Notes From From The Jaipur Literature Festival 2013

January 30, 2013 7:14 am by

Photo courtesy of the Jaipur Literature Festival.

Lesson perhaps learned from last year’s edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival, when Oprah Winfrey’s presence caused a ruckus that, along with Salman Rushdie’s banishment, diverted attention from pretty much everything else, organiser William Dalrymple promised to “remove all froth and unnecessary glitz” from the 2013 proceedings. This he did by upping the usual quota of academics and intellectuals and sticking them with non-populist topics like the miniature painting, the Jewish novel, Russian literature and Sanskrit, ensuring quite effectively that the fest’s more casual attendees skipped out early for Republic Day celebrations instead. This coupled with stellar organisation and security, larger tents and the hiving off of post-talk festivities to another location meant that the eighth edition of the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival was decidedly a more sedate affair and perhaps far more embracing of non-literature-related content (which might also quite successfully repel idle attendees). Some highlights of the first few days:

A Celebrity Of A More Cerebral Kind
Cricketer Rahul Dravid may have drawn the young ‘uns, but from the anticipated hush that greeted the arrival of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak during the panel on “Rogues, Reviewers and Critics”, you got the impression that the distinguished postcolonial theorist was the Angelina Jolie of the academic world. “Where is she? Where is she?” hissed a few college students seated behind us after Spivak entered. “Can’t believe she’s here.” Spivak, who declined to speak on her now 25-year-old seminal essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, nevertheless expounded on the value of literary criticism along with sardonic British scholar Christopher Ricks, who quite pointedly raised the issue that unlike other fields of criticism, book reviewing can be quite spiteful because it deals in the same medium that’s being discussed. Along with Harvard professor and fellow postcolonial commentator Homi K. Bhabha, renowned art historian B. N. Goswamy, Dutch academic Ian Buruma and philosopher Richard Sorabji, there were names aplenty that had more than a few consulting their hefty JLF catalogue or discreetly Googling the speakers’ bios on their smartphones. So much so that when it became apparent that the one big draw, artist Anish Kapoor was a no-show, some walked out of “The Artist’s Eye”, during which Glenn Lowry, the director of the Museum of Modern Art, British artist Marc Quinn, and South African artist William Kentridge (due to show at Volte next month) discussed the importance of beauty to art.

Manu Joseph And Other Funny Men
There were many funny speakers at this year’s fest, including Howard Jacobson, Gary Shteyngart, Deborah Moggach, Peter Hessler and perhaps unintentionally Ian Buruma and Pavan Varma. However, it was Open editor and novelist Manu Joseph who by far stole the show with his dry observations on our desperation to be offended, Barkha Dutt and literary bores, whom he termed a “fellowship of farts”. Joseph was able to perceptibly lighten the dense rhetoric during Spivak and Ricks’ talk on literary criticism by offering up an analogy to cricket, and more often erred on the right side of non-pc etiquette. When an audience member asked if novelists laughed in their dreams, Joseph said, “I did dream of Barkha Dutt saying she’s gullible and I laughed at that.”

Michael Sandel’s Philosophical Debate
Sandel, a Harvard University professor, philosopher, and supposed model for the evil corporate honcho Montgomery Burns in The Simpsons, not only provoked unusually large participation from women during his session, but also managed to pull out cogent threads from a not-always-cogent debate on the recent gang-rape that took place in Delhi in December. For a riveting one hour he engaged the audience into articulating why they think rape is perhaps the most heinous of all assaults, why it deserves the severest sentence, and whether verbal harassment of a sexual nature should be punished under the same law that penalises blasphemy (this one got a 50-50 draw down the middle, with some pointing out that it would violate our essential right to freedom of speech). Sandel’s masterful steering of the discussion – the reasons many threw up for rape being the most horrifying of all violent crimes were no different than the reasons behind sectarian violence he ultimately proved – questioned the logic and rationale of much discourse post the rape, proving that well-intentioned outrage is not always the best recourse to justice. In the end, Sandel concluded that the public outcry in India may have “redeeming effect” on our democracy. The session, part of The Public Philosopher series that will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in the UK, can be heard here when it goes online on March 12.

Offending India
Given that the fest overlapped with Republic Day, it seemed like an opportune moment for many panels to address India’s failings, including but not limited to our propensity for corruption, the increased curtailing of our right to free speech, our slowing economy and the death of vernacular culture and languages. None was so terrifically well demonstrated as the denial of freedom of speech, which author Ashis Nandy experienced first-hand, after he made a clumsily-worded statement that suggested scheduled castes and tribes and OBCs contributed to most corruption in India (though what he meant to say and later clarified was that the wealthy corrupt simply have better ways of not getting caught). Though IBN7 editor Ashutosh, along with the Jaipur police (who later filed an FIR), were among the many to misunderstand Nandy, he unwittingly showed, as Manu Joseph pointed out, we’re a country desperate to be offended. Tehelka‘s managing editor Shoma Chaudhury expounded on this very point a couple of sessions later, declaring more than once that “As a society we must assert the right to hurt people’s sentiments.” This was something vociferous author Pavan Varma himself did exceedingly well when his comments on race and the English language (particularly that it was just a language of communication, not one of culture in India) led British-African MP Kwasi Kwarteng to shake his head in disbelief and state that Varma would be taken to task if these comments had been made in England.