When someone you know goes to the Jaipur Lit Fest, you secretly wish you could go as well. Pink city. City of Kings. City of culture. Now books. The very idea of being at a place where almost everyone who comes loves books in some way as a publisher, an author, a book seller, gives any book lover the goosebumps.
So Srishti and I greedily listened as Abhaya and Jaya talked about their festival experience.
It was the first time that they had visited this massive literature festival and they tried to visit as many panels as they could. Some of them stood out.
It is obviously rather hard for anyone living in their own country to be extremely critical of his own government policy, but Gideon Levy, an Israeli journalist, lives against the grain in that sense.
A conversation Abhaya replayed was Levy’s single pointed question at a guard who prevented an ambulance with an old Palestinian man inside from crossing the checkpost for an hour.
The question went something like this: Suppose that was your father in there, would you make him wait this long and this condition?
This humanity inspiring question brought about the opposite effect, he said.
‘The more books you read, the more stupid you become.’ is what Chairman Mao Tse-tung had said during the Cultural Revolution.
“It is strange though how well-read Mao was,” Jaya said, ”In fact the first thing he would do when he woke up in the morning was grab a book and read it.”
Jung Chang, Ma Jian and Anchee Min are all writers who have severed ties with their home country. They spoke about things that are best left forgotten, but which remain in the memories of a few who were unfortunate enough to see how far an ideology could go.
A Cultural Revolution era narration by Anchee Min stood out for Jaya.
An old man, a former capitalist, was declared the enemy of the people. As punishment he was made to clean the street by carrying water from a well. The writer witnessed him collapse in the course of this strenuous exercise, and she informed his daughter who was her neighbour. Like any concerned daughter, she ran out of her house to help her father who had actually suffered from a stroke. “This is the part where you will get goosebumps,” Jaya said. The woman suddenly became aware of the windows staring at her, all eyes of everyone she knew in the neighbourhood seeing her help the enemy of the people.
Daughter or not, she could not help him an enemy of the people as she would only end up inflicting further ruin on herself and the rest of her family.
She left him to die and went back to her house.
Beautiful Offspring: The Art of Historical Fiction
A panel could be full of people—but maybe just one writer stands out and for Jaya and Abhaya, this writer was Eleanor Catton, the Booker Prize winner from New Zealand.
Writing about history is always sticky ground as so much of what you envision now to be abominable was then a part of culture. As a historical writer, you can’t be too priggish and white wash everything according to the status quo today. You will have to accept the facts you dislike—even embrace them for your writing to look authentic.
Catton said it was particularly important to ask what is familiar and unfamiliar, not to the writer, but to the reader. The reason for this being that you write for the reader and they should have the unfamiliar explained to them. What is familiar to the writer is not as important.
This library catering to translated works was aptly launched during the Jaipur Lit fest. “It was a treat to watch Sheldon Pollock, the Sanskrit scholar and Professor at Harvard, talk about the challenges of finding a single good translator. Even if they are a few and then you handpick five and then narrow down to a single one, translation is the hardest task,” said Abhaya.
Writing the other
“Two writers, Adam Johnson and Damon Galgut, dealt with unfamiliar places and wrote about it.”
“I read Adam Johnson’s book,” Jaya chimed in, “and it sounded like an American was writing it, even though that was not the intention.”
Adam Johnson explained his writing process as soaking in the experience of a foreign country, while Galgut, a South African writing about India had a far more craft-oriented approach. “One takeaway from Galgut was how he was successfully able to write about himself in the third person, by way of a writing exercise.”
“Very different from Johnson’s self-absorbed style,” mused Jaya.
Zamana Hum Se Hai: New Words New Worlds
“This was a panel that had a lot of scope, considering that that there were four young Hindi authors,” said Abhaya,” but as is the case with all Indian language panels, the argument veered toward imaginary enemies of Hindi literature. In fact, none of the young authors got much of a chance to speak. It was the presenter who shot questions at the audience,”
“Probably a hangover of TV gimmicks,” said Jaya.
“All panels come up with the same issues- the undercurrent of anger at writers of Hindi not being taken seriously enough. What should be taken seriously is not the flag of language that India has so many of, but giving the authors enough review space in mainstream newspapers and other media. All first time authors in any language face the same dilemmas, so they should be treated equally in that respect.”
The conversation veered away to how language rode on economics and how the idea of a Hindi heartland is warped by so much linguistic nitpicking, it makes for another interesting blog post.
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