HIMAL SOUTH ASIA BLOG
I eat god,
I drink god,
I sleep on god…
It is the first day of the Jaipur Literature Festival and Girish Karnad, who is supposed to give the keynote lecture, along with heavyweights like Wole Soyinka and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., are missing in action. They are possibly lost in the Delhi fog, or the traffic, or maybe they didn’t even depart their home cities and countries in the first place. The roads, you know, says one of the organizers. Apparently this is a good enough explanation and the crowd asks no questions and asks for no explanations—we start off the day with a remarkably serene and unhurried shift to readings of Kabir instead. The day is beautiful, the sky is blue, there are long runners in pink, yellow and orange fabrics above our head and two dhol-players are causing a tremendous ruckus and making us all feel invigorated. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra is on stage and goes from Kabir to Arun Kolatkar with effortless ease. And that is why, instead of a lecture on “Entertaining India”, we are listening to a lovely poem that eats god and sleeps on god and talks about how the poet hopes his mother-in-law (plus all his other in-laws) would drop dead so he could be alone with his lover.
So starts the day. I have never heard of Arun Kolatkar but I am ready, at the end of the reading, to run out and buy his book. The bookstore is full of books by the authors who are present at the event, but first a writer should look around and check out the people who are present—a colorful assortment of women and men dressed in drop-dead gorgeous Indian fabrics, and where the Westerners look rather plain and pale unless they invested in some Indian fabrics and trinkets. No doubt the place is teeming with literary celebs—the problem with spotting them is that everyone looks the part, right down to little girls who carry their books around like devoted readers and writers. I spot is a group of local Jaipurians who are looking at the schedule with deep concentration. I savor this scene for a while—locals immersed deeply in their own literary event.
Then a minute later I realize why people are concentrating so hard on the schedule—basically, half the speakers are absent, there has been a drastic change of plans and nothing is going according to schedule. The people who have arrived early are asked to be on panels, and before long I find myself listening to Vikram Chandra (scheduled to present on the last day) talking about his latest book about the underworld, as well as the banality of evil. He talks about criminals and murderers that he met. The most horrific thing that he came to learn, he said, was that most people who did these terrible things were ordinary people like you and me. They were not monsters. They were religious, god fearing men who kept shrines at the back of their homes, and yet they were able to commit horrific acts that the ones that occurred during Partition. “The frightening thing is to realize that the people who are murderers and criminals are not so different from us,” he said. “There’s two degree of separation between criminals and people in the audience.” I had met Vickram Chandra when he was teaching at the Breadloaf Conference in 2002. I noticed that eight years in the United States seem to have trained him to become more charitable to the world than condition of the rest of the world allowed for.
Claire Tomalin (scheduled to speak on Saturday) gave her talk on Jane Austen promptly and with joy. There is nothing more delightful than a Jane Austen scholar who loves the writer and treats her with the greatest respect. Claire talked about the conditions of Austen’s life—her poverty, her lack of money, her lack of publishing success, her ten years of depression and being unable to write—all of which added up to a literary phenomenon. Austen talked about taboo topics that other writers didn’t touch, she said. Tomalin gave her talk with humor and intelligence, and the audience responded in kind. Jane Austen appeared to be required reading for women in India, from the questions—half of the questioners also insisted that Claire MUST see “Bride and Prejudice”, which was the final word on the book. Claire insisted, politely but firmly, that she did not see these adaptations. ““Bride and Prejudice” made me realize a lot of things I hadn’t learnt from the book,” gushed one reader enthusiastically. I belched. One reader, however, did add an interesting tidbid—Austen’s horrid Mrs.Norris had been reincarnated as a cat in Harry Potter.
Then we went on to see Geoff Dyer and Amit Chowdari, moderated by Amitav Kumar, talk about “Visible Cities”. Geoff talked about his latest book on Venice and Benaras, and read a short chapter about a monkey who steals a man’s sunglasses in Varanashi and holds it hostage, while the man tries to get it back from him by bribing him with bananas. All would have been well and good and we’d have thought it was just a good piece of comedy if he’d not read about how the monkey could “evolve” (be careful with that word, writers!) as a species if he gave back the sunglasses, and if he didn’t, he’d always be a monkey. Then he talked about “history”, just a line or two but enough for an audience member to wonder if he didn’t know, as a smart man of the twenty-first century, how colonial culture categorized Third World peoples as “monkeys”…Hmmm… this bit of monkeying around was possibly smart of him, or maybe it wasn’t. Not in a tent full of people who are too aware of post-colonial criticism. Amit Chowdari read about Calcutta—a beautiful and evocative piece. Then he referred to Susan Sontag’s “Under the Sign of Saturn,” and how Walter Benjamin had talked about how he was a man born under this sign, therefore he never finished any of his projects, and this was the line she’s picked up and written her essay on. A literary throwaway aside, kind of like strolling through the streets of an old city as a flaneur.
The afternoon ended in the front lawn with the delightful Mr. Alexander Mc.Call Smith talking about his “#1 Detective Agency” and how he came up with this idea. He and William Dalrymple, who was interviewing him, had a good laugh at the expense of the Scots, who apparently indignantly protested the ten thousand pounds allocated by the Scottish government for the festival—the money, suggested the critics, could have been better spent on fighting illiteracy in Scotland. “There are actually Scottish secret agents out there in the audience, dressed in kilts, trying to keep track of this money. They think we don’t see them, but we do,” chucked the writer, as he burst out in a fit of laughter.
Sushma Joshi blogs at www.sushma.blogspot.com and www.sushmasfiction.blogspot.com