Tata Literature Live 2018: On Day 1, discussions on Hindutva, soft power — and a chatty book launch
'South Bombay’s liberals' — referred thus by two speakers — descended upon the gardens and AC halls of the NCPA to celebrate the Tata Literature Live! — the annual extravaganza dedicated to books and if lucky, controversies.
It’s been a long day, and at the end of it I am suffering from sweet — dramatic pause, deep breath — sweet exhaustion. Aside: I have to thank Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi (SDS) for bringing that phrase into my life.
Today was the first day of Tata Literature Live! 2018 — or what founder Anil Dharker cheekily calls ‘Mumbai’s only literature festival, if you know what I mean’.
'South Bombay’s liberals' — referred thus by two speakers — descended upon the gardens and AC halls of the NCPA to celebrate the annual extravaganza dedicated to books and if lucky, controversies.
What better way to ignite the latter than with a session on 'Hindu, Hinduism and Hindutva'? “Is this a natural progression?” was Dharker’s first question to his panel of Barkha Dutt, Pavan K Varma, and N Ram. “It’s a political project,” was N Ram’s vehement response. Varma concurred. “The shrillness of Hindutva is an electoral phenomenon. Its impact is seasonal and limited,” he said.
Dharker appeared to be enjoying his role as moderator, stirring up the panel (and the audience) with provocative statements. His ‘Religion has nothing to do with intellect’ had Varma espousing on the shades and aspects of Hinduism and the growing gulf between its philosophical and practiced form. His question on 'Will India end up becoming like Pakistan?' had Dutt shaking her head. “Pakistan has a fatal flaw. Its democracy has not taken off. This country has a democracy and I believe in it,” she said and was received with much cheering. And then, ‘By nature humans are intolerant. Education and political correctness makes us suppress those feelings. Most communities just ignore the fact that they dislike each other. All it takes is a spark from a political party to bring that to fore'. At that, everyone in the audience nodded their disapproval. Varma got them laughing with, “Not everyone is like this. Modi and Amit Shah like each other.”
Other stand-out moments included Dutt telling Varma that she doesn’t like his usage of (the term) secular lobby as ‘it comes from a very Times Now and Republic school of thought’; N Ram talking about a charismatic leader ‘who comes in and misleads the whole country’; and Varma giving the whistle-worthy line, ‘nowadays it doesn't matter if the PM is with you — as long as the SC is with you’.
It was an entertaining discussion and many in the audience had questions. The prize for best one goes to the lady who bluntly asked, ‘If Parsis landed on the coast of Gujarat today, would they be given asylum?’.
My second session was on soft power and cultural capital. Moderator Ashok Ferrey (whose work I enjoy reading and is the main reason I am there) is conspicuously silent through it, preferring to leave the heavy talking to authors James Crabtree and Srinath Raghavan, and academic Dr Nader Fekri.
Together, they manage to explain the importance of soft power and why India needs to take notice of it. “Modi and his Yoga Days are the simplest example of soft power. He is out there trying to reclaim yoga as an Indian phenomenon. It’s getting people’s attention and making them interested in the country,” says Crabtree.
They debate India’s equivalent to the Goethe Institute, Alliance Française and British Council, which aid a country’s cultural agency abroad: “There’s the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) but it needs to be doing so much more,” says Nader. “For a fraction of Rafale deal, including the alleged kickbacks, you could achieve so much more for India.”
The highlights for me were watching Sir Mark Tully, in the audience, reluctantly signing an autograph for a man older than him, and Nader singing ‘Mera joota hai Japani’.
The latter seems a fitting precursor to the star attraction of the day: 'Fabulous Fables', the launch of Shanghvi’s book, The Rabbit and The Squirrel, followed by a conversation with Jaya and Amitabh Bachchan. I chose this session purely for the entertainment value and it didn’t disappoint. In true Bollywood style, it turned out to be a one-hour spectacle.
SDS read out a letter he had written to his nephews, complete with an (affected) accent and many pauses, which were filled by beautiful pieces by violinist Mika Nishimura. The letter itself was too long, and contained sentence after sentence of quotable quotes, some borrowed and some blue:
“The company you avoid defines you. Eliminating people gently and discreetly is an art. Don't be afraid to be alone. Do not let someone steal your talent or faith or intimacy. People will come and go. Be a good friend. Place pleasure at the centre of your life.”
Then there was a reading from the book, and a small film where illustrator Stina Wirsen spoke about her work.
The conversation, which most of the audience was there for, with AB and JB (as SDS sometimes called them before resorting to ji) was a mix of self-praise, random questions, and extreme fawning. To sum up, Jaya-ji makes up stories to tell her grandchildren and she grew up learning that books were more important than jewellery; Amit-ji doesn’t like giving away his books, and he has been writing a blog for 3,896 days and has 500 followers on it.
I’ve now decided that this is all the Bollywood I can handle at a litfest. Tomorrow, dear diary, I’m sticking to just literature.
For the full schedule of the Tata Literature Live! Mumbai Litfest 2018, click here.
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