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.
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.
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