Zee Jaipur Literature Festival 2018 comes to a close with a rousing debate on #MeToo

The debate capped off the 11th edition of the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival | #FirstCulture

Harsh Pareek January 30, 2018 17:37:06 IST
Zee Jaipur Literature Festival 2018 comes to a close with a rousing debate on #MeToo

If there is ever a Monday that's looked forward to with a sense of relief, it's during the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival. The first day of the week (the fest runs Thursday to Monday every year) is often the most laidback, and crowd-free — a throwback to the early years and slow afternoons of the festival.

Things were extra orderly on the last day of the 11th Jaipur Literature Festival as chief minister Vasundhara Raje, who had decided to pull out of the opening ceremony, now decided to drop by after all. The entrance lane cleared, a policeman every two feet, singers and dancers waiting at the gates in glee. Well played.

The day started off with Jeffrey Gettleman, Nick Perry, Praveen Swami and Shelley Thakral discussing the ever-so-complicated Rohingya crisis with Salil Tripathi.

Perry, who had the covered the crisis recently, talked about the need for verification of stories coming out of the region. He said he believed that there have been efforts to feed misinformation from certain sectors. He also talked about the almost non-existing chance of the refugees to ever returning to Myanmar, and how Bangladesh and Sheikh Hasina have handled the situation.

Swami talked about the need for people to inform themselves with the multiple perspectives involved in the crisis and rubbished any talks of reparations. He also explained the incredibly complex geopolitical scenarios across Myanmar, Bangladesh and India, all factoring into how things pan out.

Zee Jaipur Literature Festival 2018 comes to a close with a rousing debate on MeToo

Scenes from the final day of the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival. Images via Twitter/@ZeeJLF

Gettleman talked about how the crisis is putting pressure on an already densely populated and prone-to-environmental-disaster country like Bangladesh. He also touched upon the history of such crises and the role of journalists to in building compassion and humanising the victims.

Thakral talked about how the aid communities are trying to reach out to as many people as possible and the ever-increasing need for resources at times like this. She also talked about the need for giving the refugees a voice and also understanding the concerns of Bangladeshi people regarding the inflow of millions of people into their country.

The panel also touched on the topic of Aung San Suu Kyi’s response to the situation and what we could expect from her going forward.

There is a crowd blocking an entrance, gathered around a guy playing a guitar and singing. There are more people here than there are at some of the sessions. Its 1.30 on a Monday afternoon, in case you forgot.

Up next is a lunchtime session on ‘Fashion and Modernity’, featuring Anja Aronowsky Cronberg, Malika Verma Kashyap and Paola Antonelli in conversation with Pramod Kumar KG.

Antonelli kicked things off talking about a recently concluded (only the day before) fashion exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) called ‘Items’. She explained the thinking process that went behind the many displays around the gallery (including two saris) and how it helped interpreting parts and cultures of the world. She also discussed the burkini and the bikini (part of one of the displays), and how politics plays out on the bodies of women.

Next, Kashyap gave a presentation about her projects, Border & Fall and The Sari Series. All the work on the websites (the articles, the interviews, the visuals), she said, had their inception in form of a simple question — Why are women not wearing saris? Over time, she worked on gathering the data around the question and producing a free for all resource, which now includes more than 80 how-to-drape videos.

Finally, Cronberg talked about her annual journal on dress and fashion, Vestoj, her philosophy behind the publication, and the well-crafted manifesto for the same. She spoke about how often the way people talk about fashion as something trivial can hurt a lot of people working in the industry. She also touched upon how she feels that there could indeed be nothing more intimate than what we put on our bodies, and what fashions means for/to people who say they don’t care about it.

Side note: I was first introduced to Vestoj back in the day with the publication of this incredible interview of Lucinda Chambers by Cronberg herself. Definitely worth a read.

Next up — the same venue but a 180 with the topic (the festival at its best).

It was time for ‘Among the Insurgents’ with Cathy Scott-Clark, Michael Vatikiotis and Peter Bergen, in conversation with Charlie English.

The all-veteran journalists panel talked about a wide range of subjects, including the use of the term ‘insurgent’ itself over the terms ‘militants’ or ‘extremists’; the importance of media and technology in contemporary conflict scenarios; the mindsets and reformation of insurgents; the role of the governments; the future of current conflicts across the world; among other things.

A thoroughly insightful, though at times depressing, conversation we need to have more of.

For the last session of the festival, we had Nicholas Shakespeare and Redmond O’Hanlon, with William Dalrymple, discussing the extraordinary life of Bruce Chatwin.

Dalrymple began by reading a piece he had written for The Times Literary Supplement in October of 2010 about Chatwin. It talked about Dalrymple's first meeting with the man and how he came to influence him over his lifetime.

O’Hanlon, too, read from his book about his interaction with Chatwin, giving an exceptionally animated and dramatic glimpse into the life and attitude of the travel writer. Shakespeare then read from his biography of Chatwin — Bruce Chatwin.

The trio also discussed his dazzling writing talents, his all-encompassing influence of travel writers, the controversies he caused, his complicated relationship with his wife, Elizabeth, his final years with AIDS and his legacy.

And with that, the only thing left on the agenda was the debate.

But before that Sanjoy K Roy, while thanking everyone for the festival said something that stung. He said people have asked him why they don't move the festival to a more spacious location. His response — you can find a new venue, but not a heart as big as Diggi Palace. Sure. (Dalrymple did mention that the venue will be expanded to the parking lot nearby. However, going by how shifting the Samvad stage outside the main venue didn't do anything to assuage the situation, it's hard to imagine how the 'expansion' will help.)

The Debate, ladies and gentlemen, is a tradition now here at the Jaipur LitFest, designed in a manner as to have some of the most soft-spoken, modest intellectuals drop the facade and slug it out like it was the Hunger Games. Or basically, your typical late-night debate on the television.

But this year it was different. Of the six participants Bee Rowlatt, Pinky Anand, Ruchira Gupta, Sandip Roy, Manu Joseph and Vinod Dua (moderated by Namita Bhandare), debating the topic ‘#MeToo: Do Men Still Have It too Easy?’, four more or less agreed that yes, men do indeed have it easy. Anand, a lawyer and a politician, played by the book of law and the justice system (but agreeing that there are changes required). And then there was the curious case of Joseph.

For his allotted four-minute opening statement, he fumbled about old sperms, morality, Milind Soman, Amit Shah, men hitting on him, child molestation, among many other things. Yes, only four minutes were allotted. He refused to say where he stood on the debate, but from what one could make out from all those words, the point he perhaps was trying to make was — how the #MeToo movement was hurting the guys who have done nothing criminal. How it was now difficult to be casual in social spaces or ask someone out at the office. How there were now too many rules and too little fun. I apologise, but it wasn’t all very coherent.

Oh, and there was, of course, the brief spat between him and Rowlatt. In her opening statement, addressing him as “darling”, she asked Joseph to “not be a d*ck”, and listen to what women have to say. Later on, after she stated what it means to be a feminist (“if you respect a woman, you are a feminist”), Joseph shot back with how he felt that her definition was setting a low bar. Among other interactions between them, Joseph also told her he feels like they were married. Yup.

As for the others — Ruchira Gupta was impressive as expected (Haryana, Rajasthan, Supreme Court judges, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and many others taken to task) with a slip or two here and there (“Maybe men can start breastfeeding” while talking about meaning of feminism); Vinod Dua was calm (a bit too calm for a debate) and spoke of educating children better; and Roy was perhaps the best of all, drawing gasps, yeses, ohs from the audience as he talked about sexual abuse of men, the discrimination in newsrooms, the attitude of letting it slide, the everyday experiences of women and dissing Suhel Seth.

In the end, as Bhandare pointed out, there wasn’t much of a debate after all. But what it was, was ideas and convictions for change coming together for many to marvel at.

With the debate all done and dusted, and final thank-yous said from the stage, a wedding band marched from the back of the venue while belting tune after tune in something that looked right out a Wes Anderson movie (only more crowded). An incredible touch from the organisers to end the festival.

And to the tunes of horns and drums, the night closed in and the festival was over for another year.

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