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Welcome to tamasha-stan: Literature festivals, writers and the state

by Amitav Ghosh

I have never attended the Jaipur Literary Festival; nor does a visit loom in the foreseeable future. This is largely (but not wholly) because I have no taste for tamashas. Although unusual, this aversion is by no means unknown in the Indian subcontinent. I know of many writers and readers who share it, and I suspect that most of us were drawn to the world of books precisely because it provided an island of quiet within the din of tamasha-stan.

My own inclinations make it difficult for me to understand why Salman Rushdie is so drawn to this festival. But each to their own and I recognize that I am in a tiny minority. The great majority of writers seem to want to go and anyone who does should certainly be able to. It is appalling that Rushdie was prevented from attending and I am wholly in agreement with those who believe that this bodes very ill indeed for the future of free expression in India.

But the controversy also raises questions about another issue that touches directly upon writing: this is the way in which literature is coming to be embedded within a wider culture of public spectacles and performances. This process, which got under way almost imperceptibly, has now achieved a momentum where it seems to be overtaking, and indeed overwhelming, writing itself as the primary end of a life in letters.

A  frequently heard argument in favour of book festivals is that they provide a venue for writers to meet the reading public. Although appealing, this argument is based on a flawed premise in that it assumes that attendance is equivalent to approbation. Books, by their very nature often give offence and create outrage, and this is bound to be especially so in circumstances where there are deep anxieties about how certain groups are perceived and represented. In democratic societies, those who are offended or outraged are within their rights to express their views so long as they refrain from violence and remain within certain limits. They are even entitled to resort to demonstrations, dharnas, occupations and the like; in circumstances where any arm of the government plays a role people are entitled also to press for the withdrawal of public funds or sponsorship (something like this has already happened in the US in relation to publicly-funded TV and radio channels). The equation is quite simple: to expand the points of direct contact between writers and the public is also to increase the leverage of the latter over the former.

A frequently heard argument in favour of book festivals is that they provide a venue for writers to meet the reading public. But that's flawed. Reuters

Writers and readers have not always stared each other in the face. Until quite recently most writers shrank from the notion of publicly embracing their readership. I remember once being at an event with the American novelist William Gaddis: this was in the 1990s and he was in his 70s then. A major figure in American post-modernism Gaddis had been reared in a very different culture of writing: he would not sign copies or take questions from readers. He refused even to read aloud from his book. After much persuasion he agreed to sit silently in front of the audience while someone else read out passages from his work. When we talked about this afterwards he said quite categorically that he believed that books should have lives of their own and that writers could only diminish the autonomy and integrity of their work by inserting themselves between the reader and the text.

Very few writers could afford to take such a position today (although JM Coetzee and a few others do still hold to it). The rest of us have become accustomed, in varying degrees, to doing readings, signings and public events: provisions to this effect are now often written into book contracts. But there still exists some degree of choice in regard to the extent to which writers must also be performers, which is why it is important to remember that if there is something to be gained from the transition there is also much to be lost.

Through the last century the relationship between readers and writers was largely impersonal. The reader related in the first instance to a book, not to its writer; and writers, for their part, did not confront their audience directly in the manner of musicians, singers, actors and so on. This was, I think, one of the reasons why writers were able to take greater risks in hurling defiance at society at large.

The situation has changed dramatically in recent years. The Internet, as I have good reason to know, has made it possible to subject writers to great pressure through mass-mailing campaigns. Face-to-face encounters add yet another dimension to this: to be called upon constantly to provide answers is inevitably to become answerable. If this process continues unchecked its impact on the freedom of thought and expression may be greater than any explicit policy of repression.

The old, impersonal relationship was, in other words, also a form of protection, a first line of defence, not merely within public spaces but also within the writer’s own head. In breaking this down the publishing industry certainly has much to gain, as does the tamasha industry; writers too have much to gain, but they also have something to lose, something that is as intangible as a latitude and yet of enormous value: this is the space that allows them to explore their own thoughts to the fullest.

Nor is this the only loss. As a child I was drawn to books because they were a refuge from a world that seemed to be at war with the very idea of an inner life. That world has become today exponentially more noisy, crowded and intrusive than ever before. Public life in India is now a whirling continuum that seamlessly unites cricket, politics and Bollywood. Each domain leaks into the other and the major figures are all closely linked. It is no coincidence that many of these elements are also much in evidence at book festivals. The intention evidently is to make the book world another link in the tightly joined whirligig of Cripollywood. It is easy to see the attractions of this, especially for writers who are striving to bring their work to public notice. But there is a price to pay: we need to remind ourselves that Bollywood movies are routinely re-edited to accommodate protests of various kinds. Recent incidents in Jaipur and in Kolkata, where Taslima Nasreen was also prevented from participating in a festival, suggest that Indian publishing will have to adapt its practices to those of the film industry if it is to pitch its tent beside the three-ring circus of the tamasha culture.

Continues on the nextpage

Another issue that was brought to the fore in Jaipur and Kolkata is that of the relationship between festivals, writers and the government. Much criticism has been directed at the national and state governments in this regard and much of it is certainly well-directed and well-deserved (although there is more than a touch of irony in seeing an editor like David Remnick, who trimmed his sails to the winds of Bush and Cheney during the Iraq war, holding forth on it).

Criticism is vitally necessary if the government is to be prodded into discharging its duties. But it is also important to recognize, I think, that the situation in relation to the freedom of expression today is vastly different from that which prevailed through much of the 20th century when governments were the chief, often the sole, agents in the repression of writers and artists. But states where that is still the case – for example, China, North Korean and Syria – are now the exception rather than the rule. Elsewhere threats to free speech today come mainly from private and sectional interests – fundamentalist groups, identity-based organizations, political extremists, corporations and so on. These may be ‘non-state actors’ but they can be very effective in limiting the freedom of speech. It might even be said that in India they have succeeded in shrinking the space for free expression to a point where it is not much broader than in China.

The institutions and organizations that represent writers and artists have yet to adapt to this change: the reflexive responses of the 20th century still prompt us to point our fingers first in the direction of the state. But today the role of government is often limited to an insidious collusion with various constituencies. Public pressure and criticism can, and must, be exercised to prevent, or at least impede, this collusion. But beyond that the question will inevitably arise, as it did in Jaipur and Kolkata, of whether the governments of today are even capable of providing the security they once did.

This is a matter of doubt not just in India but also in many wealthy countries. Despite the deployment of enormous resources neither Denmark nor Holland were able to prevent attacks upon artists under threat; in the US a woman who put up a website that was offensive to a religious group was quickly forced to go underground. These countries are heavily and efficiently policed: what are the chances that a country like India would be able to provide effective protection?

Whether the threats to the Jaipur festival were invented or real I am in no position to judge. But one has only to open a newspaper to know that certain situations in India are inherently combustible. What then would it have taken to ensure order in Jaipur and Kolkata? One battalion? Two? Or should festivals now invest in creating private security forces in the manner of mining companies? And what would this say about the relationship between writers and the public?

It is when we think of this that it becomes evident how lucky writers are: unlike musicians and actors they do not actually need to appear in public  (although they certainly have every right to do so). Performances are secondary and inessential to a writer’s work. Our books, which are our principal vehicles of expression, can reach people through impersonal mechanisms. This is what make the world of books so uniquely democratic and accessible.

What is of vital importance now is to ensure that books of all kinds continue to be published and are made available to readers: this is where the publishing industry should invest its resources. Public spectacles are a sideshow: if the Indian book world loses sight of this, as it seems to be in danger of doing, it will upend both the cart and the horse.

Of course limiting the role of performance would not eliminate the problem; it would perhaps only make it more manageable. The threats would remain, and the community of writers and artists would still need to find ways of protecting those of their number who are facing them.

How is this to be done?

As I noted earlier the institutions that are active on freedom of speech issues – PEN for instance – have, for historical reasons, attuned their methods to combating governments. There is certainly a place for this, even now, but today’s battle is not the same as yesterday’s. Unfortunately nobody, so far as I know, has yet found an effective means of countering ‘non-state actors’ – certainly I can’t think of one. The problem is difficult enough to make the business of dealing with governments appear relatively easy. But this is exactly why we need to pay proper attention to it. It is futile to proceed on the assumption that governments alone can provide a solution.

Amitav Ghosh is a writer. His latest novel, River of Smoke, was published last year. This article appeared on his blog on 6 February and has been published here with permission from the author.

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