Thursday, January 26, 2012

JLF '12

Here are some of my blog entries at the Jaipur Literary Festival, where I blogged for the festival organizers. These are a few of the sessions I was asked to blog about, not all the ones I attended, such as the ones with Tom Stoppard, Richard Dawkins, Ayesha Jalal and others.

36. ‘Reckonings’, Philip Gourevitch, moderated by Akash Kapur, supported by Tata Steel

Philip Gourevitch, long-time writer at The New Yorker and author of books like Standard Operating Procedure: The Ballad of Abu Gharaib and We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, spoke about his work as a journalist investigating conflicts and conflict-torn regions. He said his primary focus was the aftermath of conflicts – the experiences of the people affected and their rehabilitation. He spoke about the Rwandan genocide, in which the majority Hutu government persecuted the Tutsi minority. He examined in particular the “withdrawal” of the major world powers from the conflict. He said he was primarily interested in how the conflict-torn people experienced the aftermath of the genocide and what repercussions it had for them. He cited the case of the UN refugee camps opened 50 kms from the Rwandan border immediately after the cessation of the genocide that protected and gave refuge to several of the people who were the perpetrators of the genocide – he emphasized the inconsistencies of conflict-resolution practices and the possible “humanitarian exploitation” of former perpetrators seeking protection against retributive attacks. He also examined key terms such as “interventionism” and what is sometimes called “never again-ism”. In the context of the former, he explained the mechanisms that made the NATO intervention in Libya last year an act of “smart opportunism” rather than a humanitarian intervention. He also focused on the journalistic processes of reporting on conflict and made a very interesting observation. He said the use of terms such as “unimaginable, unthinkable, incomprehensible” to describe violence only served to make the act of violence less tangible and less accessible, and therefore the reader more prone to withdrawal.

43. ‘Mothers and Children’, Amy Chua, moderated by Puneeta Roy

Amy Chua discussed with Puneeta Roy her latest book, Battle Hymn of The Tiger Mother. She discussed the different aspects of the book and the controversy it attracted in America. With respect to the latter, she described her experience of being assaulted by a barrage of negative and uninformed criticism in the American media. However, the discussion focused more on the book itself and her journey of writing it. She said it was a memoir chronicling her childhood and her immigrant parents’ expectations and methods of parenting. As a child, she was deeply influenced by her parents’ hard work and strenuous jobs, which imprinted in her mind their drive and determination to see her succeed. She spoke about the transfer of values across generations and contextualized the different environments in which different generations of her family have had to grow up. She emphasized that her book was a humourous attempt to introspect on her own parenting methods, vis-à-vis her parents’, and the values that her own children would now carry into their adult lives. Gratitude and discipline were the key foci of her thoughts on parenting. She spoke about “authenticity” and how the realities of her parents’ lives made their demands and expectations authentic, and how, in turn, her own expectations of her children would need to reflect the authenticity of their lives. On a lighter note, she recalled how her father, who she idolized, was something of a rebel, though he abhorred any signs of rebellion in her. She said rebellion was important and necessary, and that the media’s misinterpretation of her book as a record of the stifling of her children’s rebellion completely misses the point of her warm, compassionate and heartbreaking story.

50. ‘Open Road’, Samanth Subramanian, Philip Marsden, Katie Kitamura, Akash Kapur, Katie Hickman, Tim Butcher, moderated by William Dalrymple, supported by British Council

This session was about travel writers and their experiences in travel writing. All of the writers read out excerpts from their books. Samanth Subramanian read out from Following Fish, a book about coastal communities across the country. His excerpt was about his grandfather’s traditional medical remedies. Philip Marsden read out from The Chains of Heaven, which is about his Ethiopian journey. William Dalrymple read out from From The Holy Mountain, which chronicles his journey along early Christian lands. Tim Butcher read out from Chasing The Devil, which is about her Liberian journey. Katie Hickman read out from Travels With A Circus, which chronicles her travels with a circus troupe in Mexico. Akash Kapur read out from India Becoming, his latest book about contemporary India.

54. ‘Lucknow Boy’, Vinod Mehta, moderated by Tarun Tejpal

Vinod Mehta discussed his latest book, chronicling his journey as a political journalist, editor and writer. He focused on his childhood and his experience growing up in the hinterland of North India, and his journey from ignorance to political wisdom, from childhood academic troubles to his final reconciliation with the world of knowledge and information.

60. ‘A Second Sunrise: The Literature of Protest’, Cheran, Gogu Shyamala, Charu Nivedita, K. Satchidanandan, moderated by S. Anand

This session focused on the need for authentic voices of protest and dissent in India. The discussion explored the contextual realities of the speakers and the different ways in which they contributed to their own experience of expressing dissent. One of the interesting points that emerged from the discussion was the recognition of the fact that in several parts of the country, and in the south in particular, there were fewer avenues of protest because the popular imagination was occupied by actors and politicians who masqueraded as the sole representatives of public opinion and usurped the space ought to have been occupied by “authentic” voices of protest. Shyamala, a Dalit woman from the Telangana region, read out from the English translation of her work. She said that she came from an extremely impoverished Dalit community, living in a village where she was perhaps the first girl to be educated. She said her father’s desire to have her educated emerged from the need to have one literate member in the family to read land records and transaction papers. She identified herself as a writer writing against the grain of Brahmin supremacy and domination, writing against the whole tradition of subjugation.

79. ‘Beyond the Beautiful Forevers’: Representing Slum Dwellers and Migrant Workers in Narrative Non-fiction, Katherine Boo, Aman Sethi, moderated by Chiki Sarkar, supported by Baillie Gifford

In this discussion, the speakers spoke about their latest books, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers and Aman Sethi’s A Free Man. Sethi said that he started his work on the book by trying to look at the changing nature of Delhi, especially in the period preceding the Commonwealth Games. Katherine Boo started work on her book by trying to understand the complexities of the slum dwellers of Mumbai, their lives as reality and not as a representation of deprivation. Both speakers explained their respective processes of their becoming better acquainted with the people they sought to write about, their closeness and ultimately their friendship. They emphasized the need for patience and for long-term commitment. Boo said that she had decided that she would need to spend a lot of time, years altogether, simply following some of the people in the slum around to get to know them better. She emphasized the fact that none of them would have been in a position to talk about their lives for the purposes of a book because of the pressures and stresses of daily survival and sustenance. She wanted to understand them better and to explore their complexities more deeply. Sethi spoke about his experience of getting more and more drawn into the circle of migrant workers he was writing about and about the prominence one of them came to occupy in his book, becoming its protagonist. They tried to understand the commonalities and differences in their works – Boo felt that they had in common several of the daily experiences that their respective communities shared, whereas Sethi felt that the people of slum represented a motivated, driven and upwardly-aspiring community, while the migrant workers in Delhi were more disillusioned with the idea of upward-mobility and more resigned to the idea of life as a daily struggle for money.

95. ‘Journeys’ Readings: David Davidar, Kunal Basu, moderated by Nilanjana Roy, supported by Hindustan Times

In this session, David Davidar and Kunal Basu read out from their recent books, Ithaca and The Yellow Emperor’s Cure respectively. Davidar, who has worked as a publisher for almost three decades now, most prominently with Penguin Books, has written three novels so far. His latest book is about the publishing industry and is also a thriller. He spoke about his primary motivation for writing the book, namely the desire to “demystify” the publishing industry to the extent possible, given the general confusion in the public mind about the inner mechanisms of the industry and the incentives guiding publishers and authors. The excerpt he read out was a passage explicating the protagonist-publisher’s escape from the turmoil gripping his office in London to the idyllic mountains of Bhutan. Basu is a professor at Oxford University who teaches courses in Business & Management. As Roy pointed out, he has several works to his name, all of them unexpectedly different from each other. He read out a passage from his latest book, an excerpt about the Portuguese protagonist of his novel who goes to China to find a cure for syphilis in order to help his father overcome the hitherto fatal disease. The protagonist encounters a mysterious Chinese medicine-man and his disciple, with whom he trains to discover the inner mechanisms of the human body. The discussion after their reading focused mostly on the motivations and workings of the publishing industry. Questions were directed at both speakers seeking answers about what guided them, what inspired them, and what constituted their own notions of good writing. While Basu spoke about the experiences of the author on being published and in the aftermath of publication, Davidar spoke about the needs and demands of the publishing industry, particularly its monetary determinants and pressures.

107. ‘The Afropolitans’: Ben Okri, Teju Cole, moderated by Taiye Selasi, supported by JCB

In this session, Ben Okri, Teju Cole and Taiye Selasi had a very lively conversation about their writing and experiences as writers. The session opened with a rejoinder to the Times of India’s purported use of the ‘Dark Continent’ metaphor in a report on the African authors attending the JLF. Curiously, the session also ended on the same note, returning to the original use of the metaphor, although in a different context and in an extremely jovial and intellectually rigorous vein. Cole read out from his book, Open City, and Ben Okri read out from his essay, ‘Healing the Africa Within Us’, which enunciates the anxieties and aspirations of Africans. Some memorable lines from the latter pertain to the need for the “rediscovery of Africa”, a much needed rediscovery, as the first encounter between Africa and Europe was really “not an encounter but an appropriation”. The conversation progressed to issues of responsibility and identification, to questions about the role of the writer and his particular responsibility to represent a composite African reality. All the writers, in their own unique ways, reasserted their primary responsibility to write well, and to produce good writing first and foremost, as good writing would inevitably constitute a certain truth and represent a certain reality. While Okri’s essay was lauded by the other two speakers for its unbounded hope and optimism, Cole said, in a lighter vein, that he was more of a pessimist and believed that “things are going to get worse” and that people like him “frown darkly in a corner”. Okri responded by saying that it wasn’t really a matter of pessimism or optimism but more of transforming people’s perceptions. He also recounted the history of the academic debate amongst African writers on their historical role and responsibility and concluded the argument by saying that it was time to move on, that the debate had outlived its course. On the same issue, Cole said that there were all kinds of writers and each of them had their own place and their own freedom to explore their creative talents. Selasi explained the use of the term “Afropolitan”, which she coined in an online essay responding to the need to explain her diasporic identity. The session ended on a vigorous note, with a lively debate on a question asked about Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and its political/ historical implications. Okri, Cole and Salesi all engaged the audience really well.

112. ‘A Dark Place’: Readings, Linda Spalding, Ilija Trojanow, moderated by Annie Zaidi

In this session, Linda Spalding read out from Who Named The Knife: A Book of Memory and Murder, a book (a memoir, she grudgingly conceded) about her experience as a juror in the murder trial of defendant Maryann Acker, and her subsequent friendship with the convicted woman. The book explores a lot of questions, particularly Maryann’s relationship with her ex-con husband, who was instrumental in her conviction, and Spalding’s intuitive sense of Maryann’s innocence. Spalding was at the last minute excused from the jury for being five minutes late, an unprecedented departure from standard American judicial procedure (jurors are usually never excused on the last day of trial, regardless of extenuating circumstances), and Maryann was convicted, which she wouldn’t have been had Spalding voted ‘not guilty’. After her reading, Spalding responded to a question from the audience about the trial and said that she was told at the time that the prosecutors and the court were determined at all costs to convict Maryann. Ilijah Trojanow read out from The Collector of Worlds, a fictionalized account of the infamous life of British colonial officer and translator, Sir Richard Burton. He read out an excerpt from a part of the book dedicated to Burton’s life in India and his relationship with his peculiar and enigmatic Indian mistress, who consistently eluded him and who clung stubbornly to her notions of propriety and class-based distance despite his many attempts to breach the gap. He also read out from another section of the book dedicated to Burton’s life in Kenya.

114. ‘Indian Military History: The Missing Links’, VK Singh, Chandrashekhar Dasgupta, RTS Chhina, Anit Mukherjee, moderated by Manoj Joshi

In this session, Manoj Joshi, a military historian, discussed the problems of Indian military history-writing with former servicemen, VK Singh, RTS Chhina and Anit Mukherjee, and former diplomat, Chandrashekhar Dasgupta. All the speakers have written about and published on the subject. Dasgupta began the discussion by stating the need for a strong tradition of military history-writing and explicating its relationship with larger state objectives and determinants. Singh spoke about the paranoia and secrecy of the Indian government and its military establishment, as well as the lack of access to most original military records and sources, which was the central problem and lacuna of research in this field. He said that there were several impediments in the way of independent research, two of which were the government’s refusal to grant access to military records and the willful destruction of these records. He said that it was unfortunate that Indian defense institutes today continued to teach strategic studies courses on the two World Wars and completely ignored all the battles thereafter. Chhina spoke about the historical role of the Ministry of Defense and its rigorous record-keeping and analysis until Independence. He said that the disclosure of all public records was mandated by the Public Records Act, but access to military documents was often denied by circumventing the former law using the Official Secrets Act (1923). He spoke of his experience in the military and said that records were often willfully destroyed by military units and committees that did not perceive their historical significance. Mukherjee spoke about his own experience of failing to get access to historical records, despite being a senior official in the Institute of Defense Studies and Analysis (part of the Ministry of Defense) – he said he had to use the Right to Information Act to apply for access to files in his own department, and that his requests were repeatedly denied. All speakers focused on the meaningless secrecy and paranoia surrounding military documents and focused on the need to form stringent mechanisms for declassifying and disclosing all records after a stipulated period of time. The speakers emphasized the need to breach the gap between the civilian and military populations in the country.

132. ‘Women Mystics: Love, Longing and Liberation’, HS Shivaprakash, Parvathy Baul, Ranjit Hoskote in conversation

In this session, the speakers, who have all studied in different ways the Bhakti poetic tradition of India, spoke about the poets who have been the most important to them. Parvathy Baul is a poet and Baul singer from West Bengal and practices the poetic form as much as she studies it. She sang a few songs from the “perfected words” genre of Baul poetry, which focuses on the transformation of the body through sound rather than text. Ranjit Hoskote is an academic and writer and recently published a translation of and commentary on the poetry of Lal Dad, the mystical Kashmiri Shaivite Bhakti poetess. He read out some of the poems translated in his book. HS Shivaprakash is a Kannada poet and playwright and he spoke about Akka, the famous Kannada Bhakti poetess. The leitmotifs in their discussion were the spiritual rigour of their respective poets and the socio-cultural exclusion, as well as immense popularity, they shared in common. They spoke about the problems of truly understanding the spiritual transformations embodied in the poets’ songs and expressions of devotion. They also focused on the historical technicalities of the different forms and branches of the Bhakti movement.

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