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.
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.