Saturday, January 29, 2011

Jaipur Literary Festival 2011

First thing, right up top, you should know about this post, before you read any further, is that I did not attend this year's Jaipur Literary Festival. In fact, I have never attended any of its past editions (is that the right word?). But, yes, I have been to Jaipur once, in winter, to attend a wedding, and what I have so far read and heard about the festival, to my own mind, given my experience with Jaipur, I feel qualified to write a few lines about it (and modesty be damned, certainly hold an opinion on it and give it an expression).

The literary festival at Jaipur has acquired a sheen of glamor over the years. It has become kind of a literary Cannes or Sundance, never mind the drumbeats and the bhangra. This year was special as one of my favourite writers, J M Coetzee, attended the festival. I have always associated him with the unglamorous side of the writerly life, the savouring of which is the true mark of a writer, a ceaseless media-shy literary warrior committed to inconspicuous consumption, a monk among the literary cheerleaders and exhibitionists. Now that he has broken my heart by appearing in public (I take consolation in the fact that he refused Q&As, declined interviews and read aloud only a short story in public, and thank God, did not smile even once) in Jaipur, my only hope now, this side of the Atlantic, remains in Aravind Adiga. But I read sometime ago that he had appeared in a lit fest in England (perhaps it was a lapse of judgment on this great writer's part). It seems there is no hope for me. I am running out of models and ideals who will not cave in to the pressures of the market or the temptations of taking a little jump in the puddle of celebrity. Ah, I know you are already pointing me toward J D Salinger and Thomas Pynchon but the problem is that my battered freighter is yet to reach one of the harbours of the New World.

That is one big reason, if you ask me, why I go back to the dead writers: Joyce, Kafka, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Dostoevsky. They can't come back from the dead to claim their share of the limelight under the neem tree (isn't that good news for the fame-seeking new writers?). Interred, far from the madding crowd, they are comfortable with their solitude and do not suffer from nervous breakdowns if denied the regular supply of the Ecstasy of the mass media. I go to them and drink in their company and learn to nurture my solitude from them and as advised by Rilke, look deep inside me (often to find an unfathomable shallowness, which I plumb with my artistic compass, resulting in a feeling of inadequacy and melancholy and many more unspeakable weaknesses that are ready to slip off my tongue like uncontrollable snakes).

So, to go back to the beginning (you can see I have the habit of running ahead of myself), the drumbeats of Jaipur Lit Fest reached my ears in Singapore. One of the discordant notes came from Hartosh Singh Bal who accused Sir William Dalrymple, of the hyphenated White-Mughals (the hyphen is mine), one of the festival's organisers, of acting like a burra sahib and enthusiastically collecting specimens of white writers for the festival, making Indians suffer from a colonial hangover even after 60 years of British colonial rule. What an injustice! Why should an Englishman be an arbiter of Indian literature at Jaipur? That was the complaint, and it implied that Indian writers still needed the patting and recognition from their erstwhile white masters to get into serious literary play in the akhada of literature. The gentlemen that he is, Sir Dalrymple, got back to his accuser by saying that the plaintiff was indulging in a well-known but less coveted sport of reverse-racism. “That piece felt little more than the literary equivalent of pouring shit through an immigrant’s letterbox,” Dalrymple said. Sir Dalrymple is ever so eloquent, don't you wonder?

In my opinion, both Sir and Singh have a point. Though I have great regard for Sir Dalrymple (we Indians have a great talent for veneration and we are always in search of demi-gods to applause and worship), perhaps he does not grasp the bigger picture of what is going on here. As Malcolm Bradbury wrote in one of his essays, the British society was tooled up, so to speak, for empire-building. The building has stopped and the Britisher has no real place to exercise his talent. After the British empire ceased to exist (now it is restricted to seeking lost glory in organising the Commonwealth games and bestowing Commmonwealth awards), the immediate vacuum in the British society was filled with the need to thrash up the former subjects -- on the British soil. It did not result in anything salubrious, except that it gave us Hanif Kureishi. This reminds me of the churning of the primordial elements, the heavens and the earth, that gave rise to Adam and Eve. Nature has this old habit of creating something beautiful, and mind you, irreverent, out of chaos.

The reverse of what Bardbury has said is also true, which escaped the attention of Mr. Singh. The Indian society, especially the Indian middle class, was tooled up, so to speak, for empire-worshiping (I don't have to remind you of Macaulay's words, Mr. Singh, do I?). The empire is not there anymore, so the only place an educated Indian can bow his head is in front of the offsprings of the empire-builders. So, actually, both need each other to grow culturally, unless you want more Chetan Bhagats in India (no offense to Mr. Bhagat--I haven't read you any deeply than I have read Mark Twain or Faulker; so, you are in great company; therefore, please do not think of suing me).

Other interesting notes from the festival came from Coetzee, (yeah, what do you expect? I am a fan), and Orhan Pamuk. They spoke for writers writing in languages other than English and how they are often neglected by publishers and readers (and unless they win Nobel Prizes, they aren't even invited to festivals like Jaipur Lit Fest). My heart always beats for those who are unjustly neglected. So, Coetzee and Pamuk score big in my book for what they said in Jaipur.

Also, in his column, C P Surendran, complained of drunkards going around bashing poets and novelists, on minor excuses such as asking a lighter from a Sikh man. To him, I will say, take heart Mr Surendran. A time may come when gentlemen in the festival will shake off their pants altogether. Then we would know that Indian literature has overtaken British writing for good, and that the empire has struck its final, deathly blow.

In future, I am sure Japipur lit fest will grow and grow. My only worry is that with the kind of tamasha going around it, it also attracts wrong kind of people. Or maybe the festivalwalls should call it the Jaipur Cultural Festival. Then you can invite the qawwals and bhajan singers and body builders and their like to celebrate the cultural contribution of Bollywood song writers and cook book queens and dietitians; this should go well alongside the readings of and dialogues with eminent writers like Chimamanda Adichie and Junot Diaz.

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