Big minds jousted spiritedly on JLF-2022’s hybrid arena
Let me start my JLF diary this year with an epigram I just put together: Words are magic and writers are sorcerers of the mind. To be in the presence of a genuinely original thinker, the real deal, so to speak, should, by the same token, be a mind-altering experience. No doubt, it is why the fifteenth edition of a rejuvenated Jaipur Literature Festival, which moved to its new home of Hotel Clark Amer from the storied precincts of Diggi Palace, has witnessed a footfall numbering in thousands on the opening day of its on-ground edition, after being billed by organiser Sanjoy K. Roy as “the first big outing of the post-pandemic cultural world”.
“The clouds of war are gathered around our planet. Even as we try to recover from it, there is chaos and calamity. Through it all, literature and our shared stories have continued to sustain us,” festival co-director Namita Gokhale said at the start of the event. “I hope the Jaipur Literature Festival will provide solace to all of us, particularly the book lovers who have missed hearing their favourite authors,” said historian William Dalyrimple, another co-director.
The very first day of the online edition of the event, being produced in hybrid format since 2021, featured Nobel laureate Abdulrazzak Gurnah, the Tanzanian novelist and British émigré who has followed up his masterpiece, Paradise, with Afterlives, a magnum opus.
“As a child, I didn't realise how deeply racialised our politics was,” Gurnah said when asked to trace the roots of his inspiration. “There is a degree of delusional storytelling about these things, about how we get on with each other. So the 1964 revolution completely surprised us. It was already successful when we began talking about it but what we did not know was the violence that was inside us. I think that something similar happened with Uganda and Idi Amin. Uganda was always a peaceful and gentle country. I think it teaches us something about the human being’s capacity for meanness and cruelty that lurks behind the good stories about ourselves that we tell ourselves. It was terrifying — the period after the revolution, when people were dying and suffering, and just degraded and humiliated in every sort of way.” Gurnah’s works deal with the effects of colonialism, displacement and the refugee experience in a clear and uncompromising manner.
Neutrality and balance in vision is also key to the work of Turkish novelist and political scientist Elif Shafak, whose 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 2019. Set in strife-torn and conflicted Cyprus where the community stands divided by the “green line” into Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, Christians and Muslims, The Island of Missing Trees is her latest book that has intrigued readers.
“For me, the duality of settling down and this peripatetic and nomadic lifestyle [of mine] is crucial. In Istanbul, too, I have always felt on the threshold, as an insider/outsider. I was enough of an insider to feel attached and care, but was also being able to experience a little bit of cognitive distance as an outsider, and this duality informs all my writings,” said Shafak.
Regarding her “process” for the writing of Island, she says, “For a long time, I researched and collected material but I was worried. How could I avoid falling into the trap of nationalism and tribalism? Only when I found the voice of the fig tree, could I get the courage to start writing.” Island also deals with the consequences of erasing history. Observed Shafak, “Families have memories, but families also have silences. Memory matters. We cannot repair what we don't remember. And if we don't remember we are bound to repeat the same mistakes”, in a statement marked by an almost fatidic quality.
Rock star psychologist Steven Pinker’s session, however, was a bit dull, in contrast, possibly because the philosopher himself was in an uncommunicative mood. It looked like he had spent himself writing Rationality, his meditation on reason and its many roles. When economist Mihir Sharma asked him “if it is impossible to change human nature, can we not reform society, is there no utopia as human beings are flawed by nature?” he replied: “To the extent that we have reduced poverty, reduced famine, reduced war is because of rationality. But human beings are better intuitive lawyers than logicians and they can better point out flaws in others' arguments than those in their own. In small groups, however, people’s unsaid biases cancel each other out. A committee of individuals might sometimes have a better chance at getting to a truth which a single individual might be unable to. Groups of people deliberating can reduce noise. All it takes is for one person to see the right answer and he convinces everyone else.” This was my takeaway from that confabulation.
Some sessions were more rewarding than others. Science fiction scholar Tarun K. Saint referenced the work of his compatriot in the University of Oslo and enlightened audiences with the information that it was in fact the scientist J.C. Bose who wrote the first Indian science fiction “Niruddesher Kahini” in Bengali as early as in 1896 in response to a competition announced by the popular hair oil brand Kuntalin. Here participants had to write a story featuring a bottle of the hair oil. The inventor and owner of the hair oil, Hemendramohan Basu, was active in the Swadeshi movement. Cyclones were a common occurrence in Kolkata during those days with the last major one in 1864 claiming 50,000 lives. ”In Bose’s story, it seems the chemical composition of Kuntalin managed to stop the storm in its tracks and calm the waves of water,” said Saint. Bose later reworked the story for his collection Abyakto (1921) with the alternate title "Palatak Toofan" or "Runaway Cyclone".
“Science fiction is a way to take back both the past and future from our colonial past. So we should not underestimate its revolutionary potential,” said author and physicist Vandana Singh Lal.
Want a tip on how to title a book? Here’s some inside information from the South African Damon Galgut, also the new Booker Prize winner. “I was calling it Dark Love,” he says, referring to the prizewinning The Promise. “It was an allusion to this character’s love for South Africa as a dark continent. The publishers turned it down. It all worked out in the end because The Promise is a neutral title; it is neutral in the sense that you can hang a great many meanings on it.”
However, in the same session, Galgut pronounced a somewhat dire warning to wannabe novel writers. He said: “The novel is no longer at the centre of cultural life. Everyone can see that. If you want to change the world, then the novel is no longer the best way to do it.”
“When Farkhunda Malikzada was burned to death, I cried for a month,” said Mozhdah Jamalzadah, the Afghan singer, actress and talk show hostess who had taken the country by storm only a few years back. Her biography, Voice of Rebellion, by Roberta Staley was released recently. She said, “When I was sexually assaulted by my colleague at the TV station I worked in, I could either let the encounter overpower my life, or I could push it aside and continue, however difficult it was going to be, and I chose the second. I did not feel ashamed to report the account in detail, even graphically, in my book because violence is always ugly and the shame was not mine. Many women who work in television in Afghanistan are assaulted but they keep it under wraps partly because disclosure leads to victim-blaming more readily there. Even in my case, I could do it because I am in Canada; it would have been different had I been in Afghanistan.”
Is ghar wapsi politically charged? This is a point which was pondered at length by Namita Gokhale, and Pushpesh Pant and Prabhat Ranjan, two of her translators. While the scholar Pushpesh has rendered her Sahitya Akademi award-winning novel Things to Leave Behind in Hindi, Ranjan has translated her latest book, The Blind Matriarch. Said Gokhale, “However the words may be used, abused and misused, the fact is that ghar wapsi is a beautiful idea. Everybody wants to return home. Any Indian writing in English who is not setting his novel in New York or anywhere else in the world where the metaphors do not have to be in Hindi, but is writing about Bombay, Delhi, Nainital or any other place in India, will find that the words do come out of the language of that place. And we lose so much, not in translation, but in the moment of writing. There are awkward explanations for very simple words and concepts. It was very difficult to write bits of Things to Leave Behind.
This is a novel set during the British raj with a range of British characters and writing their stories during the raj was easy but for the characters who were Kumaoni and Pahadi, putting their speech in English was sometimes awkward. Translations are a ghar wapsi. Sucheta Mittal had done the most beautiful translation of Shakuntala. Dhoomketu, instead of comet, sounded different. I meant dhoomketu; I didn't mean comet. And even regarding this novel called Baramaasa, yes, ‘Baramaasa’ was in the Devanagari script.”
Discussing the choice of the title Aandhari for the translation of The Blind Matriarch by Ranjan who coined the word (and which automatically evokes the concept of Gandhari without having to name her), she said, “Those things only happen when you are writing in your mother tongue. You lose so many layers of meaning when you are writing in a foreign language.”
Journalist Lindsay Pereira’s chillingly realistic debut, Gods and Ends, was shortlisted for last year’s prestigious JCB Prize for Literature. He was asked: “How much of your book is true to life and how much imagination? Does Obregado Mansion exist? How much of it is real?” Obregado Mansion is the chawl at the centre of the story.
Pereira, who attended the festival via video-conferencing, said, “A lot of it is fiction. The dialect is real. I spent a lot of time to get the nuances right. I had specific dialects and turns of phrase that I associated with specific characters to help me tie them all together. A lot of it was based on people, ideas and customs that I did encounter.
Geographically, or rather location-wise, the well in the story was real. There were and still are mansions like Obregado in Bombay. I remember someone pointing out when they were reading the book that it is absolutely impossible that they could rent a place like this for that amount of money, even in the seventies, but it is not true. A lot of people in some parts of Bombay, and surprisingly well-heeled parts of Bombay, do manage to get away with paying rents that are criminal because of the Rent Control Act. I grew up in a place where the rent we paid was a little over 200. All of it was real. I grew up in a fairly poor household. It was a really small room. The money we paid was real.
The people paying those kinds of rents were real. A lot of that just wasn't fiction. Maybe the people who read it have not been exposed to that kind of poverty or the kind of rents that these characters are paying.”
In some ways then, this was a rebuke to the elitism and narrow-minded exclusionism that characterises many readers’ ivory towers or otherwise-privileged, cocooned little worlds.
The Jaipur Literature Festival-2022 ends on March 14, Monday.