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 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.
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!”