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.
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.
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.
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.