Additions to To-Read List from Jaipur Literature Festival and Some Notes

I am yet to read Haruki Murakami whose books I had asked recommendations about last year. Besides, my re-reading resolution for 2015 is still in place. And now, attending sessions at Jaipur Literature Festival has added more authors and books to the to-read list.

Well… a girl can dream, right? Of reading it all!

Since I have read and liked White Mughals by Dalrymple and since he is the festival director, I figured it would be worth going to a session called The First Firangis in a Strange Kind of Paradise that was being hosted by him. And it resulted in the discovery of the following two books, whose authors were there on the panel

  • The First Firangis by Jonathan Gil Harris
  • A Strange Kind of Paradise by Sam Miller

Sheldon Pollock was a name we had heard earlier too. But after hearing him in the session Why a Library of Classical Indian Literature I think The Language of Gods in the World of Men has become a must-be-in-the-to-read list book.

Eleanor Catton is of course a Man Booker Prize Winner. But she was also charming on the stage in the session Beautiful Offspring: The Art of Historical Fiction. Now, I must read The Luminaries.

In the session Anatomy of a Disappearance Hisham Matar was intriguing. So, up goes in the list his novel by the same name.

Vedica Kant was very articulate about the human aspects of the life of Indian soldiers who fought for British Imperial army in the first world war. I would really like to read her book India and the First World War, but as an illustrated, hardcover book published by Roli Books, it is super expensive. I don’t think I am buying it any time soon. Probably someone could gift it to me 😀 But Mulk Raj Anand’s novel Across the Black Waters was mentioned appreciatively in the session. And since as an Indian it is almost a shame to not have read Mulk Raj Anand, I guess I have to put that one on the list.

Jung Chang, Ma Jian and Anchee Min were all superb in the session Cultural Revolution. One has to look at China beyond its economic progress of last decade or two. I have not yet decided which of their books I will read. But something or the other I must!

Some other moments, experiences and sessions from the festival are also worth mentioning.

Gideon Levy was heart-warmingly convincing in the session Against the Grain.  In fact, none of the other panellists quite matched up to his experience in what going against the grain entails. In the same session Aakar Patel made an interesting, though potentially controversial point (what do against-the-grainers care about controversy? 🙂 ). He claimed, and supported with examples, that vernacular media and audience in India are really closed-minded. The media won’t publish what the audience do not want to hear and if they do dare to publish they are punished heavily by the audience, sometimes even forcing big names to shut down. English media, on the other hand, is more accommodating and dissenters who write in English in India are more fortunate that way.

The Murty classical library is going to bring out the translated editions of work in classical languages. While answering a question Sheldon Pollock said something that reminds me why we should read out of our comfort zone. He said that the aim of reading a classical book is not to read something you identify with. Rather, it is to discover non-self, to discover the ways of being human that we no longer recognize. Think about it. Isn’t that the reason we should read fiction too? Not only to identify with characters that are like us, but also to empathize with those who aren’t like us and in the process widen our horizons, our understanding and our tolerance of differences.

Arshia Sattar, fed up of the questions worrying about what is lost in translation reminded the audience that instead of worrying about the one thing that will be lost in translation, why don’t we celebrate the hundred things that will be gained, which would have been lost but for the translation.

One of the panelist in the session The Medium is the Message practically pushed the topic off the cliff by rambling on about the ultimate truth. The only message everyone is looking for, he self-assuredly claimed, is the truth and there is only one truth! Co-panelist Ravish Kumar silenced him and brought the focus back by pointing out that if we started discussing that truth we’d all have to go to Himalayas or consult Babajis. Instead the focus of journalism is on worldly truths. In that realm there are indeed many truths, and they are not always accessible, despite the availability of the newer and better mediums to disseminate them.

There were some off-putting moments too. कैसे चल पाता यदि मिलते चिर-तृप्ति अमरता पूर्ण प्रहर? So, while I have to thank the people responsible for such moments because they kept me grounded, I feel like calling them out too. So, here I go.

Firstly Mr. I-will-stalk-you-till-I-have-opened-my-mouth-and-made-a-fool-of-myself. I am not sorry that I don’t know you or your name. You seemed personally affronted by Anchee Min pointing out just how repressive Mao’s regime was and how it brought out the worst in Chinese people. Even after the Cultural Revolution session was over and the panel could not take any more questions from audience, you kept shouting at them demanding to know how she could talk all negative about him without mentioning all the great things he had done too. Not satisfied with that you followed her to her next session In Exile, got hold of the mike from an unsuspecting volunteer this time and then ranted on about the same thing. You weren’t even asking a question. You were accusing, and literally shouting. She answered, rather passionately. Even after that and despite being reminded by the volunteers and the panel moderator that you were stepping the boundaries of time and decency, you kept hurling accusations, shouting at the top of your lungs. When you walked out of the room you had a triumphant smile on his face. As if you had gained a huge victory. No Sir. You hadn’t gained any victory. You had just proven what an a**h*** you are. Did you hear a word of what she had to say? Did you hear that as a young child she had witnessed a daughter abandon a dying father on the street because she feared being seen as helping an enemy of the people? Did you hear what the tapeworm medicine had done to her when she was just a teenager? Did you hear that when she was chosen to be an actress what stories she had listened from senior actresses about Chairman Mao’s fascination for beauties? Did you hear how she had to escape China fearing for her life and struggle to find a new life in a country whose language and ways she did not know? Did you hear all of that and still had the heart to shout at her? For not being gracious towards Mao? Did Mao have to face all of that? Did you? Even if you are some kind of a soldier, who believes that individual must be sacrificed for some higher, social good, do you really think that the burden of respecting your idle intellectual muses, and not disturbing them, rests on the shoulders of a girl who has barely escaped death in an autocratic, arbitrary regime and struggled to build her life anew? If so, do you know what a middle finger represents? That’s what you deserve. And worse. Probably you deserve to be in China. And to be transported back to the time of cultural revolution.

And finally Mr. Sudhir Chaudhary, moderator of the panel Zamana Humse Hai. Thanks, but no thanks, Sir, for doing nothing for Hindi or Hindi literature through that panel. Four young writers were there in the panel. I was really interested in listening to them, about their books, their experiences… But Mr. Chaudhary is a TV veteran. He decided that the panel must be conducted in the same manner as debates on TV are conducted. By enraging everyone and turning it into a shouting match and then patting himself on the back for generating so much engagement (with no meaningful content)! Meanwhile, we were none the wiser of what is really happening in the world of Hindi Literature or what the young writers in the language are thinking and doing. Instead we were grappling with much more important questions like how snotty English speakers are (Kannada speaker, by the way, feels the same about Hindi-speakers in Bangalore), or how the panel members were not speaking pure Hindi (there is an Indian English too, you know, and English speakers in India frequently use words and phrases from all Indian languages), or how Hindi is not the rashtra-bhasha yet, but it should be (Do you know there are languages other than Hindi and English that are important in India? And there are languages that you have clubbed under Hindi, but they demand their own place? That Rajasthani is one such language? That even Rajasthani is not one language?), or how English authors are all super-stars (they aren’t FYI) and Hindi authors are looked down upon, or how the English was responsible for all problems of Hindi (it is actually Hindi-speakers like you, who cannot look beyond the non-issues, and talk about the actual addressable issues! I would have liked to discuss if the children of India are sufficiently encouraged to read for pleasure! I would have liked to discuss why the literate people who spend endless hours watching those mindless soap operas in Hindi do not read a book instead?), or how publishers were evil (many authors love their publishers, you know, including some on your panel!).

It didn’t matter that even the authors tried to stop you from spouting the venom against everyone and everything. It didn’t matter that at least two of authors there had mother-tongues that was not Hindi (Rajsathani and Bhojpuri instead). It didn’t matter that those authors you were supposed to host did not feel bitter or threatened like you did. It didn’t matter that we had not come to watch a TV shouting match there, but to hear a literary discussion. What mattered was that you got to pat your back for doing the same damage to literature that you have done to TV. Thanks to you I do not have a new Hindi book in my to-read list from Jaipur Literature Festival.

With that venom out of my system (ha!), I shall now return to my good, sweet reading list. Ah! The re-reading list first. Oh no… Sleep first.


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