Jaipur Literature Festival 2021: Simon Winchester on his new book, and the bloody history of land ownership

The book, which explores the question if land can ever truly be ‘owned’, came about when Winchester himself began to dig into the history of a piece of land he bought after moving to the US.

Harsh Pareek February 20, 2021 18:00:55 IST
Jaipur Literature Festival 2021: Simon Winchester on his new book, and the bloody history of land ownership

File image of Simon Winchester. Via Flickr/CC

The last time Simon Winchester took to the stage at the Jaipur Literature Festival, the world was quite a different place. It was the winter of 2017, and he was in conversation with Jonathan Shainin (then the editor of the Guardian long read), discussing his 1998-published non-fiction The Surgeon of Crowthorne, which was soon to be adapted into a film starring Mel Gibson and Sean Penn in the lead roles. The venue, Hotel Diggi Palace’s Charbagh, was packed with an audience, the collective mannerism so casual and carefree, one might have mistaken it for boredom.

Today, the British-American author and journalist once again took to the stage at the Front Lawns of the festival to discuss his new book, Land. Only the “stage” was in part his home in Massachusetts, the session was taking place over a video call. In conversation with journalist and author Raghu Karnad in New Delhi, Winchester enquired if Karnad remembered the days when we could freely travel. ‘Remotely,’ came the reply.

The book, which explores the question if land can ever truly be ‘owned’, came about when Winchester himself began to dig into the history of a piece of land he bought after moving to the United States (and subsequently acquiring a citizenship), following his years in Hong Kong. What the author discovered, once he came across the documents dating back to the early 17th century, was the absence of the notion of ownership among the natives of the land. And this began a globe-spanning investigation into humans' relationship with the land.

One of the common threads one comes across in the book, as Karnad pointed out, is that the history of land is a bloody one. Winchester points to the almost mythical understanding most of the world has acquired, that if one owns a piece of land, one has money. An idea that is vert much intertwined with capitalism. Over centuries, land has been seen as an asset to be acquired, one that can never be lost. But now, with the rising sea levels, the age-old idea is being put to test.

Form John Locke’s ideas of land ownership, to the concept of terra nullius, and the role played by the codification of laws by the English, the author briefly touched upon many subjects that have come to shape our ideas about the land over time. A good bit of the 40-odd minutes session was spent on recounting how the Dutch managed to claim a million acres of land from the sea (Lelystad), and subsequently distribute it among its population, all in a rather cordial manner.

Winchester also pointed to the curious occurrence across history of how at times someone who was ‘bullied’ in their own homeland would subsequently cross the seas and become the bully in the new land, taking away from the natives.

Listening to the discussion, one was constantly reminded of Frances Stonor Saunders’ essay from some years ago, Where on Earth are you? While Winchester talks of land, Saunders dissects our conceptions of borders. Both, like many across time and space, aiming to define what it means to be a part of this world.

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