Day 5 of the Jaipur Literature Festival, 28th January 2013

The last day today, which comes with mixed feelings. It’s tiring, doing all this listening and writing, but I feel so inspired by so much of what I’ve heard—creatively and politically—that it’s sad that it’s come to an end. And unlike academic conferences, I haven’t finished with a splitting headache.

It irritates me that the English-language newspapers here have been writing things like “JLF overshadowed by controversy” in such a sensationalist manner. Perhaps some peoples’ experiences of the event have been overshadowed by controversy—Ashis Nandy’s, probably—but mine certainly hasn’t been. I was at Nandy’s session on Saturday when he made the silly comment, but until I saw the throngs of police outside in the evening, and the headlines on Sunday morning, I wasn’t aware that there had been such an outcry. It didn’t surprise me, I was expecting it of course, but there were too many other fantastic things going on to let it overshadow the whole festival. I do think Nandy’s comments were stupid and he should’ve known better than to say them when and how he did, but I also think that he should have the right to say them and be rebutted in a reasonable manner, as he was by Ashutosh and Patrick French at the very time. I hope the JLF organisers, or the future of the festival, do not suffers out of this. And now I don’t want to discuss that any more, as it shouldn’t detract from the dozens of other speakers that continued to make the festival so lively and positive.

Started today at a session that aimed to discuss how to get from the idea of having a book to actually having a book, in the words of chair Meru Gokhale: “Maps for Lost Writers: Nurturing Creativity”, with Anish Irani, Prajwal Parajuly, Aita Ighodaro and Hindol Sengupta. Pretentious as it is, I feel like I’ve been a frustrated novelist since I was about fifteen, and what these kinds of sessions always emphasise, which is of course very sound advice, is that if you want to write, just do it. Don’t make excuses about the day job, or writer’s block, or lack of inspiration, just do it. That advice also got me through the PhD. I was especially encouraged by Sengupta’s comment that he flunked maths at school so didn’t know what else to do with himself, and Gokhale’s reply that a large number of writers did flunk maths! I didn’t quite, but I did hate it with a passion, so perhaps I am made of the right stuff.

(Howard Jacobson and Samanth Subramanian)

Next I saw Howard Jacobson, author of the Booker prize winning The Finkler Question, among other things, in conversation with Samanth Subramanian, and it was almost like being at a comedy show. I haven’t read any of his books, but after hearing him talk I think I will, because he really is very funny, in a dead-pan, cynical British way. What he said led on well from the first session, because he spoke of how he became a writer, in his thirties. He’d ended up teaching literature at Wolverhampton Polytech (which, with Hamilton NZ, or Wagga Wagga Australia, is one of the worst places I can imagine ending up as a literature academic; I exaggerate, but only a little), and wasn’t happy. He’d written for a long time, and had cultivated a bohemian appearance of a novelist (ripped shirt, beard with holes, trousers with tippex smears), but didn’t have his first novel published until he was forty. All of these details he recounted in a much funnier way than I just have! And, unsurprisingly, he explained that he became funny after the realisation that his talents (ping pong, among other things!) weren’t those valued by most of society; that he wasn’t good-looking, and thus comedy was the solution. As he said, “if you can laugh at yourself, at your own ignominy and pain, then you’ve overcome it.” During question time it was suggested by a member of the audience that India, as a nation, seems to lack the ability to laugh at itself, and that does seem to be true. Jacobson ended: “calling in the police because someone has said something offensive is grotesque.”


The next session was one of the best of the entire festival: “Imagine: Resistance, Protest, Assertion” with Maya Rao, Aminatta Forna, Nirupama Dutt, Ambai, Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, Urvashi Butalia, and a dance/performance piece by someone whose name I foolishly didn’t note down (if someone could advise me of this I would be grateful, as she was stunning). Aminatta Forma read a passage from The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, perhaps my favourite book in the world, and certainly the single biggest catalyst for my interest in feminist literature, when I studied it at high school. Urvashi Butalia read an article dating from 1983 by a young woman who had been gang-raped. It argued that though some had suggested to her that perhaps death would have been preferable, life is far too precious, and that though the rape was horrific, the desire to live overwhelmed everything else. It also recounted the disgusting police response to her rape: what had she been wearing, why was she out in the evening with a boy, why hadn’t she fought harder to keep the ten men off, why had her male friend not done more to prevent them. All this was thirty years ago, and it could have been written today. Little has changed, in public or police or political responses to rape, we have seen this recently. It was the perfect piece for Butalia to choose to read today; one of the things that has been frustrating me, and probably numerous other feminists, with the increased public discussion of rape and sexual assault in India recently, is that suddenly the mainstream media has “discovered” something that feminists have been saying for years and years and years. It’s good that they have, that it’s being discussed, but why did it take another brutal gang rape in Delhi in December for these messages to be taken up? There are so many responses to this, there have been and there will continue to be, and this is good. But I imagine the Indian feminists are both laughing with relief and crying with frustration that this is happening now, in 2013. This session closed with an extraordinary performance piece by a woman whose name I don’t know. I cannot describe it, I wouldn’t be able to do justice to it. It was an agonised plea for women to be able to claim their space, their lives, their right to life. Those who were there know. It left many of us reeling, and a lot of tears were shed.

This was the highlight of the day, as well as being a punch in the stomach, and after that there seemed nothing else to do but have too many wines with lunch. I emerged late into the post-lunch session with Shobhaa De, completely by accident. I have read one De novel, just to see if I could, and it was a struggle. But I was impressed with the little I heard: “How can you make the west a scapegoat for the problems of our society?” she said in response to a question I didn’t hear. “As if women weren’t raped in India before.” Reminded me of the comments that rape doesn’t happen in the villages. No, reports of rape don’t happen in the villages.

Luckily though, Shobhaa De and her launch of Kareena Kapoor’s book didn’t get the last word. That went to Shoma Chaudhury, who led the team in favour of the moot “capitalism has lost its way” to victory in the annual debate. And a good time was had by all.

Day 4 of the Jaipur Literature Festival, 27th January 2013

I must confess to having a bit of a new literary crush, on Nadeem Aslam, and from talking to others at the JLF, it seems I’m not alone. So I started off today at a session with him, Kunzang Choden, (Bhutanese author of The Circle of Karma), and Chandrahas Choudhury, on the theme of “The Buddha in Literature.” Aslam’s third novel, The Wasted Vigil, is set in Afghanistan, and Aslam himself is a British Pakistani Muslim, so it may seem strange that he was put on this panel. But he started by saying that Buddhism has a long history in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as it does across South Asia, but it was so effectively airbrushed out of the history he was taught at school in Pakistan that it wasn’t until his twenties that he started to become aware and interested in this history.

The crowd for this was rather thin, but it was 10am on a Sunday morning, so I certainly wouldn’t put that down to the quality of the speakers. William Dalrymple was up next in the same venue, though, and he spoke to a packed house about his new history of the first British invasion of Afghanistan, The Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839-1842. Dalrymple is an engaging and extremely entertaining speaker, and he spent the whole hour actually summarising the history he recounts in his book, same anecdotes and all. He emphasised the tragic, frustrating fact that the west (Britain in particular in this case) have been following, almost exactly, the path that led to their utter demolition in Afghanistan in the 1840s. He said he’d received an email from Kabul not long ago saying that Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, was having trouble sleeping because he couldn’t put the book down, being haunted by the similarities between himself and Shah Shuja, the exiled Afghan king that the British tried to put back on the throne. The talk, complete with slideshow of pics from the archives, was a great advertisement for the book, but as someone who has already read it I did wonder why he didn’t provide more teasers rather than direct quotes and anecdotes, so that people could read the book fresh without picking it up and thinking “oh, this is exactly what he said at the JLF!” But of course it is a very long book, having been meticulously researched, with much more detail than he was able to condense into an hour’s speech, so for anyone who was there today who hasn’t read it, I highly recommend that you still do!

Over lunch a brilliant musical performance was held on the Front Lawns, in conjunction with the launch of classical musician Ustad Amjad Ali Khan’s book My Father, Our Fraternity. Two sitarists and a tabla player performed two pieces, the first composed by Tagore. Though I know next to nothing about Indian classical music (and just as little about western classical), sometimes I think it’s important to let music, or art, wash over you without intellectualising them. I wish I could still do this with literature, but I can’t because I’m too far down the rabbit hole, so I appreciated the sheer beauty of the music.

(Anjum Hasan and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak)

Anjum Hasan and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak were paired again after lunch, with novelist and literary critic Amit Chaudhuri, in a session called “The Vanishing Present: Post Colonial Critiques”. My friends know that Spivak has been a bit of a thorn in my foot for a while; as a postcolonial feminist literary scholar, much of her writing was essential for me to engage with in my PhD thesis, yet every time I thought I’d got my head around what she was saying it transpired that I really hadn’t. Anjum Hasan, as chair, seemed to be having the same problem today (and that is not a slight on Hasan in the least, it happens to the best of us!) Spivak was an entertaining speaker, taking us on stories and digressions, but she couldn’t leave her academic mantle behind, and she rarely answered the questions posed to her. Hasan’s attempts to paraphrase or summarise what she understood to be Spivak’s points were contradicted by Spivak, and I thought I saw the hint of a smile on Hasan’s lips when this happened. I did not envy her her task today! Having read much of Spivak’s work, though not her latest book, I recognised most of what she was saying. Her emphatic suggestion that people must learn languages, that it is not enough to read in translation but that we must all endeavour to read in another, I found both inspiring and disheartening. I am learning Hindi, and I am making progress slowly, slowly. I sometimes feel that starting at the age of twenty-five, as I did, might be a bit too late to ever be proficient, but Spivak said she started learning Chinese seven years ago, in her mid sixties. I take encouragement from this, and try to remember that the militantly monolingual cultures of the Anglophone west need not be a barrier to second language learning for the really determined. But Hindi is just one other language, and even if I add Urdu to that (I’m almost reading it now), it still seems so insignificant an effort, when there are literatures from all over the place that I want to read. This is where I find Spivak’s premise disheartening, because I would need ten or more lifetimes to learn all the languages I would need to read all the books I want, in the original. Spivak is a translator, and has written some great feminist translation theory (“The Politics of Translation”), and I think she should have given a bit more attention to this today.

(Jeet Thayil)

(Tishani Doshi)

Poetry is not my genre of choice, usually, but I’m really glad I attended a session of readings from Tishani Doshi, Gagan Gil, Sheniz Janmohamed and Jeet Thayil. A strong feminist streak was present in the work of the female authors, and Doshi’s powerful poems on womanhood, love and death prompted a few wet eyes. Thayil was very funny, and I’m sure he read many of the same poems in 2011, when I was last here: amongst them “How to be a Crow”, “How to be a Horse”, “How to be a Bandicoot.” Bizarre and side-splittingly funny.

The final session of the day, “Reimagining the Kamasutra” with Malayalam author K. R. Indira, Pavan Varma, and Urvashi Butalia, was a surprisingly frank discussion on sexuality. Both Indira and Varma have written on the Kama Sutra, but they have very different perspectives on the position of women within it (no pun intended). Indira noted something that came as a surprise to many: that what is nowadays commonly known as the Kama Sutra, a collection of illustrations of sexual positions, is in fact only one of seven books/chapters that comprise the full Kama Sutra. She believes that the whole work is deeply patriarchal and detrimental to women, teaching men to treat women as sexual objects through instruction on the dutiful wife, how to seduce a virgin, other men’s wives, and dealings with prostitutes. Varma disagreed on the negative implications for women, saying that the book encourages men to please women, and pointing out that it was only after the introduction of Victorian sexual prudery (my word, not his) that India internalised many of the sexual mores that have become commonplace nowadays. But the best line of the day went to Butalia: after a question from a young woman on why so many middle-aged and elderly Hindu women worship the Shiva lingam, which is in fact a stylised penis, she replied: “I am a middle-aged woman and I do not worship the phallus!”

Day 3 of the Jaipur Literature Festival, 26th January 2013

Today is India Republic Day (as well as Australia Day), and politics filled the agenda at the festival. It was also the first weekend day, and the crowds were noticeably bigger. I stuck to the same seat in the front row at the Char Bagh all morning, because moving around was just too stressful!

(Ashutosh, Tarun Tejpal and Urvashi Butalia)

The first session I attended brought together Patrick French, Ashis Nandy, Tarun Tejpal, Ashutosh and Richard Sorabji, with Urvashi Butalia (she doesn’t know it, but I’m her biggest fan) chairing. On the occasion of India’s 64th Republic Day, the conversation revolved around what India is doing right, what it is doing wrong, and what should be done to make it a more representative and just democracy in practice, not just on paper. All of the speakers were very strong, and came from different literary and scholarly perspectives: French is a British non-fiction writer on India, Nandy a scholar of philosophy and politics, Tejapl the founding editor of newsmagazine Tehelka, Ashutosh is a TV journalist, and Sorabji a historian (who has written 102 books! That got a round of applause). Discussion turned for some time to the anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare, so naturally to corruption. Tejpal made some of the best comments on this, I think, though much of what he said was not popular with the audience. “When was the last time any of you got up and protested against atrocities against dalits? Against Muslims?” he asked. He got a clap for this, but I think was quite misunderstood when he said that he believed corruption is a great leveller: if you’re a servant for a wealthy family, who are wealthy because of the enormous class disparities in India and the educational and other conditions that keep them firmly at the top of the pecking order, how do you even hope to raise your children up to that level without some corruption? The analogy may not have been the best, as I dare say it’s not generally the servants who are the most corrupt, but I understood his sentiment. Some in the audience seemed to think he was condoning corruption in some way by saying this, but this wasn’t his point. There was quite justified uproar, however, when Ashis Nandy claimed that most of the corruption nowadays is perpetrated by OBCs, SCs and STs. I’m looking forward to what the newspapers may say tomorrow. Ashutosh and Patrick French rebutted this convincingly, conceding that these groups may be the most ostentatious in their corruption, but that the upper castes, who have been engaging in corruption perhaps for much longer, have learned how to conceal it effectively. “Can you honestly say that no politician has made more money than Mayawati?” French asked. “Of course, I can name several, but I won’t. They are of the upper castes and they cover their tracks.”

(Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak)

The next session was rather bizarre, and didn’t really hold together all that well. I don’t know if this was the result of weak chairing, or just four extremely different authors. “Rogues, Reviewers and Critics” brought together Anjum Hasan, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Christopher Ricks and Manu Joseph. Chair Chandrahas Choudhury tried to keep the discussion centred around the act of reviewing and criticism, but Spivak went off on all sorts of tangents, and Manu Joseph was being rather a spoil-sport and insisting that as a novelist he doesn’t really bother with criticism. I had heard, anecdotally, that Spivak is a more lucid speaker than she is writer, but I didn’t really see that in evidence. She was also late arriving. Anjum Hasan impressed me though (I love her writing) and she made some interesting comments about the state of book reviewing in India at present. She believes there is a lack of knowledge of what came before amongst book reviewers here, and that reviewers are quick with opinions but slow with argument. Joseph suggested three things that he thinks should be banned in reviews:
-the exclamation mark.
-Bengalis commenting on other Bengalis (!)
-the word ‘dystopian’.
I shall endeavour never to make any of those fauxs pas.

“Freedom of Speech and Expression”, with John Kampfner, Shoma Chaudhury, John Burnside, Orlando Figes and Basharat Peer, was a completely packed session, and generated much debate about censorship in India. Chaudhury, managing editor of Tehelka made some of the most passionate statements of the session, claiming the be a freedom absolutist when it comes to the artistic and creative realms, believing that people should simply abstain from seeing/listening to anything they don’t like. Her caveat to absolutism applies to more public discourse, where she believes restrictions should be applied only to those who incite violence, discrimination or hostility. She differentiated between incitement to violence, and hurt sentiments which can lead to the enactment of violence, and I think this is a very important distinction. The state should not pre-empt a law and order situation by stopping speech before it happens, but rather deal with any problems afterwards.

At lunchtime there was a booklaunch of a new Zubaan title. But I’m afraid I got rather distracted by probably my biggest ever dumb foreigner incident. There’s this guy that I’ve seen around the festival a lot, he is obviously very famous because he is surrounded by guards and fans the whole time. Yesterday he provoked a lot of ire (and quite a few laughts, too) by announcing that to him, “all religions are equal; I despise all of them” and that “if you’ve already decided that you want to hang yourself, what does it matter how you do it?” Well, he sat down next to me during this book launch, and immediately had to start brushing aside fans who wanting autographs and photos, while he was trying to listen to the talk. This doesn’t happen to me so much when I’m travelling alone (contrary to all the horror stories circulating at the moment about how bad travelling as a solo woman is in India), but when I’m travelling with my partner in India, we are constantly accosted by people trying to take photos of us. I think it’s because he’s tall and wears a hat and sunglasses that the Indian lads consider cool. I don’t mind much when people ask nicely, or when it’s children, but teengage boys trying to sneak photos of us when we’ve already told them no gets on my nerves. With this in mind, I turned to the famous man and said, “this happens to me all the time!” We had a brief chat, he asked me where I’m from. As the session ended, we were crowded again by young fans, and as I made my escape I turned to him and said, “I’m glad it’s not me for a change!” Well, I just googled this gentleman, Javed Akhtar, and discovered that he’s one of India’s most famous script writers, is married to acclaimed actress Shabana Azmi (whom I most definitely have heard of), and co-wrote the screenplay of Sholay. And Elen Turner commiserated with him over the perils of being too popular with the Indian youth. If I could be that un-cool with a celebrity whom I didn’t recognise, I’m glad it wasn’t Amir Khan or Ranbir Kapoor who sat down next to me.

The final two sessions of the day had a lot of parallels, and looked at two topics that are guaranteed to generate a heated question session in India: Kashmir and Pakistan. “Kashmir: Chronicles of Exile” had Kashmiri Pandit Rahul Pandita and Ladakhi Muslim Siddiq Wahid discuss the concept of exile with Asiya Zahoor. While Pandita, having left Kashmir in 1989, fits the conventionally understood definition of an exile, the panel tried to broaden the term to apply to others who had been physically or psychologically disconnected from their home. This was not popular with much of the audience, who seemed too quick to see things in black and white. The trauma of the Kashmiri Pandits was not discounted or negated by suggesting that other Kashmiris, too, experience dislocation and even exile, though there does seem to be a problem in India on a wider scale, or refusing to acknowledge the injustices that the Kashmiri Pandits faced in 1989/1990.

The next session, “Falling off the Map: The Question of Failed States,” with Mary Harper, Reza Aslan, Laleh Khadivi, Selma Dabbagh and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy in conversation with Barkha Dutt, was not specifically about Pakistan, but by the end Pakistani Obaid-Chinoy seemed to be fielding the most questions. The two panels were well placed one after the other, and had many substantive commonalities. Pandita commented that many within the Indian state and among the Kashmiri separatists don’t consider it in their best interests to resolve the problem. Obaid-Chinoy argued that the world cannot afford for Pakistan to become a failed state, as it appears to be heading at the moment. “This is not Afghanistan or Somalia,” she stated; Pakistan is the world’s fifth biggest country, and it has nuclear weapons. Yet despite this, she said she chose to remain hopeful that her country is not doomed, that there are enough progressive and passionate people in Pakistan fighting to make things work. And there seemed to be an encouraging number of Indians in the audience wanting the same thing.

Day 2 of the Jaipur Literature Festival, 25th January 2013

My brain is quite full by now, and thinking back to what I was listening to at ten this morning is a challenge! And there are still three days to go!

I started off the day in a session in which I knew none of the authors, but this is often a good way to learn something new, and spark new interests. Ariel Dorfman, Frank Dikotter, Ian Buruma, Selma Dabbagh and Sudeep Chakravarti were in conversation with Timonthy Garton Ash on the topic of “The Writer and the State.” All are writers of what could be called politically engaged literature, in various parts of the world, and expressed interesting and some rather provocative thoughts on the role of the writer in politically repressive, or at least troubled, places. Chilean Dorfman, who was exiled during Pinochet’s regime, admitted that while oppressive regimes cause physical deprivation and hardship, they can, for the writer, provide a sense of moral comfort, the feeling that speaking out and writing against authority is the right thing to do. Discussion moved to whether it is easier for one outside a state to criticise it: for instance, China historian Frank Dikotter believes he is really a coward, as he lives in Hong Kong and, with a Dutch passport, knows he can leave if he needs to. In his opinion, the truly brave are his colleagues and friends who write on topics (such as the Korean War and the Cultural Revolution) that the Chinese government doesn’t like, but continue to live in mainland China, with enormous risk to themselves. British-Palestinian Selma Dabbagh, too, has the luxury of outsider status, but this also comes with its own troubles and burdens. When asked whether she also feels the obligation to criticise her own side (Palestine), she answered that though that was an extremely difficult thing to do, she did feel that she had a responsibility to do so. The discussion then turned to the fine line between the necessity of telling the truth, and the wish not to give comfort, or ammunition, so to speak, to the enemy. Chair Timothy Garton Ash quoted Orwell: if you’re going to be effective as a poitical writer, you have to be most critical of your own side.

Question time opened up some heated discussion. One young Indian woman asked Sudeep Chakravarti–whose latest book has looked at Naxalites, and has attempted to humanise them, in contrast to the official Indian line–a question which she prefaced with “I am lucky to live in a country which has not seen revolution, at least not for some time.” I balked at the naivete of this, and was glad that Chakravarti did, too. He was obviously conscious of not wanting to embarrass the young woman, but the class implications of her statement were too staggering to ignore. “Which country do you live in!?” he asked. “Perhaps there are no revolutions in your India, but 800 million people in this land live with this reality.” Some people sitting behind me expressed annoyance of his talking down to her, but this was not a school classroom, and I think he responded properly. Who does it benefit if India’s young elite are ignorant of the troubles in their own country?

“What is a Classic?”, with Anish Kapoor, Elif Batuman, Tom Holland, Christopher Ricks, Ashok Vajpeyi and Homi Bhabha exposed some interesting gender politics. The discussion itself wasn’t all that interesting to me, but the question time got rather heated (as they seemed to do today!) Elif Batuman is a young woman writer (the other participants were all older men), and a lady in the audience obviously felt that she had been unfairly cut off by chair Homi Bhabha at one point in the discussion, so asked her to elaborate on what she had been saying, “there are a few of us who would like to hear what this young woman thinks.” At a later point in the question time, Batuman tried to say something but Bhabha didn’t hear her, and asked for the next question. A huge boo went up amongst the audience. It seemed significant to me that she was the only young woman on the panel, and she hadn’t indeed spoken very much. I doubt anything was done deliberately, but it did seem to be a bit of an old man’s club.

(Shabana Azmi launching Of Mothers and Others)

Over lunch I saw the launch of a new Zubaan publication, Of Mothers and Others, edited by Jaishree Mishra. This is a collection of fiction and non-fiction, published in collaboration with Save the Children, on the importance of mothering, the mother, and maternal health. I plan to buy a copy, as it contains writing by authors I like, particularly Urvashi Butalia and Mridula Koshy, but the book shop was so crowded every time I passed today that I’ll have to make an early morning trip tomorrow, before the hordes arrive. Shabana Azmi, acclaimed actress and activist, launched the book, and recounted some staggering figures: in India, the number of women who die each year of pregnancy-related issues is equivalent to four hundred plan crashes. If four hundred planes were to crash each year, governments would fall, but because it’s poor rural women who die, this tragedy is not given the attention it deserves.

(Homi Bhabha and Reza Aslan)

In the afternoon, Homi Bhabha and Iranian-American Reza Aslan discussed “The Literatures of 9/11”. I found much of the discussion rather banal, to be honest. Or perhaps banal is the wrong word; repetitive, or boring might be better. They spent so much time rehashing what I think are now commonly discussed aspects of the 9/11 tragedy–the fact that Americans were ignorant and surprised about where the attacks came from, that they hadn’t seen themselves as victims since Pearl Harbour–that what was meant to be the topic of discussion, the literature of the post-9/11 years, was largely left until question time. The inevitable question came, from an elderly Indian man: “why is it that 98% of terrorists are Muslims?” Reza Aslan answered passionately, and was well justified doing so. I was impressed he remained as calm as he did. “That 98% figure is something you pulled out of your pocket.” He was very restrained in using “pocket”, I would’ve chosen a more colourful noun. He listed all the numerous terrorist groups, throughout the twentieth century and today, who have nothing to do with Islam. And he got a round of applause when he pointed out that most violence that is happening at the moment in this very country does not stem fom Islamic groups. The old man started shouting, but he wasn’t graced with the microphone again, and Bhabha told him to be quiet.

(Jeet Thayil receiving his award)

The final event of the evening was the announcement of the winner of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, in its third year. Half of the nominees were present–Jamil Ahmad, Jeet Thayil, Uday Prakash/Jason Grunebaum–and they gave brief talks about their novels. Amitav Ghosh, Tahmima Anam and Mohammed Hanif were represented by their publishers. Jeet Thayil was, finally, announced as the winner. I am not a fan of his novel Narcopolis, but I do recognise that it is a clever and unique book, so deserving of such recognition. His win was certainly popular with the crowd. I get the impression Narcopolisis popular amongst young, urban readers. His acceptance speech was gracious and honest, stating that the win meant all the more to him because it came from home, is Indian money ($50,000) and “any author who says that money doesn’t matter is lying. We don’t have jobs but we have bills.” And I know that he lives in Defence Colony, where the bills aren’t cheap. He doesn’t know it, but we sat next to each other in an Italian cafe in Defence Colony a few weeks ago. Perhaps I should’ve asked for his autograph. Well done, Jeet.

Day 1 of Jaipur Literature Festival, 24th January 2013

The 6th annual Jaipur Literature Festival got off to a cracking start today, and I left this evening feeling very inspired, as I always do when I go to literary events of this scale. Some have suggested that the Jaipur Festival has become more of a celebrity event than a literary one, but I disagree. I was last here in 2011, and I remember feeling much more excited about the programme then than I did this year, but today I was very pleasantly surprised.

A uniting theme of this year’s festival is the Buddha in literature, and the morning started off with some devotional chanting by Buddhist monks. After this, we all had to stand for the Indian national anthem. Which took me back to Bream Bay College circa 1999, but here there was no assistant principal standing over us threatening that we weren’t allowed to leave until we sang nicely. Everyone sang nicely of their own volition, those who knew the words, anyway. The following opening remarks from the organisers seemed to drag on a bit, cutting quite substantially into the time allotted for the keynote, but organiser Sanjoy Roy made some important comments, and as the festival has been dogged in controversy since last year’s debacle with Rushdie and the readings from The Satanic Verses, such comments were probably wise: “We can’t let India be hijacked by one group. […] For the record I want to say we’re all against terrorism of the mind.”

(Mahasweta Devi)

The literary events started with iconic Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi’s keynote, “O, to live again!” At 88 years old, Mahasweta Devi is a much smaller and frailer figure than her fierce writing would suggest, but it was clear from her words that she still has a fiery spirit. She described her rebellious youth, how her family didn’t know what to do with her as they thought she was vulgar, not understanding her body’s attraction. Her tone was cheerful, but I felt melancholic, listening to this brilliant, brave woman clearly nearing the end of her years: “At my age, the desire to live again is a mischievous dream […] Better I don’t, considering the trouble I have caused already by living longer than expected […] Considering the situation from which I came, it is surprising that I turned out like this.”

The next session, “Flight of the Falcon”, saw Jamil Ahmad (The Wandering Falcon), MA Farooqi (Between Clay and Dust), and Ameena Saiyid (OUP Pakistan) in conversation. Mohammed Hanif (Our Lady of Alice Bhatti) was meant to be there, but wasn’t. No explanation was given, but it’s not unusual for Pakistani authors not to show up at the last minute, from what I saw in 2011, too. Visa issues? Jamil Ahmad was fascinating, like his novel, and defended the traditional tribal way of life against Saiyid’s attempts to draw him into any criticism of them. She was particularly keen to get him to critique the concept of “honour”, that pervasive and elusive thing with so much force across much of South Asia. Ahmad’s take on the concept demysticised and de-exoticised it, making it seem something that we can perhaps all recognise: “every person has a small island within himself where he will not let others trespass.” That is honour.

At this point, my pen ran out of ink, so I couldn’t take any more notes. I stupidly didn’t take a spare. Astonishingly, at a writer’s festival of many tens of thousands of participants and dozens of stalls, there was nowhere for me to buy a fresh pen. The organisers obviously weren’t expecting anyone to actually be doing any writing at this writer’s festival, at least not the old-fashioned way. I praise the organisers for the much increased security arrangements this year. Next year, a simple stationary stall would be a good idea, too.



(The Dalai Lama, and the crowds waiting to hear him)

His Holiness the Dalai Lama was scheduled immediately after lunch, at 2.15, so I was smart and took my seat at about 1 o’clock. I actually got a seat! I think the whole of Jaipur and half of Delhi was on the front lawns of Diggi Palace for this session, so I’m sure standing wasn’t comfortable. I have to confess I was a little sceptical about the decision to bring a religious leader to a literature festival. A better choice than Oprah Winfrey, certainly, but I thought perhaps it would be a gimmick. I was a bit wrong. Anyway, he is an author, his latest book being Beyond Religion. When Pico Iyer, the moderator and biographer of His Holiness, asked whether the title meant that somehow he thought there were some things more important than religion, His Holiness laughed that this was his publisher’s title, and that he was surprised by it himself! The atmosphere was amazing–people were actually quiet as he spoke, and anyone who knows India knows that quietness is something rarely experienced. His Holiness was as funny, gentle and sweet in person (if we can call an area filled with thousands of people “in person”) as he is said to be. I am not a religious person in any sense, but I did find him inspirational and very sane. His major message for India, it seemed, was to fight corruption. He has a way of softening the critical blows through laughter. He joked that Indians are very religious-minded people, who will pray wholeheartedly and regularly to their Gods, but after the prayers, too many will do corrupt work, thus making it seem as though the only point of the prayer was to ask for help in corrupt activities. He said that religiosity and corruption cannot mix. Sound advice.


Mercifully the crowds dispersed again after this session. Next was one of the highlights of the day, for me: Nadeem Aslam, an amazingly intelligent, sensitive and brilliant man. I read his wonderful Maps for Lost Lovers quite a few years ago now, and it is a truly memorable book, about the Pakistani immigrant experience in the UK. Aslam has three other novels, one only just released, and now they are at the top of my list of Things to Read Once the PhD is Over. Aslam is Pakistani by birth, having moved to the UK at the age of fourteen, when his father had to leave Pakistan in a hurry as a political exile. Not from a wealthy background, having only been educated in Urdu and Punjabi, his knowledge of English was very slim when he arrived in Yorkshire. Extraordinary, then, that he has become one of the UK’s best contemporary writers, often praised for his beautiful language. Two of his novels, including his latest, The Blind Man’s Garden, are set partly in Afghanistan. When the moderator asked why that was, Aslam answered that he wanted to explore some of the vast gulfs in understanding between the west and the Islamic world that have emerged particularly acutely in the past ten years. He then said something funny and disturbing at the same time, and which I just tried: type “Pakistan is…” into a search engine and the auto-suggestions are: Pakistan is… evil; in Asia; better than India. (My results might differ slightly from his: as I said, my pen ran out, I am writing from memory, and the search engine I just used is India-based, his might have been British. But the gist is the same). Do the same for the US and you get: America is… not the world; doomed; not the greatest; evil (and, certainly a result of my computer’s memory: “better than Australia.” !!?)

It was clear that Aslam was slightly uncomfortable on stage, until he had warmed up, anyway. He seemed shy and diffident, but at the same time very assured in the content of what he was saying. He admitted to being socially awkward, finding it difficult to mix with people casually. In researching his latest book, he spent some time with blind people, but found that he couldn’t interact with them as he wanted to because he was overly sensitive to how they must be feeling; he didn’t want to ask them any questions that he thought might prompt painful memories for them. So he took a different approach to trying to understand what it must be like to be blind: he taped his eyes shut for a week, three times, to experience blindness. Now that’s dedication to one’s craft.

I was planning on attending the session announcing the finalists for the Man International Prize, but Nadeem Aslam was on another panel on “The Novel of the Future”, and after hearing him in his own session I was so enthralled that I followed him there. The panel also consisted of Howard Jacobson, Linda Grant, Zoe Heller and Lawrence Norfolk, in conversation with Anita Anand. It was agreed by all speakers that suggestions that the novel is a tired form are rubbish, but that there is a crisis in readership at the moment, particularly in the UK and the US. Jacobson recounted statistics he’d heard that around 75% of teenagers in the UK wouldn’t admit to reading, ever, even if they did, because reading isn’t considered sexy. He contrasted this with his own youth, where boys would place books in their blazer pockets in the hope that girls would notice and think they were worth their time. He said this didn’t necessarily translate into success with girls, but that it was their only hope! I laughed very hard at this, because it spoke right to me. When I met my own partner at the tender age of seventeen, one of the first things that interested me was that not only could he read, but he had read novels, and did, regularly. And not just because he had to for school. Apart from my dad, I had never knowingly met a male who read. At least not in Whangarei, country New Zealand. A bit of “the youth of today” was thrown around by the panel, part of which I’m sure is true and part should be taken with a pinch of salt. Granted, I’m not nearly as old as Howard Jacobson, but I don’t think teenagers should necessarily be used as the litmus test of how healthy a society’s reading habits are. Hey, my brother, who infamously chanted “never read a novel, never read a novel” with glee when he won a family game of Scrabble as a teenager, is now quite an avid reader. There is hope for all, perhaps.

The Wandering Falcon, Jamil Ahmad (2011)

The Wandering Falcon

The Wandering Falcon is a sparse and eerily beautiful book, the first novel by an eighty-one year old retired Pakistani Civil Service Officer. The age of the author is significant–not least because it shows it is never too late to start–because his huge first-hand wealth of knowledge of the regions he writes about–the Pakistani Frontier Provinces and Balochistan–adds an asuredness to his tone that may be difficult for a younger, less life-experienced author to achieve.

The Wandering Falcon is more a book about place than about characters. Though the back-cover blurb claims that it is “the unforgettable story of a boy known as Tor Baz–the black falcon–who wanders between tribes in the remote tribal areas where Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan meet”, I didn’t feel that Tor Baz was a persistent presence throughout. What stood out for me was the descriptions of the tribal regions that the author, Ahmad, knew so well from having worked in them for many years. For example:

“The Kharot tribe numbered about a million men whose entire lives were spent in wandering with the seasons. In autumn, they would gather their flocks of sheep and herds of camels, fold up their woven wollen tents and start moving. They spent the winter in the plains, restlessly moving from place to place as each opportunity to wrok came to an end. Sometimes they merely let their animals take the decisions for them. When the grazing was exhausted in one area, the animals forced them to move on to another site.” (p. 37)

Ahmad’s style reminded me of two, quite different, South Asian writers–Afghani-French writer Atiq Rahimi (whose The Patience Stone I reviewed in May 2012) and Bengali Mahasweta Devi, who worked amongst tribal peoples in rural areas of eastern India for many years. Rahimi’s Earth and Ashes is more plot-driven than The Wandering Falcon, but still the eerie, quiet beauty and brutality of a similar landscape comes through. The Afghan-Pakistan location also naturally links these two writers, but my suggestion of Ahmad’s likeness to Mahasweta Devi may need more explaining. It comes from more than just the connection that both authors intimately knew the people and places they write about. One of Mahasweta Devi’s greatest strengths, in my opinion, is her ability to ruthlessly expose the daily atrocities that occur in the lives of peasants, the disenfranchised, and the rural poor. Sometimes these atrocities are perpetrated by outsiders, sometimes by the people themselves, to each other. Ahmad’s world is geographically and politically different to Mahasweta Devi’s, but there are similarities, too. I felt this particularly in the following passage, which recounts an event that takes place between the army and some nomadic people in a militarised border area:

“‘You cannot move forward. If you do, we fire. Understand that clearly,’ roared back the amplifier.

The women had been listening to this exchange between their men and the solidiers. Gul Jana called out to her husband, ‘Dawa Khan, I am going forward. The camels must not die. I am going with a Koran on my head. Nothing can happen to me.’ She separated about two scores of camels abd with Dawa Khan walking beside her, started herding the animals forward. They had hardly gone fifty yards when two machine guns opened up from either side and mowed down the camels. The firing was indiscriminate. Men, women and childrewn died. Gul Jana’s belief that the Koran would prevent tragedy died too. Dawa Khan fell dead in the raking fire.

The Pawindahs made two more attempts, and more camels died each time. After the third try, the Pawindah’s started their trudge back. By the time they reached Fort Sandeman, hundreds of dead camels and sheep had fallen by the wayside. Byt the time they reached Fort Sandeman, hundreds of dead camels and sheep had fallen by the wayside. By the time thye reached the border, most of the animals of the three kirris were dead.

They say that the soldiers from the forts had to move out two days after the Pawindahs departed. The stench from the dead animals was so terrible that it was driving the soliders mad. They also say that while the camel bones and skulls have been bleached white with time, the shale gorge still reeks of death.” (pp. 59-60)

This novel has been short-listed for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, the winner of which will be announced on Friday evening at the Jaipur Literature Festival. It is very different from the other books that have been short-listed, and they all are different from each other, so I am looking forward to learning the result.

(The Wandering Falcon, Jamil Ahmad, New Delhi: Penguin, 2011. 181 pages. ISBN: 978-0-143-41912-9)

Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, Mohammed Hanif (2011)


I read this while staying in Delhi in December/January, and much of it struck a chord with the situation there at the time, with the protests against the gang-rape of the 23 year-old medical student who died from her injuries.

Alice Bhatti is a feisty, intelligent, lower-class Christian woman living in Karachi who has made the best of the rough hand life has dealt her by becoming a nurse. Young and attractive, she is hassled by men on the job and off, but has learnt how to minimise male attention the way women everywhere do, to take responsibility for something that they shouldn’t have to:

“She tries to maintain a nondescript exterior; she learns the sideways glance instead of looking at people directly. She speaks in practised, precise sentences so that she is not misunderstood. She chooses her words carefully, and if someone addresses her in Punjabi, she answers in Urdu, because an exchange in her mother tongue might be considered a promise of intimacy. She uses English for medical terms only, because she feels if she uses a word of English in her conversation she might be considered a bit forward. When she walks she walks with slightly hurried steps, as if she has an important but innocent appointment to keep. She avoids eye contact, she looks slightly over people’s heads as if looking out for somebody who might come into view at any moment. She doesn’t want anyone to think that she is alone and nobody is coming for her. She sidesteps even when she sees a boy half her age walking towards her, she walks around little puddles when she can easily leap over them; she thinks any act that involves stretching her legs might send the wrong signal. After all, this is not the kind of thing where you can leave your actions to subjective interpretations. She never eats in public. Putting something in your mouth is surely an invitation for someone to shove something horrible down your throat. If you show your hunger, you are obviously asking for something.” (pp. 145-6)

Delhi and Karachi are very different places, I am sure, but this got me pondering my inclinations to chat in broken Hindi to locals, particularly men (they are readily available to chat, it seems), to blatantly and aimlessly wander at leisure, alone, with nobody to meet me, around the city, Old and New, to leap over obstacles, to eat in public, and to laugh out loud whenever the urge arose. All of these things I feel comfortable and happy doing, in Delhi as anywhere, but I felt sad that there are women who can’t, even fictional women like Alice.

Which brings me to Hanif’s characterisation. I enjoyed his acclaimed first novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, but my knowledge of post-Independence Pakistani history and society is slimmer than that of India, and much of the political satire was lost on me, the details at least. Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is character-driven where A Case of Exploding Mangoes is largely plot-driven, perhaps making it more accessible to non-Pakistani readers. Alice is a complex and likeable protagonist, and the other characters, though cartoonish, are believable caricatures of types of people. What Hanif’s two novels share is witty fast-pacing and an element of suspense. Though not exactly a thriller (as A Case of Exploding Mangoes has been called), Our Lady of Alice Bhatti has enough plot turns and gradually revealed facts that, when the denouement occurs, it is shockingly and unexpectedly brutal.

As a feminist literary scholar (there I go again, that feels immodest, but by now it is true), I naturally keep a look out for new literature with a feminist bent. But, I belong (subscribe?) to the third wave not the second, and I am not willing to dismiss literature as anti-woman that does not act as a feminist tract, and I happily welcome male feminist writing (Ngugi wa Thiong’o is one of my favourite authors). Could Mohammed Hanif be called a feminist writer? I don’t think it’s necessary to affix a label, in fact, it can be counter-productive, as authors can often shy away from such tags. But I do like the feminist messages that I, at least, read into Our Lady of Alice Bhatti. In this novel, Hanif critiques many aspects of his own country—politics, society, religion—and the latter can be a brave act indeed, in Pakistan. The novel recalls Alice’s pregnancy as a result of a college-time affair with a vehemently communist teacher:

“She thought on it for a few days. A marriage and a pram and birthday hats did cross her mind, but when she got around to telling him, she did it without any emotion, like a patient describing the symptoms of common flu. ‘I missed my period,’ she said, as if she had missed a bus that she really wanted to get on, but that it was OK, another one would come along soon. The communist doctor got excited. First he started to cry, then he chain-smoked for an hour and went through a list of baby names that included every possible combination from the names of the central executive committee of the Indian Communist Party at the time of Partition. Then he went out to get more cigarettes and didn’t return for nine days.

‘My mother has a heart condition, I am not sure she can take it. For generations there has never been a single marriage outside our Shia clan, let alone a marriage into another religion.’ He appeared to have aged in nine days. ‘My tears have run dry.’ He kept rubbing his eyes. He seemed to have discovered that the only chains he couldn’t lose were those forged centuries ago in some Arab tribal feud. So startled was Alice by his histrionics that she found herself consoling him.” (pp. 263-4)

Our Lady of Alice Bhatti has been short-listed for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, the award that will be announced this week at the Jaipur Literature Festival.

From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet, Vikram Seth (1983)

From Heaven lake cover

From Heaven Lake is a brilliant, classic account of Vikram Seth’s 1981 journey through China when he was a 29 year old student at Nanjing University. That country was on the verge of relaxing its rules towards foreign visitors, but in 1981 Seth still needed police permission to travel anywhere in China, even major cities, let alone sensitive areas like Tibet. While on a university excursion, he is encouraged by his fellow students to try his luck at getting a Lhasa permission stamp added to his travel pass. Despite none of his friends having any luck, Seth is given the much sought after stamp, something he down to his earlier rendition of a Hindi film song popular in China. Making use of the stamp, however, proves even more complicated, as he has only a few short weeks before he is due back in Delhi, and getting permission to enter Nepal from Tibet so he can travel overland is not so simple. Such are the quirks of travel, and reading Seth, like Eric Newby or any other good travel writing, makes me wish I was just a bit more adventurous when travelling. The rewards of not being afraid to spend the night in a local home, of trying your luck with police and visa officials, and of taking completely untouristed routes seem to be so high. But alas, India is my destination of choice, and it’s hard to get far off the beaten track here.

Being an India-scholar (if I can get away with calling myself this now, it does seem a bit immodest), I am always faced with the inevitable contemporary comparisons of India with China. The two biggest countries in the world are so different. Despite their close proximity, the mutual understanding between Indians and Chinese is slim, and this is something that Seth meditates on, a bit. I found it very interesting to get this Indian perspective on the region, not filtered through the west as I am used to hearing, though by now From Heaven Lake is over thirty years old and likely rather out of date. Seth compares and contrasts the successes and failures of India and China in the second half of the twentieth century:

“I remember reading a question in an economics textbook: ‘If you were to be born tomorrow, would you prefer to be born in China or India?’ If I could be guaranteed the lucky place in the Indian sweepstakes that I at present occupy, there is no question as to what my answer would be; even if I were poorer than the average Chinese child, I would still prefer to be in India. But if I were born to the inhuman, dehumanising misery in which the poorest third of our people live, to the squalor and despair and debility that is their life, my answer would not be the same. Man does not, of course, live by bread alone, but with so little of it he can hardly be said to live at all.” (pp. 104-5)

As all good travel writing should, Seth’s writing evokes not only the pleasant and stimulating aspects of travel, but the hardships and humiliations, too. Sometimes the humiliations remind of one’s own behaviour in a foreign place, when too tired, too hungry, too out of one’s element to know or remember how to behave properly. Sometimes they are the behaviours of others. In Lhasa, looking at the tourist sites, Seth tags onto an American tour group so as to be let into one site. This comes after he has been reflecting on the remarkable kindness of ordinary Chinese people, most of whom will go out of their way to help a foreigner, with no expectation of anything in return:

“The guide finally decides to ask me where I’ve come from, and I confess to my subterfuge. We get talking; Nanjing, as it happens, is his hometown. When the minibus is about to leave, he asks me if I would like a lift into town, or perhaps to go with them to the carpet factory, their next stop. He checks to make sure it’s all right with the group leader, John. But as I am about to board the bus, a heavy-set woman hisses at me, so that only I can hear, ‘How dare you get onto this bus with us; this is a Lindblad Tour, and we are paying more than ten thousand dollars for this trip.’ I am so shaken by her remark that I am about to get off, but then John says, ‘Hi! Get on—you’re very welcome to join us,’ and pushes me on. He hasn’t heard her, and I decide to stay to prevent a scene. It is curious how wealth makes some people pleasant, by doing away with worry and petty frustration; and how it makes other abominable.” (p. 141)

I was reminded of such an abominable Belgian woman I was on a bus tour to Kanyakumari with. Our guide suggested we eat lunch at a certain place in town, a decent, cheap hotel with local food. The Belgian woman accused him of getting commission from the restaurant owners—possible, but at 75 rupees for a thali, I wasn’t going to worry—proclaiming very loudly that she hated it “when they do that”. She set off to find somewhere else to eat, which she did, and made a big fuss of how good the alternative food was. She later accused him of wanting to pocket her change when he suggested that rather than all of us line up individually to buy tickets to a palace we were visiting, he could collect our money and do it himself. Though she quibbled over every last rupee that was spent on her behalf on the tour, she proceeded to buy all sorts of tacky tourist junk along the way, including, memorably to me, some plastic flowers on a string to put in her hair.

Seth’s A Suitable Boy is one of my favourite books, and the intelligent humour of his writing really appeals to me. Fluent in several languages, he is able to do a rare thing (though not so rare amongst Indians, it seems): make multi-lingual puns and word play. As a New Zealander (when it suits me), I liked the following passage:

“The carriage contains travellers of different nationalities: Han, Uighur, Kazakh, Mongolian. There are young people, returning resentfully to their far-flung outposts after a rare visit home to Shanghai. ‘We have been sent to New Zealand for life,’ says one bitter young man. ‘We could just as well be on the moon.’ ‘New Zealand’ or Xin-xi-lan, is an acronym for Xin-jiang, Xi-zang (Tibet) and Lan-zhou. To be posted to any of these places, is, for most Han people, to be condemned to an uncomfortable and barbarous limbo.” (p. 39)

New Zealand is, after all, perhaps like Tibet, what we would call the wops.