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Friday, 27 January 2012

Jaipur Literature Festival 2012

The titles were captivating, the followings fantastic, the authors uncompromising and the sun all embracing. Thus began the 2012 Jaipur Literature Festival. After four days of non stop stimulation two results are likely. Total collapse or unprecedented literary verve. I am teetering close to the first and eager to convey some of the second to all of you with or without the verve.
Starting with Salman Rushdie as the "now you see him now you dont" scenario had a couple of bonuses. It galvanised the authors to react and it reinforced the importance of  freedom of speech. The result was that almost from the first session we attended to the last - from Hari Kunzru to Richard Dawkins authors came out with single line statements, wordy support, or extracts from Salman's works. The effect was actually electrifying as the participants could easily comprehend that many of them were putting their own safety at risk and were standing up to be counted in a sea of Salman supporters. It need not have been so and for whatever reasons were actually at the heart of him being kept away it was a sharp and necessary reminder that India was regressing in its approach to the freedom of speech. A petition is now out asking that the ban be lifted from his works in India and if any good comes of that it is at the JLT that it all began.
Hari Kunzru who wrote "The Impressionist" and now "Gods without Men"  spoke loudly to me about the responsible and required attitude to censorship and the written word. "It is after all just a book, Not a bomb, not a knife or a gun.Just a book". Jeet Thayil, the author of "Narcopolis" and Ruchir Joshi did something similar and by then the calls and recriminations were coming in thick and fast. I don't for a minute think that any of them regretted their actions and when the heavyweights like Dawkins and A.C Grayling added their voice to the debate there was no doubt that this was a message that had to be delivered despite the alleged threats.
Amitava Kumar and Hari Kunzru

Young authors also pledged their support and Taiye Selasi started her session with the opening sentence from "Midnight's Children". She then read from her story "The sex life of African girls" which shows great talent and literary craft. Her new book "Ghana must go" is out later this year. She is one of the truly exciting young authors coming out of West Africa, together with Teju Cole, author of "Open City", named one of the best books of 2011 and Ben Okri whose latest collection "A Time for new dreams" also came out in 2011.

Taiye Selasi
Anuradha Roy, the Moderator, Geiling Yan and Taiye Selasi
To counter the dense and severly undiplomatic were sessions which shocked and stirred and entertained to the max. Shabhnam Virmani enthralled the massive crowd with readings and songs of Kabir and there was standing room only for Gulzar and Chetan Bhagat.I have blogged already about Oprah's appearance.
The stirrers were more Amy Chua who wrote "Tiger Mum" not ever expecting that it would receive an overwhelming and entirely mixed reception world-wide. This is one mum who was going to make sure her kids performed and at some considerable cost often to the kids to her and to their family life. She has been severly criticized for her parenting but also praised. She alleges this was written as a satirical account -Madhu Trehan, as the moderator was brilliant. "Did you or did you not say you would burn all your children's stuffed animals ? Did you or did you not leave Lulu out in the cold because she would not play the piano properly aged 3 ? She was big enough to say that she had learnt her lessons and finally allowed her daughter Lulu to give up the violin after she rebelled completely.Her daughter Sophia came on stage and supported her mum's parenting but Lulu was conspicuously absent.  Hmmm, I am not sure that this woman who perhaps is much admired around the world for being a "Chinese mother" has much idea how to live a happy life - even by her own admission.
Amy Chua with Madhu Trehan and Sophia
Whereas the exuberant Vinod Mehta had no such problems. He got a third at  university and actually considered himself quite dumb, almost despaired about being able to find a job, when he started working for the Indian equivalent of Playboy, called "Debonair" in Mumbai with several gay editors which clearly was not going to lead the magazine in the direction it needed to go. He thrilled his audience with stories of his early career, his restlessness over a decade before he finally settled in "Outlook" magazine, a very well respected journal here, for the past 15 years. Read his book "Lucknow boy" for all the inside stories.

Vinod Mehta
The chutneyfication of English was hotly debated by Gurcharan Das advocating that Indglish and not Hindglish is here to stay and is the unifying language of the future for India whereas Tarun Tejpal of Tehelka fame said it was a legacy of the Brits and was the cause of the loss of some of India's languages and of further social division. Shashi Tharoor told us how he used Twitter as a way to disseminate his political messages in a session on the uses of Twitter.
Gurcharan Das
A fascinating session for me was called "Reworking Voices" and on the podium were two American women who had lived in France for many year and had just completed a new translation of Simone de Beauvoir's "The Second Sex." They spoke about this as ground breaking and unabridged and how they had read countless sources and materials to ensure that they captured what she meant with her writing then and not according to today's interpretations.Traslating that first line "On n’est pas, on le deviant "– they said  had not been an easy task and one which did attract some controversy.
By contrast a Swiss writer, Urs Widers, who writes in German was sitting next to his translator Donald McClaughlin.With a lovely Swiss sense of humour he recounted how he had decided to write a book about his mother's lover and the first line of the book was "Yesterday my mother's lover died". Problem was said Urs he was not dead and he kept waiting and waiting for him to die until finally he decided to go ahead.
Donald read an extract from the English translation and Urs said he had liked it very much; it was almost like reading the work of another author. These are the dilemmas facing countless translators around the world of how they retain the author's voice and his culture in the translated text. Both author and translator said how refreshing it was that their Indian publisher was giving both of them recognition on the front cover of the book.
Biographers undertake a colossal act when they decide to write about someone’s life. Simon Sebag Montefiore said that ever since he was a child he wanted to write about Stalin. I was so intrigued by this statement and his spellbinding account of Stalin that I went to ask him what it was that got him interested. He said that he was a young boy of maybe 10 when he read an article about Stalin. Well that was his future mapped out. For 45 minutes he talked engrossingly about Stalin and his wife, their children, their differences and their problems. This was a man who signed not just the deaths of millions of peasants but his daughter's homework, who showed signs of being a caring father but was also a ruthless mass murderer.

William Dalrymple and Simon Sebag Montefiore
Listening to Peter Popham talking about Aung San Suu Kyi and her future was beautifully balanced by having Thant Myint- U there who is a well known author on Burma talk about his take on the unfolding political scene The discussion was ably moderated by David Malone a former Canadian HC to India.
My other favourite topic is of course those conversations that involve historical research and contemporary analysis and there was a plethora of that to choose from. From Kuldip Nayar's recollections of India during the Emergency to David Hare's theatrical work, "the Wall" in Palestine to William Darlymple's fascinating account of his new book on the first Afghan War. " If only Tony Blair and Bush had read the history books" must be the line of the day !
 John Keay with William Dalrymple
Lioner Shriver "We need to talk about Kevin" showed a grounded and very amusing woman who by her own account "is a wordy m.........r". She was amazed at seeing her book being turned into a succesful film with minimal dialogue. Jamaica Kincaid floored the audience with her wackiness - her works include "My Brother"and "A usual Place"
Tom Stoppard explained  how his works were sometimes hi jacked and abridged and how in order to write everything in his surroundings must be "just so". He stressed the importance of clear enunciation.
Perhaps for me though the most fascinating was listening to Professor Richard Dawkins. He is of course the writer of many books on Science and God with "The Selfish Gene" and "The God Delusion" being some of them. Here he quoted extensively from his more recent works which were "Unweaving the Rainbow" and "The Magic of Reality" a book that he wrote for young people. A must read for any young person these days. He summed it up by saying that science has its own magic and that magic is reality. He made a statement in support of Salman Rushdie and explained how we are too soft on religious faith. Faith, he said, is a dangerous weapon. He urged those who did not have answers to seek them even more instead of just settling for the assumption of the superior being. He uncompromisingly noted that he looked forward to the death of all religions. And he reminded us that Stephen Pinker who was also at the festival has spoken about how the world is getting to be a better place- that over the years society has evolved, so that slavery and racism are no longer acceptable and we can find our moral values through channels like responsible journalism and civil society. In a world which has seen centuries of crusades and fatwas and pillages in the name of religion this is a message that has its rightful place in the 21st Century and one which I was happy to take on board among the many treasures being offered up at this amazing venue.
Professor Richard Dawkins

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