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!
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.”
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.