21 February 2011

A world framed by language: A report on the Jaipur Literature Festival, 2011

This report was written for Biblio's Jan-Feb 2011 issue. Do register on the Biblio website to read it and many other wonderful pieces in pdf.

Geeta Hariharan, JM Coetzee, Adam Zagajewski, Ahdaf Soueif and Mrinal Pande at a session called 'Imperial English' during JLF 2011

The Jaipur Literature Festival, whose sixth instalment ended on 25th January 2011, is undoubtedly the most talked-about book event in India. This year especially, miles of newsprint — not to mention many megabytes worth of facebook and twitter updates — have been expended upon it by celebrity watchers, enthusiastic revellers and irascible critics alike.While much of the gushing national-level coverage tended to focus on the number of award-winning writers in attendance (seven Booker- and five Pulitzer-winners), the local Jaipur papers seemed more interested in splashing their front pages with pictures of an anonymous white couple kissing on the Diggi Palace lawns. Last year’s prize kissing-at-JLF photograph involved known writers: the Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali and the British-born-and-bred Niall Fergusson. This year’s favourite celebrity couple, novelists Orhan Pamuk and Kiran Desai, did not quite deliver on their tabloid promise.

This year’s festival has probably also fielded more flak than ever before: being accused — variously — of being beholden to British writers (and being run as a fiefdom by one of them); of having dubious corporate sponsors (Shell and Rio Tinto, in particular, have been singled out as companies that stand publicly accused of unethical practices); and most frequently, of having surrendered claims to literary gravitas by being too much of a social event: the descriptive terms bandied about range from “mela”, “circus” and “tamasha” to “fashion show” and “Page Three Party”. Let me skirt the first two charges for the moment to address the last one. There is no doubt that reading and writing are both such solitary activities that a literature festival, to begin with, seems almost an oxymoron. Yet there is something to be said for being able to see, listen (and just possibly have a conversation with) a writer whose work you love, or just to be in a space where reading, writing and conversation about books seems absolutely normal. Suddenly, literature seems to afford the possibility of community. As the festival drew to a close, amid the reluctantly-departing revellers were large numbers of writers and readers excited and grateful to have met other writers and readers. Of course, complaints abound: about how it is no longer an intimate meeting of bookish minds, how it is overrun by celebrity-seeking crowds who are there only to catch a glimpse of Gulzar, or worse, of Om Puri. Yes, large numbers of people who don’t really read books do show up, particularly on the weekends—because the music is rather good, entry is free and “everyone’s going”. Yes, there are plenty of people (even readers and writers) who are in Jaipur to socialise (or less delicately, schmooze) and who barely attend a session or two. Yes, it is crowded enough that you will often find no space to sit in a session you really really want to attend. From the three-day gathering to which 14 guests turned up in 2005, the festival has grown into a massive five-day affair with four parallel sessions going on at any point in time—touted by Tina Brown of the Daily Beast (not without reason) as “the greatest literary show on earth”. Since 2006, it has also grown out of the single-session confines of the charmingly yellow painted Durbar Hall, gradually colonising more and more of the seemingly inexhaustible grounds of Diggi Palace, the haveli-turned-hotel where the event has been held since its inception.

But these ostensibly non-literary crowds only really take over in the evenings, when the day’s sessions have ended, the bar has opened and the atmosphere is more Chhattarpur farmhouse party than anything else. During the day, however, the festival is thronged by all manner of listeners, of whom one assumes a generous proportion are also readers — some avid, some occasional, some potential. You would be hard put to find so large and varied a selection of people engaged in such attentive head-nodding (or such vociferous and articulate opposition) at any university seminar. In 2009, among the people I met were three enthusiastic schoolteachers from Ajmer, a yoga trainer who had just taken a class with the visiting Julia Roberts and a psychic healer (and potential writer) who invited me to come visit her in the hills to sort out all my problems. This year, as every year, sessions involving Javed Akhtar or Gulzar or Prasoon Joshi (or, calamitously, all three) were nearly impossible to get into because there were large numbers of college students from all over Rajasthan who had come all the way just to see them. There was the carefully made-up Jaipur dowager in the audience who greeted several of Junot Diaz’s declarations with a heartfelt “That’s right!”— whether she had ever read or would ever read Diaz’s Dominican-New Jersey fiction didn’t seem the point. My favourite encounter this year was with two Bengali sisters in their 60s, one based in Bangalore and the other in Australia, who had decided to make the lit-fest their ‘together’ vacation and when I left them, were rushing excitedly to the Mughal Tent to hear Atiq Rahimi, a Franco-Afghan novelist whose Stone of Patience one of them had fallen in love with.

The other primary accusation levelled at the lit-fest this year was that it is dominated by British writers and only has any significance because it ties us in India to the British literary establishment.The first thing to say is what one of the directors of the festival, British-born William Dalrymple, has already pointed out in a post-festival interview: that the figures ought to speak for themselves. There were 224 authors at Jaipur this year, of whom precisely seven were British. He also counted 162 writers of Indian origin and 64 from 32 other countries. But the larger question, it would seem, is not one of the nationality of writers, but of the skewedness of the publishing scene, and even more broadly, of the English language and its clout. Even those who disagree with the “British dominance” argument grant that the Indian publishing scene in English depends on approval from the western establishment, located in the UK and the US. Being feted in the West, by a big advance from a firang publisher, or even better, by a Booker Prize, is necessary for an Indian writer in English to be seen as important here. Within India, however, it is only if you write a book in English (and not in Bengali or Malayalam or Hindi) that you have a chance at getting hold of a piece of the new publishing pie: a book launch (hopefully with free alcohol), reviews and interviews in a few national dailies and magazines, a stab at a handful of book prizes. It is another matter that the number of books actually sold is abysmally low — 3000 copies is a normal print run for literary fiction; 10,000 is a coup — when compared to the numbers that anoint a book as bestseller in any of the regional language markets.

The Jaipur Literature Festival is not what ails the Indian book scene — it just exhibits symptoms of the malaise. The 64 non-UK writers, whether from the US, Turkey, Australia, Nigeria, China, Egypt or Sri Lanka, either write in English themselves, or come to us filtered through English translations. There may have been 162 “desis” at the festival, as Dalrymple puts it, but the number of those who write in one of the bhashas was very few indeed. And these Indian language sessions, too, were largely either in Rajasthani or Hindi — for the obvious reason that these were the languages in which local Jaipur audiences could be expected to be fluent, and therefore, interested. A bit more complicated is the issue of why the bhasha writers who do get invited tend to get put on panels of their own, speaking almost entirely to each other, quite separate from the sessions in which the “international” writers and Indian writers in English get to mingle, backslap and disagree. Partly, this is a function of the assumptions that underlie the festival’s programming, i.e. that audiences for these authors are neatly dividable: that those who want to hear Pavan Varma and Gulzar don’t want to hear Orhan Pamuk, or that those who might be curious about the Hindi blogosphere have no interest in non-fiction about Afghanistan and Pakistan. More importantly, of course, it’s about the limitations of language: the “international” lingua franca, whether we like it or not, is English, and so a writer who is not entirely articulate in English doesn’t usually get to be on a panel discussing something with four others who are.

Simultaneous translation is theoretically possible, of course, but it would double the time taken for any session (and potentially double the number of speakers). It is not as if translation is not an integral feature of the festival. In 2009, for example, there were at least two sessions devoted to discussing the act of translation: the astoundingly resonant Writers’ Chain session, the culmination of a workshop with eight British and Indian poets working in eight languages, and a slightly more academic session with Alok Rai and Arshia Sattar among others.

In 2010 there was a lively discussion with translators Gillian Wright and Arunava Sinha (the latter was present this year as well). There is also, at the JLF, a constant sense of translation on the fly, with spontaneous, provisional versions of things said being provided both off-stage and on—most often for international visitors by bilingual Indians, but sometimes also for a whole audience: among the highlights of JLF 2009 was the experience of hearing Nalini Jamila’s fluid Malayalam descriptions of her life as a sex worker in Kerala instantaneously rendered into perfectly idiomatic English by K. Satchidanandan and Paul Zacharia. Among the unexpected delights of 2011 was a morning session on Bhojpuri cinema where the (admittedly rare) foreigner present had the pleasure of hearing Avijit Ghosh and Amitava Kumar read, recite and banter in a joyful mixture of English, Hindi and Bhojpuri, with Kumar translating the important bits quickly into English.

But on the whole, of course, it is impossible for non-English speakers to have derived much pleasure from listening to J.M. Coetzee’s grave and sonorous (and practically unannotated) reading of a story on the Front Lawns, or conversely, for a non-Hindustani speaker to have been moved by Javed Akhtar’s heartfelt exhortation not to surrender the North Indian heritage of Urdu to a fictitious association with a religious community. Which is why the presence of someone like Mrinal Pande, fluent and thoughtful in both Hindi and English, felt both rare and wonderful. Pande was among the most considered speakers in an animated panel called ‘Aisi Hindi Kaisi Hindi’, which otherwise seemed to swing between an old sense of beleaguerment and anxiety about linguistic purity and a new puffing-up-of-the-chest based on the explosion in Hindi media and cinema. She was also the sole bilingual Indian writer on a superb session called Imperial English, which perhaps more than any other session, provided clues to the complex linguistic universe, both political and personal, with which the festival — and we as readers and writers in English—must grapple. Pande spoke of growing up in many languages (Kumaoni, Hindi, even Gujarati and Bengali to some extent) and said that though English had “expanded the circumference of [her] experience”, it would never be the language in which she was at her best. Yet, English was a “survival tactic” that allowed her to speak of things that Hindi often didn’t: sex, for example. Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif said she could only write fiction in English, but that if she were forced to live in one language, it would have to be Arabic. The most surprising thought came from South African writer J.M. Coetzee — whose mother tongue is Afrikaans, but who has only ever written in English and has won a Nobel Prize for his efforts — that he has never felt at home in English. Bilingual people, said Coetzee, lead “dual lives”, a mode of living on which two perspectives are possible. One way of looking at such people is that they have always known that the world is not simply what it is; it is always a world framed by language. Language, in other words, makes the world what it is. The other perspective on bilingual people, writers who write in a language that is not their mother tongue, is that they have been divorced forever from the language natural to them and to what they write about, and will therefore always be at a disadvantage. The first view is probably that of most people at this festival, Coetzee said quietly, because people who hold the second opinion are not invited here.

No-one responded.