by Lakshmi Chaudhry and Sandip Roy
Editor’s note: The Jaipur Literature Festival, widely acknowledged as India’s premier literary festival gets underway at the Diggi palace on Friday. The festival has been making headlines well ahead of its inauguration largely due to the furore over Salman Rushdie’s proposed visit. However the festival also features a star studded lineup with notable names such as David Remnik, Ben Okri, Deepak Chopra and Nilanjana Roy. Notable sessions on Friday include ‘From Ink Lake’ featuring Michael Ondaatje and ‘The Arab Spring: A Winter’s View’
Firstpost Editors Sandip Roy and Lakshmi Chaudhry are at the festival, where they will be live blogging the sessions, as well as other interesting activity in and around the Diggi Palace environs.
6.10 pm: Audience member points out that the panel is being held in the Rio Tinto Samvad room. Rio Tinto accused of “raping uranium mines in Nigeria.” So sponsorship can be about PR whitewashing.
No one responds to the Rio Tinto crack.
Panel low point: Jeet claims Bladerunner is better than Phillip Dick’s book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Science fiction lovers around the world contemplate suicide.
6.01pm, On bringing in celebrity judges:
Alastair: Last year’s Booker Prize committee was led by former head of secret service and is herself the author of several worst novels.
Mukund: Melvin Bragg told him TV really gave Booker its boost. If hype is what it takes, then let’s work on it.
Jeet Thayil’s family sponsors a prize for first-time writers. This year, it was a 72-year-old whose book sat in a drawer for decades.
Does the prize do more for the unknown author than a Julian Barnes?
Alastair: Commonwealth prize now is for previously unpublished writers. They will lose out on publicity but are now in the exciting business of talentspotting.
A shortlisting or winning a prize can have a phenomenal impact on sales. But what about countless writers whose books make it even to the longlist. Isn’t a lit prize underlining the pain of their predicament?
Jeet: Writing is a heroic activity. Sit in a room looking at a screen all days. This is what they do to criminals. Put them alone in a room to think sad thoughts.
More heroic than feeding the poor or fighting in the trenches for justice or human rights? Also: are all writers equally heroic. Robert Ludlum or aung Su Kyi? Who is more heroic. This is the problem with literary hype — and writers who buy into it.
5:42 pm, The prize:
Harrison Kelly of Man Asia prize: “What literary prizes can do is propel authors into fame.”
Jeet Thayil: The very title of the panel is a problem. We talk about hype when it comes to books — not movies or cricket. It’s like using a cannon to kill an ant. Writers don’t earn very much, and by the time they win prizes, they are far into their careers.
Satchidanandan: Credibility of an award depends on the institution, selectors and their sensibilities, and the process. Do you really take care and read the books.
Alastair, on authors who have refused prizes or withdrawn name from consideration: Amitav Ghosh withdrew his name for Commonwealth Writers Prize because it didn’t consider anyone not writing in English. Writers always turn down prizes for the most honourable reasons.
It seems a very lopsided panel where everyone is singing praises of prizes. Maybe it is the people on the panel, most of whom represent literary prizes. Manhad, for example, his family sponsors the DSC prize.
Manhad: My share price doesn’t go up because of the prize or the festival. It’s a very cynical and easy thing to say we do it for self-publicity.
4.15pm, ‘Stage by Stage’: Can theater have parallel authority in India asks David Hare. Girish Karnad says yes 30 years ago. TV and traffic killed it. “I don’t think India views a playwright as a necessity”, he says.
4.08pm’Stage by Stage’: David Hare and Girish Karnad are in conversation. Hare is one of the world’s most internationally performed playwrights. He is the author of 28 plays, sixteen of which have been seen at Britain’s National Theatre. Girish Karnad is a playwright, filmmaker and actor. He writes in Kannada and has translated most of his plays into English. His play, Hayavadana, won the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award. Hare says in Britain theater is still a way of talking to society at large about society at large. He says that theater still can be in the news pages of media, saying that the play itself may not be an issue, but what it is on. For example at the Jaipur Literary Festival, Rushdie is the issue.
Writing Gender, 3.36pm: Hoshang Merchant says globalisation is after the “pink” dollar. “They want stories that are not homo or hetero and the agenda of globalisation is to make the homosexual heterosexual in all except the bed. I don’t want to be globalized”, he says.
The Arab Spring, a Winter’s View 3.26pm: This panel features Kamin Mohammadi Navdeep Suri, Karima Khalil, Raja Shehadeh, and Max Rodenbeck in conversation with Barkha Dutt. Iranian author and activist Kamin is pushing back on Barkha Dutt saying women are more oppressed in Mideast, “65 percent of university grads in Iran are women. Women are allowed out more in an Islamic society by their families, allowed to do more..”
Navdeep Suri who is an Indian diplomat who has served in India’s diplomatic missions, says you want to balance your national interest with moral interest in the Palestinian cause… But he is not under any illusion that India can do anything about it. “If we then have an opportunity to pursue our national interest, why be apologetic about it?”, he says.
Irony alert: Barkha moves to ask Max Rodenbeck, the Middle East Correspondent for the Economist magazine, about US hypocrisy in not supporting democracy abroad — claiming that we always give ourselves a hard time, more so than US.
(But is this true?)
Max responds: The accusation of double standards about the West is perfectly accurate. In the case of India, its positions are puzzling in a country that takes a moral tone in all its dealings.
Barkha brings up Rushdie to Iranian activist Kamin Mohammadi. She responds: “I would love to take the violations of human rights from any association with Islam.”
Raja points out that traditionally three great religions have lived peacefully side by side for centuries. She says extremism as a modern aberration.
“Writing Gender” 3.08pm: Queer writer Hoshang Merchant said he had the guts to write in your face stuff after reading Namita Gokhales Paro. Raj Rao says literature is an alibi. He has no qualms about speaking lies, or using friends as characters in his books without telling them. Merchant says says there is no authentic Hoshang Merchant. He plays at being classless.
Do Deewane Shehar Mein 3.00pm: The Mughal tent is overflowing. Most cannot see the speakers. Pavan has translated Gulzar’s poems into English. In keeping with this spirit, Gulzar speaks in Urdu, Varma in English.
Gulzar reads a poem in Urdu, Varma follows with its translation.
As they banter in couplets, I realize poetry is almost impossible to liveblog.
Gulzar on New York, riffing on the antiseptic absence of ants, bees on flowers, perfect white ceilings without cracks. Varma’s translation is valiant but does little justice to the lyrical original: “My country is so backward that birds gather in the courtyard at dawn. The imbeciles eat and shit there. When I spend a few days in your city, I remember my village, India”
2.56pm: Hoshang Merchant, India’s first gay poet, says he liked being noticed as a gay writer since its difficult to be noticed. Now however, he says that it is a straitjacket. The conversation moves on to Vikram Seth, where R Raj Rao says Seth compromised for mainstream acceptance so as not to be stuck with the label of a gay writer.
Hoshang merchant says gender is genre. Gays should not write straight books like vikram seth . He is arch enemy in my camp. Genres are foisted on the author.
2.46pm: First session post lunch will be ‘Do Deewane Shehar Mein‘ featuring Pavan Varma and Gulzar, introduced by Neeta Gupta. Gulzar is an eminent writer, filmmaker, lyricist and scriptwriter. He is author of several collections of poems and short stories in Urdu. Apart from making significant television serials on Mirza Ghalib and Premchand, he has written film scripts, books for children, plays, ballets, translations, and music albums. Neeta Gupta is the publisher at Yatra Books. Besides translating and contributing to various magazines, she is the editor of Bharatiya Anuvad Parishad’s quarterly journal on translation, Anuvad. Gulzar is an eminent writer, filmmaker, lyricist and scriptwriter. He is author of several collections of poems and short stories in Urdu. Apart from making significant television serials on Mirza Ghalib and Premchand, he has written film scripts, books for children, plays, ballets, translations, and music albums.
The other session being covered is Whistling in the Dark: Writing Gender’ hosted by Hoshang Merchant and R. Raj Rao, in conversation with Minal Hajratwala. This will be the first session on queer writing and sexuality. Hoshang Merchant, born in 1947, is India’s first gay poet and R Raj Rao is the author of the cult queer texts The Boyfriend and BomGay.
2.07 pm: Here’s Salman Rushdie’s official statement on his absence from the Jaipur Literature Festival:
For the last several days I have made no public comment about my proposed trip to the Jaipur Literary Festival at the request of the local authorities in Rajasthan, hoping that they would put in place such precautions as might be necessary to allow me to come and address the Festival audience in circumstances that were comfortable and safe for all.
I have now been informed by intelligence sources in Maharashtra and Rajasthan that paid assassins from the Mumbai underworld may be on their way to Jaipur to “eliminate” me. While I have some doubts about the accuracy of this intelligence, it would be irresponsible of me to come to the Festival in such circumstances; irresponsible to my family, to the festival audience, and to my fellow writers. I will therefore not travel to Jaipur as planned
1.54 pm: Announcing Rushdie’s absence, William Dalrymple (author of Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India), said that while Rushdie will not come, there are 262 other authors present at the festival. Rushdie had said that he did not publicly comment about his proposed trip to #JLF at the request of local authorities in Rajasthan, hoping they would put precautions in place so he could come.
He was also told by intelligence sources that paid assassins from Mumbai were on their way to Jaipur and that “it would be irresponsible to come under these circumstances — to my family, to the festival, other writers.”
Sanjoy Roy said this is a huge problem for Indian democracy, even as Dalrymple said that in a more just world, Rushdie’s arrival should have been heralded by people throwing rose petals on the streets, not slippers. Namita Gokhale said #JLF hopes to have him back at some other point. They did not take questions.
1:43 pm: It’s official. Salman Rushdie will not be attending the the Jaipur Literature Festival. Rushdie says he has heard that paid assassins are on their way to Jaipur and it would be irresponsible for him to attend.
1.12 pm: Asked about Obama’s communication problems, Remnick says a lot of this criticism is about the “remembered romance of campaign rhetoric. Obama’s rhetorical genius was to echo the rhetoric of a generation he barely remembered — the civil rights generation. And he did this for a national audience — read not a black one.”
Failures of communication overlooks the real obstacles he faced.
1.02pm: Remnick is a rare voice that offers a clear-eyed defense of Obama, pointing rightly to the huge Republican machine arrayed against him from day one — “dedicated to getting him out of office.”
Obama’s central conceit — that there are no red states — “sounds charming but it’s not true”, he says. “This is his weakness — where he was convinced that he could be postpartisan, not postracial. This is the heart of his self-regard.”
Remnick adds that if a strong Republican was running, he would put his money on the Republican. Given that however, Remnick says Romney is a “hollow centrist.” And with regards to the upcoming Presidential race, he says “The odds are slight but the odds are that obama will win.”
This is met with very light applause. Jaipur is not Obama country.
12.52 pm: Remnick is sharp but also difficult as an interviewee. The notion of being ‘postracial’ is nonsense, utopian, he says when asked about Obama positioning himself as the same. Implying that maybe the question is, as well.
And his asides are priceless: “We’re watching a clown show in the Republican Party.”
But is he disappointed by Obama?
Answer: He Praises Obama’s “seriousness, thoughtfulness, intellectual honesty, says he is responsive to the American people.” “This is as good as it gets when it comes to American Presidents. Disappointed? Not if I’m being adult about it.
“Remember where we started… We were a nation that endorsed torture, losing belief in science,” he says. Remnick adds he hates to be the one “whacking the title of the panel, but I have to do it.”
The tension in this conversation is between the theme of the panel (and therefore pushed by Samanth) — that Obama’s been disappointing — and Remnick’s own views.
Remnick is coming out with all guns blazing against the usual criticisms of Obama, especially on the Left
12.49 pm: Obama’s Nobel prize was for not being George Bush says David Remnick. When Obama was told the news his reaction was “Get the f*&^ out of here!”
12.40 pm: A section of liberals are “wildly enraged and engorged on hate” about Obama says Remnick. “Previous black candidates were either symbolic or didn’t stand a chance. Jesse Jackson’s language, inflection were never going to win”, he says. That’s Remnick’s code for Jackson was ‘too black’ for America — unlike Obama.
12.27 pm: Next session being covered is “The Disappointment of Obama” featuring David Remnick in conversation with Samanth Subramanian. Remnick David Remnick, has been the editor of The New Yorker since July, 1998. He is the author of several books, including The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, King of the World, Resurrection, and Lenin’s Tomb, for which he received both the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction and a George Polk Award for excellence in journalism. His interviewer Samanth Subramanian is the Indian correspondent for The National and the author of Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast, which won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize in 2010.
12.14 pm: Michael Ondaatje is asked what he thinks about Sri Lanka now. He replies that Anils Ghost was his book about the war. He thought it would end with Anil going back to North America, but at the end realised the book had to stay in Sri Lanka. He says the book wiped him out emotionally. War always continues in different forms as it does in Sri Lanka.
12.05 pm: The audience is invited to ask questions. First one is from a journalist who doesn’t seem to know that Ondaatje wrote a book called The English Patient, as opposed to writing the screenplay for the movie. Amitava Kumar moves quickly to cover the extent of her ignorance.
The next question is from another journalist. Surely, question time ought not to be turned into a press conference
11.57 am: The conversation with Ondaatje underlines the dangers of an interview with a Great Author that becomes entirely about the craft of writing. This is fascinating to other writers but tends not to be interesting to a lay audience — even when it includes many fans of said author. The ordinary reader most often responds to an author not because he describes a ship’s passage through the Suez or the way the sun strikes a vase but because he taps into bigger themes that strike a chord or hit a nerve.
In other words, my inner Ondaatje groupie is yelling, talk about Anil’s Ghost!
And Amitava does just that… Right as I type this. There is a God.
11.52 am: Ondaatje looks like Richard Attenborough with his fluffy white hair, white beard and round face. Very unassuming and gentle. Somewhat different from another white-top in the audience – Suhel Seth.
11.42 am: Ondaatje talking about his writing says, “I want the marginality to come to the center”. He says he wanted to bring (protagonist) Kip into the landscape in English Patient. “Politically I don’t believe we can have only one voice to the story.”
11.30 am: ‘From Ink Lake’ featuring Michael Ondaatje in conversation with Amitava Kumar gets underway. Amitava Kumar introducing him says, “Ondaatje has won pretty much every prize other than Sri Lanka man of the match”.
“The More laconic people are, the more interesting people are,” says Ondaatje as Kumar complains — tactfully — about his abbreviated responses. He is every bit as wise and wry as his books.
11.15 am: A lovely young woman is making the announcements about the different panels but can’t help mangling the Indian names of the speakers. Understandably so since she isn’t Indian. But it does strike a bizarre note when an announcer at the Jaipur litfest — whose organizers have consistently made praiseworthy efforts to promote regional languages – can say Michael Ondaatje perfectly but stumbles over Chiki Sarkar.
11.00 am: First Rushdie reference 10 minutes in opening keynote speech in Hindi by Purushottam Agarwal. He speaks about how censoring what people can write is equivalent to censoring what people read. He repeats the theme of freedom over and again. Agarwal is a leading critic and scholar, who has won the Devi Shankar Awasthy Samman for Teesra Rukh, and the Mukutdhar Pandey Samman for Sanskriti: Varchswa aur Pratiroadh, both collections of literary and theoretical essays.
Is censorship going to become the real theme of JLF 2012?
10.45 am: There are layers and layers of security. The lane leading to Diggi Palace is blocked off as policemen crowd around the entrance. When I ask one of them if this heightened presence is due to Salman Rushdie, he says, “Woh nahin aa raha,” his tone belligerent, even disdainful. But he concedes the level of security is far higher than other years. His colleagues look on in amused silence.
The crowds at JLF may be hoping for a Rushdie appearance, but the men assigned to protect him are not.