We had been hearing about JLF for the past 6 years, and it always sounded interesting, but somehow not like something we could do. Partly, we thought it'd be one of those fearfully intellectual events that always numb my brain. I guess somewhere we were also busy having babies 2 and 3 and bringing up baby # 1, and working…all that jazz that one uses as reasons and then when you stop using those excuses and decide to go, you wondered why you didn't go earlier. So sometime last year, the idea of planning to go to Litfest germinated, and finally during the IIMC reunion, my BFF/ soulsis and another dear friend said they would both go this year. Another dear friend has been going to JLF the past two years, so it seemed like a no-brainer – literature in the company of good friends. A unfortunately was stuck holding the fort/ kids as my parents were out of town, though I have told him we have to plan so we can both go together next year.
I couldn't stay for 5 whole days, so we went from Friday to Sunday evening…and it was blissful. From the very first event, where Dr. Karan Singh and Stephen Pollock spoke about the need to preserve Indian culture and literature through creating avenues where people could access and enjoy it, to further sessions, where you sat on dusty floors, cheek by jowl with David Godwin or Vikram Seth, or had a brush with greatness ( Coetzee brushed past me on his walk to the stage ), or made a blithering idiot of yourself in front of Javed Akhtar, it was such a joyous celebration of the power of literature, to move a diverse set of people, both physically, since everyone had travelled some distance to be there, and emotionally. What made it special was the diversity of the writers, and the fact that most of us growing up in the India of the '70s and '80s could never have imagined them traveling to India and speaking to a crowd of us, rather than going off on intensely guarded private holidays. I was also immensely pleased with the democratic nature of the festival – attendance is free, and there's no special seating for anyone apart from the speakers. Even the organizers, if not in action at a particular event, have to find squatting space wherever they can, there's none of that obsequiousness and obligatory bows to the famous/ notorious (i.e. politicians) and 'people in power' that marks a typical Indian event of any kind.
Some of my takeaways:
Javed Akhtar speaking as eloquently as only he can about the Urdu Zubaan and how the two-nation theory has given it a religious context due to which it is dying. How Urdu was never the language spoken by Mughals, and actually was spoken by the common people, more Hindus than Muslims. He spoke a simple sentence in daily-speak Hindi which he then broke down etymologically into Urdu, Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Sanskrit and a few other languages. And he mentioned that Akbar in fact was born in Multan and never travelled outside of India, so how could one call him a foreigner. And that Akbar actually spoke Punjabi and a couple of other languages but not Urdu/ Persian. I came away with this mental image of a short, portly Akbar, wearing a white lungi and safa, which apparently was his preferred mode of dressing, calling out to Salim of Dilip Kumar/ Devdas vintage in the popular imagination, "Oh Salim! Itthe aa. Us laundi wich ki karr riya 'ai?"
Rita Chaudhury's book Makaam. She is an Assamese novelist and her novel is based on a real and shameful incident in India's modern history. Many Chinese people had migrated to India after Communists took over China, and some of them had settled in Assam, married the locals and thought of themselves as Indians of Chinese origin. Suddenly in 1962, on the penultimate day of the Indo-Chinese War, the Indian Government rounded them all up from this village, Makaam in Assam, and transported them in subhuman conditions to Rajasthan. The Government had decided that all Chinese were spies, but they had no way of telling in this group who was of Chinese origin and who was not, so they picked the ones they thought were the most Chinese looking ( how's that for racism?), and shipped them off to China. Husbands and wives were torn apart, siblings, parents and children were all rendered bereft. When those left in Rajasthan went back to Assam, they found that al their hard-earned property had been sequestered by the State as 'enemy property'. The people shipped off to China had no family, no money, no contacts there, many didn't even know the language, they spoke only Assamese. Some were even of purely Indian origin. Their life plans of becoming doctors or engineers, marriage and children were all put on hold as they struggled to survive. Even today, they live scattered all over the globe including mainland China and Hongkong, speak Assamese and remember the old days with fondness. But they still carry the fear they felt then and are scared to come back. Rita Chaudhury went and met many of them and their video-taped interviews had me in tears. They sing old Hindi songs from the 50s and 60s, have cultural festivals where they all sing and dance to Indian songs and yet carry these scars and fears deep within. Rita Chaudhury read out one passage from her book translated into English, and it was beautifully written. I am just waiting for the English version to come out.
Orhan Pamuk was merciless in dismissing his interviewers, on-stage and off, pithily asking them to keep their questions short. He was also extremely funny, especially when asked at length by an elderly gentleman, as to whether philosophical love was better or physical love. His brief response: "I can't resist saying this – that depends on the depth of penetration!"
A 6-member panel moderated by Barkha Dutt on the AfPak issue. The one Afghanistani represented on the panel, Atif, lives in France, and had a translator as he said his English was very poor. When asked about the Afghanistan issue, he replied, "It makes me laugh when people talk about this, because always, when it comes to Afghanistan, everyone else decides what is to be done, Afghanistanis never get to decide." Barkha underlined his point when, for the rest of the discussion, she never gave the gentleman the floor. Later that day, I happened to catch the tail-end of a session with him, in which he was speaking eloquently and fluently in English, so I guess he gave Barkha hers, in spades!
A session on Gaata Rahe Mera Dil by Javed Akhtar, Gulzar and Prasoon Joshi was packed to the rafters – it was very hard for the speakers to get in. In fact, the organizers had to organize a second session of the same at a larger venue, and even that was packed out. The three of them discussed what's happening to the songs in Indian cinema. Javed felt that it seemed as if filmmakers in India had become ashamed of our Indian idiom of including songs in the movies, so they were turning to movies without songs, to impress the West, whereas the whole world loves our colourful and melodious cinema. Another point made by all three was that there seemed to be a 'jhijak' or shrinking away from deeper emotions in today's songs, so there were no soulful sad songs or songs of yearning, lullabies. A crudity was creeping into the language and the stories told. Earlier, producers used to have a wholesome fear of the 'public' and hesitated to do anything they feared would offend the public, but today the new God was youth, and everyone followed what they thought youth would lap up. A young girl in the audience made a thoughtful comment about how youth loved the wholesome and thought-provoking lyrics of Taare Zameen Par and Rang de basanti etc, so it was more a matter of a lack of better choice available to them than that their standards had fallen.
A wonderful debate on Why Books Matter – how they help take us out of our own setting and miniscule problems which nevertheless loom large, and place us in a different context. One elderly gentleman in the audience deplored the poor reading tastes of the modern-day public, where cookbooks and film-books sold more copies than literary works. Javed Akhtar, also in the audience, was called in as an ad-hoc member of the panel and he replied in his inclusivist style that he was not a puritan or a purist and he would be the last to advocate that the public read only literary masterpieces, but that they should read everything. In the same vein, the previous day, he had said that he loved songs like Beedi Jalaile or Munni Badnaam. His only issue was that they should have all types of songs, not just 'item songs'. (Are you getting the feeling I have fallen in love with Javed Akhtar? I certainly am!)
A session on 1857, which was supposed to feature William Dalymple and Mahmood Farrouqui had an added bonus of Mrinal Pande. She has recently translated a Marathi first-person account of 1857 from the Hindi to English, and it was hot off the presses. The story is fascinating – a couple of Marathi Brahmin priests decide to do a pilgrimage and set off for the holy places in the north just before the stirring events of that year. Somehow, each place they wind up in is a hotbed of insurgency/ rebellion against the British – they land in Gwalior and report on Scindia, in Kanpur where Nana Sahib has to decide what to do with a party of English women and children trying to find their way to safe territory, in Jhansi, where they find that Lakshmibai is incensed with the Company usurping regal powers and fights back…After safely making their way back, one of the Brahmins wrote down a record of the events, with instructions that it be published after his death. He dies in 1904, and two versions of the book came out in 1907 from different publishers, so that in case the British confiscated the work of one, the other would at least survive. It sounds like a fascinating story, and Mrinal Pande narrated it like a grandmother telling her grandchildren a bedtime story, with humour and affection. Again, a book I am dying to get my hands on.
cross-posted at We are like this only