Celebrating books

The Jaipur Festival has become a huge literary affair with writers coming from all over the world to discuss literature. A session on Prison Diaries saw three Kashmiri writers share the dice. A Kashmir Life report

A clever mix of glitterati and literati, DSC Jaipur Literary Festival has emerged as the Kumbh Mela of Indian and international writers and readers. Over the years in January, the page 3 elite from Delhi and Mumbai alongwith writers – authors from America to Africa to South Asia, and musical bands swarm Diggi Palace in the heart of Pink City to reflect on changing nature of world.

Beyond media focusing on the controversy around Salman Rushdie cancelling his visit, due to possible threat to his life, and debating hoarsely on the issue of freedom of expression versus duties and responsibilities of writers, the festival introduced Indian readers to extraordinary new talents such as Teju Cole, Taiye Selasi and Pola Oloxiarac.

Tom Stoppard, David Hare and Ariel Dorfman, three of the greatest living playwrights shared the dice with legendary Indian theatre personalities like Girish Karnad and Asghar Wajahat. The festival hosted fine novelists such as Annie Proulx, Ben Okri, Kiran Nagarkar, Lionel Shriver and Michael Ondaatje, Oprah Winfrey believed to be the most powerful woman in America stole the show at front lawns of the Palace. Oprah along with JK Rowling, has probably done as much as anyone else alive to get people to reading books.

Though there was no separate session on Kashmir in 2012 Jaipur festival, the travails and travesty in Kashmir was highlighted at two sessions one on ‘Prison Diaries’ and another on ‘Writers and Resistance’. Iftikhar Gilani, Anjum Zamroda Habib and Sahil Maqbool discussed the powerful and moving memoires written in Jails. Moderator Sidharath Varadarajan revealed that there were no prison memoirs in India after 1975. He said Iftikhar Gilani’s memoir, My Days in Prison, was the first prison diary after the emergency days.  A Journalist from Kashmir Maqbool Sahil said he was inspired by Gilani’s book to write his memoirs in Urdu, Shabistan-e-Wajood. The session was also devoted to human rights violations and discussions on how innocent souls are made to rot behind prison walls. It also focused on the working of security agencies and their biases.

In another session on the fourth day of the festival, writers from Palestine, Myanmar and Kashmir discussed writers’ role in resistance. In times of resistance, writers and their writings are as important as the people demonstrating on the streets, argued writers known for their works on resistance in different societies.

Moderated by Fatima Bhutto; Raja Shehadeh, Thant Myint-U and Iftikhar Gilani argued how the concept of ‘harassed man’ forms the basis of writing about revolutions.”Writing might be perceived as a lesser substance; having lesser power than the people on the streets but in reality is far more powerful. The agitators need immediate impact while the writer has time on hand for the writing to leave its impact,” he said.

Palestine writer Raja Shehadeh said writings are the only way for the next generations to learn about the historical revolutions. He also read out a few paragraphs from his book, Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape, talked on his conflict about being accepted as a Palestinian author. “When I wrote about Palestine, I did not exist for the world,’’ he said.

Iftikhar Gilani, said that any movement without intellectual guidance and ideology is a chaos. “Writers are an important part of resistance, even if they are not on the streets,” said Gilani. According to Gilani, any writer cannot be differentiated from the common man as he narrates the story of a common man.
“It is the writers who conceive ideas which often lead the way for revolutions and evolutions which change the society. Hence, he too has to be prepared to face the brunt on several occasions,’’ he added.

Gilani also talked about most works on Kashmir being written by Indian or Pakistani writers but not by those actually belonging to Kashmir.

Thant Myint-U, a historian and author of critically acclaimed books, The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma and Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia, said that during the 1988 uprising in Burma, he was himself very angry and upset. “However, it was later that I realised that heroes and villains are not really who I had thought they would be,’’ he said. He added his writing is more of a contribution made to his country. “It’s different when it’s your country, your people and your family,’’ he added.

The writers debated that being a writer of resistance is a privilege as it helps him understand, sympathise and empathise with struggles in other societies.

Beyound these discussions another debate amongst writers was the issue of corporate funding of literature, and sessions and talk shows of authors. Amongst a total of 125 sessions attended by some 250 authors and writers, 25 less fortunate could not find sponsors.

The sessions which went without sponsors included Hindi poet Ashok Chakardhar’s Poetry Reading, Writings on Gender, Naxilism and Democracy, Prison Diaries, Voices from Tamil, Meera Bhai and Aka Mahadevi, The Philisopy of Daya Krishna, Kabir and Dady Dayal, the Missing Links of Indian Military History. Even a session on women mystics, women writings on conflict could not find any sponsors.

The festival anyhow fascinated authors, with the crowd jostling and lining up for autographs. Around 40000 people swarmed the Diggi Palace Hotel during the festival. At times, organisers had to close the gates to keep the crowd in control. The same crowds go missing in book fairs where publishers are not even able to earn rents for their stalls. Fatima Bhutto’s book had to find buyers at the last Delhi Book Fair in Delhi, but in the Pink City festival, 300 copies vanished within an hour. She was made to sit on author’s desk in turns to sign the books purchased by her admirers.

While book fairs are dry affairs, organisers of the festival have cleverly mixed entertainment with the literature. It not only invites crowds, but with the stimulation of interacting with authors makes them to buy their books as well.

The authors, too, may bemoan the festival’s increasingly unwieldy size. Junot Diaz, a witty and thoughtful commentator on the lot of migrants in America, used one session to blame capitalism for encouraging writers to pursue their work not because they have something important to say, but for the sake of getting approval from the largest audience possible. “We know that we need less applause and more conversation,” he told a packed room. Promptly – inevitably – the audience clapped.

There were murmurs against TV anchors as well who made it a Salman Rushdie affair. The literati and glitterati shedding tears have remained quite when lesser mortals in their own country were detained and prevented to report and record events.

Detention of film maker Nishta Jain and journalists Priyanka Borpujari and Satyen Bordoloi in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh, denial of entry to US academic Professor Richard Shapiro in 2010 and deportation of broadcaster David Barasmian from Indira Gandhi International Airport in 2011 are just a few cases staring in the face of those holding the flag of freedom of expression. Delhi University professor Nandini Sunder was denied entry into Chhattisgarh on January 1, 2010 in the midst of Operation Green Hunt allegedly to prevent any news coming out.  There was no ruckus when journalist and writer Gautam Navlakha was detained and deported from Srinagar airport.

A few authors felt that the organisers had little choice in asking Rushdie not to come to Jaipur over the fears of breach of peace. There was also revulsion that TV glitterati have looked the other way, not even noticing cases of detention of writers and deportation of broadcasters and academics over past few years.

Noted author and broadcaster Mark Tully asked those opposing Rushdie, to approach court and take a legal recourse rather targeting freedom of speech. “It seems to me that Rajasthan government wants to have a cake and eat it too. They did not wanted him to come, so made situation difficult for him, “he said. He blamed the government for not coming clean on the issue from the very beginning. “This is very sad indeed as Jaipur Festival is very famous throughout the world. This is sad day for India. If someone has offended religious sentiments, there is law for that. Even, this offence has not been proved by the law, “he added.

Diplomat and author Pawan Verma, however, believes that the episode has not sullied India’s image as a democracy. While condemning extremism of any kind, he says opposing Rushdie’s writings does not mean opposing freedom of expression. “There is no absolute freedom. If there was any apprehension of breach of peace, organisers took the right decision,” he said.

Exposing dual character of West, Verma said the Danish newspaper that enraged Muslims by publishing cartoons of Prophet Mohanmamad in 2005 refused to publish caricatures of Christ. He said the Rushdie’s passages in his book The Satanic Verses were undoubtedly blasphemous and rights of individuals cannot be absolute.


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