On Day 4 of Jaipur Literature Festival 2018, conversations about writing memoirs, nature and Indian education
Day 4 of the Jaipur Literature Festival had an insightful session about sea-birds, an impromptu session by Mallika Dua and Shashi Tharoor speaking in Hindi | #FirstCulture
Day four of the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival 2018 began with a rather generic, but at times a passive-aggressive conversation between Arun Maira, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Surjit S Bhalla and John Elliott (who was moderating). The topics of discussion revolved mostly around wealth creation, education, women empowerment and the practicality of data-driven reports in a country like India.
Bhalla, the author of The New Wealth of Nations, argued that developing countries have seen incredible growth in the past few decades (in terms of wealth generation, poverty reduction, women empowerment, among other things), all thanks to a boost to education.
Mazumdar-Shaw, on the other hand, asserted that education in isolation does not create growth. She argued that real education promotes innovations and research, and India is one of the worst performers among the developing or developed countries, if it is assessed from that perspective. She also talked about what she considers a flawed concept: of taking grants away from established centres of learning (like Bangalore, Pune or Hyderabad) by the government and investing in establishing newer institutions, leaving the already progressing centres to the mercy of private investmentors.
She also spoke about the need for a revamped education system in the country, driven by the Internet and technology at poor people’s disposal. Talking about women empowerment, she said there is a need for more women in the mainstream, which can be achieved not just by education, but with a change in societal outlook.
Bhalla responded by saying that students not learning much despite going to school is a natural phenomenon in development — a stage of evolution. Part of the problem, he claimed, is reservation or the quota system in the country. He insisted that all his opinions were backed by data, and the message that his book delivers is not elitist, that there has been a rise of a new elite in India, as a result of education.
Meanwhile, Maira said that one cannot just rely on numbers or draw conclusions. He was also of the view that many students have been enrolled into schools but are not learning much of value; that the focus should shift from quantity to quality, and the way to do this is that people must demand change. He said he believed that we have indeed opened up to the idea of education, but many people, especially women, are not yet receiving any benefits.
After some meandering across the venue during the lunch, I decided to attend Adam Nicolson’s ‘The Seabird's Cry’ session, which was about to start in about half an hour. It was to be an impromptu session, replacing Prasoon Joshi’s ‘Main aur Woh: Conversations with Myself’, after the lyricist, screenwriter, poet, marketer, but most importantly in this context, the Chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification, pulled out of the festival following threats of vandalism from the Karni Sena. “It’s sad that we are not relying on genuine, peaceful dialogue,” he had said earlier in a statement about his decision to skip the festival.
As I said, there was still some time for the session to start, but as I got to the venue — Front Lawns, which was a disaster-waiting-to-happen — Shashi Tharoor was having a lunch session in front of a sea of bodies, all crammed together there after a change in the venue. The crowd was even more rapturous than usual, the reason — Tharoor was bashing the British in Hindi. It was difficult to hear everything from so far back, but whatever he was saying drew an ecstatic response. Utter madness.
Multitasking, I was also working on taking in the atmosphere immediately around me. Someone talking on the phone said, “Mahaul achha hai. Dost log hai. Tu bhi aaja,” (The atmosphere is great. Friends are here. You too, should drop by) which pretty much summed up the festival for at least a decent percentage of the weekend crowd. And there was this other guy, on the phone with his father, screaming that he had passed some examination and demanding that the father pass on the phone to his mother. All this while a girl fanatically and embarrassingly tried to calm him down, not that his reactions were in any way out of place here. Not entirely sure what was up with that dad though, took him a good ten minutes and dozens of requests from the boy to finally pass on the phone. But I get sidetracked, back to the festival.
The Tharoor session got over and the bodies left the venue, leaving behind, literally, a cloud of dust. Once seated (only the third time in four days), there were constant announcements regarding the Joshi session being cancelled and the new session one taking its place. But people wouldn’t budge. Either no one paid any attention to all the announcements or just really didn't care (although I should mention here that the announcements were only made in English).
Once the session began though, a large number of people left, only to be replaced by people waiting there for the next session featuring Mallika Dua. I wonder how the goings-on looked from Nicolson’s perspective on the stage.
But he did look like a decent chap (his book, Sea Room: An Island Life in the Hebrides, had caught my eye early on) and indeed captured most of the crowd’s attention with his fascinating talk (accompanied with some incredible photographs, videos and narrative) on seabirds and their catastrophic decline.
He touched upon how birds play a role in our imagination with their sense of otherness, emblematic of a fuller, stranger part of our minds. But perhaps, most importantly, because they can fly.
Nicolson talked about first becoming familiar with the birds on the Hebrides (let Ewan McGregor introduce you to the islands here), where his dad bought an island for £1200 back in the day. Although populated and visited by a number of species, perhaps the most famous and photogenic are the puffins (Porgs, the Star Wars creatures, exist because of them) — small, with a gentleman-like gait and a dangerously undying love for the colour orange.
The author also talked about a few more species, including the impressive albatross, and discussed some research aimed at understanding their traits and behaviours. Coming back to the topic of endangerment to the lives of the seabirds, Nicolson explained how plastic, dumped into the oceans, is one of the biggest contributing factors in the massive decline of birds over the past decade or so. The need for a change, it seemed, is more urgent than most realise.
The next hour was spent standing as a backup (in case something went wrong) and being of no use for an interview featuring Soha Ali Khan and Sharmila Tagore. Although, as someone would point out later, Tagore was as rude as feared behind the scenes.
The final session I attended was ‘The Feminine Gaze: Women Writing Memoir’, featuring a pretty incredible lineup of Abeer Y Hoque, Alia Malek, Amy Tan and Juliet Nicolson, in conversation with Keggie Carew.
The session kicked off with a little disagreement over its title but soon evolved into an insightful interrogation of some of the most personal and, at times, troubling moments in one’s life.
Malek talked about her book, The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria, and how it's not a conventional memoir, but an investigation into the history of the country, often intertwined with the story of her own family. She also talked about how the difference between a memoir written by a man and a woman is not necessarily that of perspective, but more of where one rests in the power dynamics of a society. Growing up in the United States, the author felt a loss of individuality as her community was often grouped as one, while back in Syria, she once again felt she was held accountable for the deeds of George W Bush. With the book, she says, the goal is to humanise a story of a war-torn country and tell things that haven’t been told.
With a life spanning across the United States, Nigeria and Bangladesh, Hoque recounts her life in, Olive Witch: A Memoir. The author talked about the difficulty of writing about places and balancing the expectations of people (publishers, more prominently in this case) from different parts of the world. She also talked about her struggles with depression, being confined to a psychiatric ward and how this phase showed her how much mental illness can become part of one’s life. Hoque also touched upon how the support of her family was crucial to her work and the useful thing to do to help people with mental illness is to keep talking about it.
Nicolson, the author of A House Full of Daughters, talked about the power of a place while discussing her home, and how the house — the brick and mortar — is always there for her even on occasions when people in her life let her down. She spoke about how it gives one strength and continuity, and how she highly recommends having such a place in life. Reaching back to some of the darkest moments of her life, she recounted how alcoholism had been a ongoing issue among women of her family across generations, her own struggle with it over the years (as luck would have it, it was also the 20th anniversary of the day since she gave up alcohol after reaching a point where only about 10 percent of her liver was functional) and how telling the truth helps one rethink their own life.
Amy Tan spoke about growing up Chinese in the United States and the feeling of being an American while visiting China. She talked about how her mother, a strong and honest woman who had a difficult life but refused to be victimised, and how she had been one of the most influential people in her life. She also discussed the heartbreak of realising, while working on a memoir, how one has been raised on lies and secrets. Finally, commenting on the current state of things, Tan talked about how people like Donald Trump and nationalists are making communities like her’s feel threatened, and how a writer needs to stay determined in such times.
And with that, it was time to give my back and right leg a little rest before the final day of the Jaipur Literature Festival.
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