ms Cow will still be there to moo her consent or dissent .

I have to put this down , the nazm Gulzar saab read and left me sobbing

''Subah subah ik khwab ki dastak par darwaza khola, dekha

Sarhad ke us paar se kuchh mehmaan aaye hain

Aankhon se maanoos the saarey

Chehre saarey sune sunaaye

Paanv dhoye, Haath dhulaye

Aangan mein aasan lagwaaye...

Aur tannoor pe makki ke kuchh mote mote rot pakaye

Potli mein mehmaan mere

Pichhale saalon ki faslon ka gud laaye the

Aankh khuli to dekha ghar mein koi nahin tha

Haath lagakar dekha to tannoor abhi tak bujha nahin tha

Aur hothon pe meethe gud ka jaayka ab tak chipak raha tha

Khwab tha shayad!

Khwab hi hoga! !

Sarhad par kal raat, suna hai, chali thi goli

Sarhad par kal raat, suna hai

Kuchh khwaabon ka khoon hua hai"


Amitabh said...

Hi mom, loved this post. Fantastic to see you write.

I have mixed feelings about William Darlymple, because of his inablity to defend Salman, Ruchir and in general "take a stand".

Its most easy to toe the line, what takes courage and faith, especially when it comes to art is to throw the pragmatism out.

Pragmatism is best left to the businessmen of the world.

Ruchir on Salman here


Nice detailed post.
How well you remember events from a year ago.
Hope you enjoy this year's fest too.

Viji Venkatesh said...

Hey Amit !! The creator of my Blog : ) so happy you liked my rambling , never ending post ! You know me - difficut to stop once i begin. I hear what you are saying about the issue last year - but i guess when you have a lakh and half people at the venue you need to just at that moment do what it will to ensure their safety the fest now and it's been great so far .