27 January 2011

The Jaipur Jamboree

Jaipur Literature Festival that has steadily grown in popularity in the last six years and has come to become the definitive literary event in South-Asia, encountered an unexpected problem this year. What one thought to be an intimate, snug coming together of book lovers and illustrious authors at the quaint and beautiful Diggi Palace has ballooned into an uncontainable carnival with hordes of crowds pouring in from all over the city, country and beyond.

The 'free entry' to the event attracted the locals in fair measure too, with schools etc perhaps encouraging their students to benefit from the lit-fest. So the first impression was of the overflowing crowds that barely fitted into a venue meant for a few thousand. The gentle manners prescribed at these sort of events ensured that people didn't exactly push each other around, though there were of course times when ladies in impeccable designer arty ware elbowed their way to reach the kullar chais (tea in earthen pots) served at the venue. There was the public which had come 'just-like that' and did not adhere to the simple decorum of keeping their cell phones silent during sessions. But it would be fair to say that there was genuine curiosity and interest among the majority and it's heartening that the event has assuredly grown in stature (financially too, considering the number of major sponsors the event has attracted this year). But organisers William Dalrymple and Namita Gokhale would have to put on their thinking caps and try and find a way to balance the fest's inherent intellectual appeal without losing out on its democratic spirit. Solution? More festivals in other parts of the country, as Dalrymple has been suggesting? Possibly.

Not surprisingly, finding a chair became the biggest mission in the event, and most of us ended up sitting on the aisles listening to the speakers. The place was divided into four nearby venues within the Diggi Palace – all beautifully done up in different styles. Lines of colourful ribbon cloth spread across the ceilings, with the charming sight of a Victorian style fountain amidst roses. There were prettily decked up stalls – selling artifacts, finely binded classics. Then of course, there were the food stalls, selling muffins and pastries in the lawns, which we could relish only on the last day when the crowds had finally thinned out.

Coming to the centre piece of this event – the numerous sessions with wonderful writers spread across the five days – was invigorating, though the one hour time proved to be slightly inadequate at times, especially in sessions where more than a couple of writers took part. So what you got were snippets of ideas, rather than any elaborate exposition of the themes.
There was also the session with Gulzar, Akthar and Prasoon Joshi on 'Hindi songs' that saw a near stampede, and seeing the audience interest, the session was repeated at lunch time the same day.

The other sessions involving authors like Patrick French (in conversation with Amitava Kumar), Chimananda Adichi, Kiran Desai, Ruskin Bond, Vikram Seth, Orphan Pamuk and Mohsin Hamid were the other highlights of the event.
A great festival for India for sure, with a lot of international interest in it. As one expects from an event such as this, the fashion quotient was unusually high, which mildly distracted from what is really supposed to be an intellectual and creative meeting-point for people. A word about the Rajasthani food served. Absolutely lip-smacking and delicious. That made sure we wouldn't leave with a bad taste in the mouth even if the dust and noisy crowd was a serious turn off.

Javed Akhtar and Urdu zubaan

Javed Akhtar was one of the show stealers at the event, as he spoke on 'Urdu Zabaan' , its evolution and its current state. “It's a paradox that people who talk and write in Urdu have reduced, and yet, those curious and fascinated about this language have increased.”
On how Urdu came into being, the celebrated screenwriter and lyricist says, “Basically, Urdu borrowed from other languages, especially Persian. But it was molded in the local flavour” Explaining this, he says, “You see, 'hawa' is a Persian word but 'hawayein' is Urdu. Again, 'amir' is taken from Arabic, but 'amiron ne' or 'amiri' is Urdu's own invention."
He also spoke about how Urdu has been unfairly viewed as an Islamic language. “While most of the poetry that originated in other languages started as religious poetry that transcended to other themes, Urdu poetry was secular and anti-fundamentalist from day one. The fight between Aurangazeb and Shivaji was never about religion. Neither was the one between Akbar and Maharana Pratab about Hindu-Muslim. These were territorial battles, not on religious lines. In any case, how can a religion have a language? Zabaan illakon ki hoti hai,” he says eloquently. “People sadly accepted that Urdu belonged to Pakistan and the baby was thrown with the bath water,” he adds.
He also talked about how the common perception about Urdu is that it circulates between lowest-common denominator words like 'sharaab' and 'mehboob' “But the language actually encompasses everything from Indian politics to weather to traditional festivals to myths and folk.”
Stressing more on the liberal and non-religious appeal of Urdu, and how it was a victim of political agenda, he says, “During the progressive writers' movement (pro-poor with leftist leanings), every major Urdu writer was at the forefront of it. But after Indian independence in 1947, Urdu became the step-child of the establishment. How do you destroy a language? You do it by simply destroying its economic utility. That's what they did.”
Since much of our knowledge of Urdu comes from watching Mughal dramas such as Jodhaa Akbar etc, Akhtar had some interesting observations to make on this. “Akbar never spoke Urdu at all. He wore a lungi and spoke what was a mix of Punjabi, and other Hindi dialects such as Avadhi and Kathyavadi,” Akhtar said, imitating how Akbar might have sounded. “Only when the Mughals started to disintegrate, did Urdu begin to emerge. It is with the coming of the British that the language got more recogonition,” he says.
Even if one were to think that Urdu is almost dead in India, Akhtar believes the language lives through Bollywood songs. “It is alive in our songs and dialogues even if it is called Hindi cinema.”

Junot Diaz – Story-teller in chief

Another extremely provocative session was that with Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Diaz with his bold, unconventional views on writing and reading. He points out how as a society we need less applause and more conversation to create something new and of value. “Society wants you to to seek its approval, and in such an atmosphere there isn't much scope to develop an artistic temperament,” he notes. “Do the monkey dance so we can clap for you' “As an artiste, you need to go into bizarre areas knowing people may not like it. You have to fight approval of others.”
One of the aspects readers find in his novels is that all of it is not easily intelligible, but Junot says he deliberately puts in words in his text knowing people may not understand. “Reading is not a test. You read because it duplicates the experience of being out in the world. You don't have to understand everything. Unintelligibility is just a natural part of a novel. It is an invitation for you to form a community, by asking around for those words.” he said, adding, “As a child you take help to understand a text. But as you grow older you eschew that ability.'
About his own writing, he says he's a slow writer and doesn't produce much. And he notes how much of what seems to be natural writing, an organic rhythm is actually a deeply artificial one. “It never comes at the first go. What you write instantly is actually more stilted and staged that what you produce after many re-writings. To sound real involves a laboured, long and artificial craft.” he says.

'Aisi Hindi Kaisi Hindi'

The session which included Mrinal Pande, Prasoon Joshi and Sudeesh Pachori spoke about the threat to Hindi from English and how the language needs to update itself somewhat to keep up with the times. Mrinal Pandey speaking about her distaste for abuses in the Hindi language said, “An increase in abuses demonstrates an impoverishment of the language and limitation of vocabulary. I think the effect of a gaali can be created using civil language,” she smiled, giving a few piquant examples. “Lastly, a lot of these words are plain objectionable to women.”
However, she also noted how there are no words related to sex in Hindi, and many women, especially struggle to explain their problems. “This is true about some of the other regional tongues also. This could be one of the reasons for more gaalis in the absence of proper words for certain body parts. We need to make new dictionaries, so that gaalis can be erased from our discourse,” she said.

Kiran Desai and the inheritance of books

Anita Desai was nominated for the Man Booker Prize three times, but it was her daughter Kiran Desai who bagged it for her book, The Inheritance of Loss. Having left for America as a child, Kiran in her conversation with Jai Arjun Singh spoke about her lack of rootedness and the difficulties that arose in her writing as a result of that. “I was fighting for an in-between place, cause I didn't belong to neither India nor America. When I left India I knew my life had changed and I would never be able to think about India in the same way again.”
Talking about the influence of her mother, she says, “My mother is deeply an author. - the way she talks, her silences, the way she sits...she is every bit an author. As a child I used to see a young Amitav Ghosh, Salman Rushdie coming to meet her at home. For the longest time, my mother kept her writing a secret. She used to pack us off to school and then bring out her pad to write so we never actually knew her as a writer. We would directly see her finished books.”
Kiran enrolled in a creative writing workshop to hone her own skills, an endeavour which didn't entirely work for her. “Everyone at that time used to laugh at these writing workshops. Gradually some writers came who were writing workshop products and suddenly you couldn't laugh at them anymore. They taught me discipline. Also, if you're lucky you will meet a good teacher who can guide you well. But these workshops can also destroy your confidence because what you write will not appeal to everyone. You are looking at group approval, a pack mentality, where so and so is offended by something you write, so and so doesn't get this joke, and by the end of it, there is no novel left.”
One of the biggest challenges Kiran says she faces is because she does not have an authority on the settings in her novels. “When an author writes for a constricting narrative, he is able to get in a great amount of depth and intimacy. I see a lot more imagination in their characters. I am jealous of that. I, on the other hand, am conscious of not knowing anything completely about any place – just fragmented worlds. I have to jigsaw a lot of things.”
“Running out of stories is never my concern, but how to tell them is always my concern. Otherwise the world is always over-flowing with stories. I never have a particular audience in mind. I am moving so much,” she says.

Muniza and Kamila Shamsie – Two nations, Two narratives

The mother-daughter writer team of Muniza and Kamila Shamzie discussed the themes that have run generationally in Pakistani writing, and what aspects influence their works. Attia Hosein's 1961 novel, Sunlight On A Broken Column was also invoked during the talk. Muniza spoke about how the partition was very much part of her life. “ I had all kinds of cultural conflicts. I was very aware of partition. My earliest memory goes back to when I was 3. I remember the sight of Karachi and my father waiting to receive us. And I grew up with this discourse of partition – people kept discussing it – why did it happen etc. so I was conscious about my family with a past. The Indian side of my family couldn't see eye to eye with us and they raved and ranted at my father.”

Interestingly, in all their novels, the personal and the political have merged. “Novels look at the greys, there's the realm of the imagination. The national narratives do not contain that. Novels show you new dimensions, present things anew.”
Kamila expressed that the Indo-Pak partition is very interesting to her dramatically. “But I belong to the Zia generation, so writers like me tend to look more at Aghanistan, Jehad mentality and so on. These are the themes that are more prevalent in the novels of the younger Pakistani writers,” she says.
The one challenge before younger Pakistani novelists with elite education is to somehow find a way to include the Urdu idiom into English. “Ahmed Ali consciously tried to get the Persian Urdu idiom and got criticised for it, because the language many felt was stilted. Much like how it was with Mulk Raj Anand in India.” Kamila says, adding that she is most comfortable in English and Urdu is her second language. “There is no issue about it. I think in English, I dream in English. You write in the language you are most comfortable in and if by the force of your education you can do better in English, then one must write in that language.”
The fact that everyone these days is bilingual has greatly helped writers. “ Earlier you didn't have an audience if you wanted to write in a bilingual language. Today most of the young gen of writers are doing it. The market is English today. Certain phrases come out better in the regional languages and a way has to be found out. For me finding that way around is part of the pleasure,” she says.

Imaginary homelands

This session looked at diaspora writers and the constant debate on whether their fiction is pure enough to represent their countries. Junot Diaz and Kamila Shamsie among others were part of this debate that was anchored by writer Chandrahas Choudhury. “Nations are obsessed with purity, when really none of us are all pure,” said Junot. “We live in a world that is churning. People who travel are not just the global elite. Everyone is moving around. Writers read a lot so they are part of many imaginary worlds,” said Shamsie, adding. “ You cannot have all your stories based on your own experiences, then there would be no fiction.”

Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid's morning session on the last day of the festival with Chandrahas Choudhury was an immensely enjoyable one, where the author threw light on his celebrated novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist and his craft. The Pakistani writer who has been living in America for the past many years wrote an earlier novel called Moth Smoke, which also gained a fair amount of acclaim. But it was The Reluctant Fundamentalist set in the backdrop of 9/11 that made Mohsin famous.
Unlike popular assumption, the novel's first draft was not written after 9/11, but much before that. " I wrote it in 2000, and at that point the publisher wasn't too interested. A story about a Muslim man having an uneasy relationship with America was not something that captured anyone's imagination. But after 2001, it was like, 'That book you are working on...' he narrates to an amused audience on the demand and relevance the subject suddenly acquired.

Mohsin had to make certain changes to his original draft after 9/11. " Earlier I had modelled it like a thriller, something like John Grisham's The Firm. But after 9/11, I had to subvert many things," he tells us.

Ask him about his excessive use of commas in his text, and the young writer says, "I've never really understood punctuations. For me punctuations are like spellings - you don't know why a word is spelt the way it is. My purpose for using commas and semi colons is only one - to give cadence to words. Colon is a connecting pause, a comma is just a rhythmic break. It's more a musical notation than a grammatical notation. The basic point for me is cadence, because we speak and think with cadences. There is a magical feeling to that rhythm. I try to achieve that, where I get the reader to slip into a certain rhythm, where you are already moving. An emotional state is thereby achieved."

Like many other writers, Mohsin too believes that fiction is not a spontaneous art at all. "All writers are readers. I read my stuff hundreds of times. it's a continuous act of evolution and refinement," he says.


janaki said...

No interview with Adiche ? I was hoping for that !

And Chandrahas Choudhury has recently edited "A traveller's literary companion to India" - its an idea whose time has come. I was hoping for some "whys" of the book.

If all that "shosha" leads to more book reading and buying.... heres to more Jaipurs happening !

sandhya said...

Hi Janaki, the event was very crowded. And I missed the Adichie session unfortunately

But she does come across as an extremely intelligent and astute person.

Shubashree said...

I stumbled upon your blog today. I enjoyed reading about the litt festival in Jaipur very much. Tell me - are you a journalist or is the blog just your own free writing?

sandhya said...

hi subhashree,

thanks, yes i work as a feature writer with Sakaal Time, Pune. But the blog is out of my own interest of course. Much of this also gets published.

Nayeem said...

I had heard about this event. Thanks for a good article. It is nice to see you covered a wide variety of authors. I agree with Javed sahab's Urdu zabaan and its association with Islam comments. But how do we keep Hindi and Urdu alive in this day of age is an important debate to have. I probably should also read the Reluctant Fundamentalist.
Nice work. Hope to visit the fair one day.

sandhya said...

Yes Nayeem, my guess is that you will enjoy reading The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Do grab a copy and read it. It would be very interesting to see what you think of it. Looking forward to your comments.