Review: Abhishruti Sarmah
Image Courtesy: Tamanna Rafique
As I walk on through the bright pink gates on a sunny winter afternoon, weary of the long day travel from Delhi to Jaipur, a sense of accomplishment dawns on me as we finally made it to the first day of the Jaipur Literature Fest after months of planning. Passing through the much organised security check, I enter into the colourful world of the royals, wonderfully decorated with vibrant paper fans and flowers hanging from the top like ivies on a wall, a world of literatis, patiently waiting, sipping into their kullad chais and carefully making notes as renowned authors and speakers from all over the world, speak at six different venues. It was a task to choose one out of the six parallel sessions of writers, authors, politicians and even actors. The unruly crowd cramming in to get a glimpse of Rishi Kapoor singing Main Shayar Toh Nahi was the highlight of the second day. The usual ballyhoo intensified on third and fourth days of the event as, the locals came in to hear the charming Shashi Tharoor speak and the majestic Gulzar recite.
Although it was heartbreaking to not be able to see all sessions I wanted to, but nonetheless, here is an insight into four (out of the 240approx.) sessions I really enjoyed!
One of the most exciting sessions of the event was the session on ‘Kohinoor’ where the audience sat enthralled by a bard like William Dalrymple and the witty Anita Anand as they told the gory tales and fables about the ‘cursed’ diamond. They had their audience sit in rapt attention as they discussed why they would not want to take a stand on the moderator’s (Swapan Dasgupta) question on ‘to whom does the Kohinoor belong?’. They haven’t so deliberately even in their book, ‘Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond’ because they claim to understand the sentimentality of the people of the world associated with that ‘bloody’ piece of stone. The Indians, the Afghans, the Iranians and the Pakistanis, all feel strongly about this. They have only dissected its history and put forth the facts ‘as evidence, for anybody who wants to claim the stone’, says Dalrymple. The audience sat there spellbound, as the speakers ran a relay race through 150 years of history in a session of 50 minutes. From Shah Jahan’s peacock throne to Nader Shah’s priceless loot, from the Koh-i-Noor’s cameo in Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s bicep to Queen Victoria wearing it in her brooch set, they spoke of it all. The Kohinoor only became famous because it was in an imperialist exhibition at Hyde Park in 1851, where 3 million people went rushing in to see the Kohinoor after days of its advertisement. The hugely valued stone, which is now a key memoir of colonialism that ripped off 200 years from India inspired many novels and films. Their book is a story of how the Kohinoor gained its celebrity and all other stories related to its gory past.
Definitely, a lot of Indian dreams had been shattered when Anita Anand said that “the Kohinoor right now belongs to the British crown, as where it is, and as by treaty,”
The history of the Kohinoor is certainly gory. “Game of Thrones does not have anything on this!” Anand said.
The next session is the session On Cultural Appropriation where the panellists discuss the much debated, never resolved questions like Can writers and artists become whosoever they want to be? Or are they morally bound to write about where they belong and what they know, understand and can substantiate? Is the rooted imagination truer than the borrowed one? Can the values of empathy outweigh identity thefts and exotic stereotyping? The debate started off on a rather interesting note, about Yassmin Abdel-Magied walking off from the Brisbane Writers Festival last year when ‘renowned iconoclast’ Lionel Shriver spoke on the topic “fiction and identity politics”. I’d like to brief you up about what had happened in Brisbane. Lionel Shriver used her keynote speech at the festival to tear into the argument that writers, most particularly white writers, are made to feel guilty of “cultural appropriation” when they write about or from the point of view of characters from other cultural backgrounds. Sudanese-born Australian social activist Yassmin Abdel-Magied, later comments that Shriver’s speech was “a celebration of the unfettered exploitation of the experiences of others, under the guise of fiction”.
The argument has been debated for long now in fields of literature, music, art and performance and delving deep into it would require another article in its entirety. So, I’d rather keep my comments aside on this one and stick to the session in the literature fest. Yassmin says that the question is about intention to her and that it would have been a different conversation altogether had the question been, ‘how do we best write, authentically, other people’s experiences?’ She furthers her point saying that it all comes down to intention, context and respect. She feels that colonisers along with money and land, also are trying to snatch her identity away and make money out of it.
However the question remains as to what cultures and characters would one deny writing as a fiction writer. I feel cultural appropriation cannot be valid in the context of globalisation, when people cannot be classed into as having one single culture. Writers can take up others identity – can write about people from other class/religious backgrounds, because writing is not only about your own self or experiences. But, whether they are able to do justice to that character or not, comes much later after the book is published, when it is open to all criticisms. And as the question of authenticity arises, it is a given that fiction is inherently inauthentic, it is fake by nature of its name. So, should there be cultural policing with regard to authenticity when someone is writing fiction? Abdel-Magied says, “I choose not to write about other cultures which I feel are more marginalised than my own. It is more powerful for me to use my own platform to amplify their voices. Real empowerment is not me telling somebody else’s experience, real empowerment is saying I’ve privilege so let me empower you so that you can tell your own story.”
Mrinal Pande, one of the other panellists, say that it is important that we write out of integrity rather than loyalty. She further goes on to talk about the language divide between feminists which should be sorted out first. The feminist movements that go on in India and the view points of feminist publishing houses come largely and essentially from women who are educated and “armed” with English. But there are a whole host of women who have different viewpoints but their views are not being inducted in this circle because they cannot communicate in English and nobody nowadays has time to sit down and translate. “If that were to happen then feminism would have acquired many more colours”, says Mrinal Pande, when asked about the feminist movements in India.
The discussion took an interesting turn when the panellists started to light-heartedly debate about other issues of writing about Yoga, Dalits, and also how Indians have appropriated cricket in their own ‘colourful’ ways.
“Cultural appropriation can reify certain groups and plug into a kind of identity politics that we see bourgeoning across the globe”, says Mark Singleton.
What I liked about this session is that all the panellists worked on to reach a common conclusion. They talked of how appropriation could also be positive, when a static art of a certain cultural group is ‘hybridised’ to give it its momentum. They ended the rather lively debate, saying that things will always move between cultures, all we need is equal exchanges between them.
However, what we as readers need to ponder about is that does identity politics in a way, take away your right to freedom of speech?
On a lighter note, one of my favourite sessions from the event was, the ‘master storyteller’ Devdutt Pattanaik’s talk about his new book, Olympus: An Indian Retelling of the Greek Myths, where he seeks to bridge the gap between Indian and Greek mythologies by comparing and contrasting them. He wonderfully explains how many of the Greek myths and Indian myths (especially Hindu myths) are ‘superficially similar’. Hercules fought a lion and defeated a multi-headed serpent, and so did Krishna. In Homer’s Iliad, the Trojan War was fought to bring back Helen from the enemy’s lands; this cannot help but remind us the reason for the war in Ramayana. It is important to appreciate what unites the two cultures but, it is also important to note that both the cultures have very distinct features as well, and these disparities need to be kept in mind in order to scale the difference between the Indian and the Greek mythologies. Pattanaik observes that, both Indian and Greek mythologies are mostly stories about human fears and their inadequacies in restoring order. However, what is different is the way we see the world. The Greeks believe that the origin was chaos, and your purpose was to find and restore order, in one life. The Indian Gods, for instance, Ganesh or Hanuman, would look very monstrous to the western eye, because, their ‘avataars’ are very similar to the monsters of Greek mythology like Minotaur who was ‘part man and part bull’ or the Sphinx (with the head of a human and body of a lion). Pattanaik explains that the Indian idea of what the Greeks think is chaos, is actually nature and that it is order beyond ones understanding. While the Greeks focus on adventures and conquering the world, the Indians believe in understanding life in all its complexities. The Indian mythology suggests that the world can never be conquered. The brilliant wordsmith instantiated this with the (Jain) story of the ambitious Bharat who after becoming a ‘Chakravartin’ wished to climb the mountain and beat the drum about his greatness, only to realise that a lot of people had already done that. With this he explains the cyclical structure of the Indian stories (what goes up, has to find its way down). The Greek stories have a linear structure, everything is fixed- there is a beginning and an end. When a person dies in Greek mythology, upon crossing the Styx he is judged by three gods and is either sent to heaven or hell. There is no such concept of judgment in Indian mythology, “there is accounting”, and based on that, you will take births until you ‘pay that debt’. The concept of Chitragupta is very unique to India.” Every Hindu myth is a continuation of a larger story that spans far beyond its protagonists. This difference is due to the very different ways in which these cultures engaged with the concept of destiny.
“The Greek way of life was to try and impose control over what seemed to be uncontrollable”, explained Pattanaik. Every Hindu story ultimately leads back to the concept of the sanatan (eternal order). We should not try to compare the Iliad and the Odyssey with the Mahabharata and the Ramayana in terms of their structures because the entire archetype on which they are made is different. The Greek world is fixed whereas the Hindu world has no beginning and no end. ‘What we think is chaos is just order beyond our understanding,’ said Pattanaik. Different cultures use the same structure to explain very different ideas.
Greek stories are very tragic, because of the sudden realisation that draws on the tragic heroes, that when you reach your destination, there is another quest waiting for you, and it continues to move as you move on, like the ‘arch wherethro’ gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades forever and ever’.
He summed up his point with an adroit example. He said, ‘When the denominator of your life is infinity, the value of your achievement is zero. One day, your body will let you go and you will watch the world carry on without you. This realisation, in Greek culture, forms the epiphany of tragedy. In Hindu thought, it is considered the moment of wisdom.’
The Jaipur Literature Fest was also very politicised this year, with the RSS making its first debut, which created a lot of pre-publicity and hullabaloo, with speakers refusing to be a part of the event. In their session, ‘Of Saffron and the Sangha’ Dattatreya Hosabale and Manmohan Vaidya spoke about Hindutva being a “way of life”. If a person without knowledge about what was going on in this session happened to sit and listen to what they had to say, they would have definitely mistook it for some session on spirituality, especially when Manmohan Vaidya was speaking in his shudh Hindi and used Sanskrit shlokas to substantiate what he was saying. According to Vaidya, the western concept of the nation-state is different from that of the rashtra. The Indian concept of the Rashtra is synonymous with ‘the people’, feels Vaidya. Similarly, he says the concept of secularism is also very alien to the Indian nation, and said, “is used to create communal rift”. When asked about reservations and the need to extend the reservations to minorities, especially for the Muslims, a man from the crowd stood up to state that the Muslims themselves are the reason for their backwardness, which was followed by hoots and huge rounds of applause while the right wing members (guilefully) sat back and shared a laugh. This whole session was very problematic, mostly because both the speakers were from the RSS and had the same ideologies, and their comments seemed to me, a clear political rally.
The other session titled, The Legacy of the Left, did not work out very well, as it was vitiated by technical difficulties. The panellists too, did not talk much about the ‘New-Left’ which they had initiated to talk about, but clung on to discussing the history of the Left globally, starting from the Russian Revolution and its translation into the Indian landscape.
What I most profoundly felt was that, had the two sessions “Of Saffron and the Sangha” and “The Legacy of the Left” made into one where both the left wing as well as the right wing ideologies could have been debated on, in one single platform, it would have given a better insight into the political ideologies and their nuances of the contemporary times.
The Jaipur Literature Festival, despite controversies of the past, sets a perfect ambience for its first-time visitors (like me) to delve into the magical and classic world of books. It is a platform where writers and readers explore the unfathomable world of literature and with it the other forms of art, music and politics. Inside the royal walls of the Diggi Palace that epitomises a besetting glorification of ancient India, the Jaipur Literature Festival, offered the heart-warming ethos of ideas, knowledge and curiosity to go deeper into the past and yet at the same time look forward to the future of the kingdom of Literature.