“Who says life doesn’t mirror literature?” asks Adilah Ismail as she reports on the just concluded  Jaipur Literary Festival Heavily pencilled-schedule in hand and books in backpack, I walk past the lines of people waiting to greet his Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and navigate past the formidable bodyguards (a new addition to this year’s [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Religion, politics and a dose of academia: A healthy shake-up


“Who says life doesn’t mirror literature?” asks Adilah Ismail as she reports on the just concluded  Jaipur Literary Festival

Heavily pencilled-schedule in hand and books in backpack, I walk past the lines of people waiting to greet his Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and navigate past the formidable bodyguards (a new addition to this year’s festival). The Dalai Lama, wagging his finger informs the packed front lawns that money fails to bring inner peace and the ultimate source of happiness and joyfulness lies within ourselves. There’s a curious disconnect between the shadow of the lurid pink tent, the large sponsor banners and the calm spiritual leader as he draws parallels between science and religion (both seek reality through investigation) and solemnly informs us that corruption is the cancer of the whole world.
Under normal circumstances and armed with a healthy supply of scepticism characteristic of our times, most people might have dismissed this as rehashed wisdom but a quick glance around reveals that the sheer charisma and endearing simplicity of His Holiness has the audience absorbed. He shared anecdotes with writer, Pico Iyer about a life of eternal learning and anecdotes about his early years. Themes of home and belonging shadowed most of the sessions at the festival and the reminder that the 77-year-old who has devoted his life to the promotion of secular ethics, human happiness and inter-religious harmony has spent 54 years in exile is a sobering one.
Walking in to the Diggi Palace this year was like coming back home and finding the furniture rearranged in your absence. You’re a little disconcerted but then it starts to grow on you. The ingredients for the sixth edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival consisted of five days, 174 sessions (with new locations being added to the existing venue, hence the initial bewilderment), 275 speakers, a footfall of 200,000 visitors, a handful of music events and customary hullabaloo all shaken and stirred.
From debates on the literatures of 9/11; the role of the writer and the state to Sharia Law; nationalism and Arab Literature as well as an added emphasis on Buddhism and literature, the political and religious overtones which occupied a chunk of the schedule seemed curiously apt. The concept of readymade religion dropped out of heaven devoid of cultural and political influences was swiftly unpacked. As was the idea that religion has a monopoly on violence around the world. The cheerful conclusion of a majority of these sessions was that humans don’t need a reason to kill each other.
The strands of academic thought emphasised during the run up to the festival in an effort to make up for last year’s pomp were augmented with academic heavy weights Gayatri Spivak, professor at Columbia university (old literary theory joke about Spivak’s convoluted writing runs along the lines of ‘it’s not a question of whether the subaltern can speak, but whether they can Spivak’); literary and cultural theorist Homi Bhabha, head of the Humanities Centre at Harvard University; Diana L. Eck, from the Harvard Divinity School and political philosopher Michael Sandel, also from Harvard University. Michael Sandel was a personal favourite as he held forth on the cost of market economies warping into market societies where anything can be bought if you flash the right amount of cash.
My gift to you today are two fun if slightly startling facts from Sandel’s session. A prison cell upgrade at Santa Barbara prison will cost you about 80 dollars and writer Fay Weldon was paid a hefty sum to advertise the jeweller Bulgari, taking product placement to whole new heights. The 2001 novel titled ‘The Bulgari Connection’ mentioned the jeweller 34 times and was studded with literary gems such as ‘A Bulgari necklace in the hand is worth two in the bush’.
British born author of Indian origin and currently residing in Japan, Pico Iyer sums up the concept of home poignantly “Home is not a piece of soil but a piece of soul”. Laleh Khadivi likens her hyphenated identity to a migratory bird. Author of Cutting for Stone Abraham Verghese bluntly acknowledges that medicine is his first love and that he could give up writing but not practising medicine. The schoolgirls in front of me debate whether to get Ariel Dorfman’s autograph as he shuffles in front of us. After minutes of furious whispering, they shyly approach him with their well-worn exercise books. Dorfman peers at them and obliges. “Have you read any of my books though?” he asks. They smile and shake their heads.
The phantoms of Homer and Vyasa deign to make an appearance in Jaipur as the Epic is dissected -“Mythology lives by retelling. It is constantly renewing itself. To retell the myth is to honour the myth”. College students hold up the line for Madeline Miller’s book signing by vociferously airing their opinions on Achilles and Patrocles. A session on ‘Reimagining the Kama sutra’ is well attended. I wonder if it is perhaps a little too well attended as a five – year- old perched on her mother’s lap stretches in boredom. Both panellists have reimagined the Kama sutra in two very different ways. Pavan Varma insists that it empowers women while K.R. Indira refuses to budge on the stance that it sees women as objects. The audience leaves happily divided.
The steady stream of sessions continues and as the weekend progresses, the literary tourists have swollen in numbers. “Nobody knows this but we [Latin American writers] are very funny,” quips Santiago Roncagliolo. Roncagliolo compares himself to a dictator (“My characters do what I want them to do. If they don’t, I kill them”) as he and Ariel Dorfman banter about writing and their Latin American identity. Both speak about the deep seated relationship Latin American writers have with their readers – something I wonder if those of us of the subcontinent will be lucky enough to have. As evening descends over the festival, the silhouette of a boy on a rooftop attempting to fly a kite is projected on the blue backdrop of the tent.
Five novelists on stage debate about the novel of the future which deviates into a conversation of the future of the novel. All of them unsurprisingly agree that the novel isn’t dead.They touch on the curious case of the decline of reading and the surge in writing – clearly everybody wants to be a writer, but no one wants to read other people’s writing. At first, words come hesitantly to British-Pakistani novelist Nadeem Aslam (“My deepest conviction is that there is nothing extraordinary about me”) who then proceeds to charm the audience – “Novelists don’t tell you what to think, they tell you what to think about”. Booker Prize winner Howard Jacobson dismisses most readers plaintive request for ‘likeable’ characters – “When did you last read Shakespeare and want to have Macbeth & Lady Macbeth over for dinner”- and uncannily hits the nail on the head about the tragedy of our times – “Has the literary event replaced reading?” A festival favourite this year, Jacobson had his fans from the moment he cheerfully tore into 50 shades of grey.
Jeet Thayil wins the DSC prize for South Asian Literature and dedicates his award to fellow nominee Jamil Ahamad. The 10 finalists for the Man Booker Prize (which is given for a body of work by an author, not an individual book) were announced at the festival, with three writers from Asia making the list. Aminatta Forna, Ahdaf Soueif, Zoe Heller, Reza Aslan, Christopher Ricks, Elif Batuman, Gary Shteyngart are few other names which punctuate the list of speakers at this year’s JLF.
I bump into one of Sri Lanka’s additions to the festival. Ashok Ferrey and I bond over a mutual nostalgia for spicy Sri Lankan food (This is starting to sound like one of those name-dropping gossip columns. A thousand apologies!) Ferrey describes his first time at the festival as “absolutely mindboggling” and remarks on the expansive demographic and democratic nature of the festival.
The pen may be mightier than the sword but it paled in the presence of the bat and Bollywood as Rahul Dravid and Sharmila Tagore proved to be two stars of the festival. A section of each session is devoted to questions from the audience. Unfortunately there are questions and then there are solipsistic life précis. The sense of power a microphone bestows on a person boggles the mind and is every moderator’s nightmare. After the end of one particular session, we receive the literary equivalent of a move trailer – a slim booklet with the first chapter of a book soon to be released in February.
Sitting on the lawn on the final day and observing the mixed bag of humanity which makes up the festival, it’s a little hard to imagine that the first edition started off with 2500 people.The economic repercussions of the loss of 1.5 crore (278,000 dollars) this year however poses a credible threat to the festival bubble. Where is the festival headed next year? Simultaneously the larger the festival, the larger scope for ruffled feathers, sulks and tantrums. The political repercussions in the past certainly haven’t left the festival untouched. The festival was preluded by threats of violence from Muslim fundamentalists if either of the four authors who read excerpts from Rushdie’s Satanic Verses last year, attended this year. Not to be outdone, the Hindu right-wing group RSS and the national opposition BharatiyaJanata Party promptly warned Pakistani writers from participating in the festival, citing escalating tensions along the ‘line of control’ – the border separating Kashmir. During the course of the festival, academic Ashish Nandy’s remark about caste and corruption was stripped of context, taken in its barest literal meaning and used as a vaulting pole for stirring agitation. The absolutist response to the controversy (I’m a little tired of this word becoming synonymous with the festival now) garnered by a poorly articulated remark is reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s foul tempered monarch’s refrain “Off with their heads” in response to the slightest offence. Who says life doesn’t mirror literature?

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