An American poet warns of a war on imagination. Her Indian counterpart cautions that one person can’t do everything for society. When the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) opened on Thursday, the pre-eminent topic of discussion was the inauguration of American President Donald Trump. Poet-lyricist Gulzar set the ball rolling, saying in his keynote address, which was peppered with poems, that he prefers collective consciousness to a single brilliant brain. “Society has a collective consciousness,” he said. “But it needs each person to link himself to it to achieve that collective consciousness, because one person can’t do everything for the world.” Gulzar’s words might have had an Indian theme, but American poet Anne Waldman, Gulzar’s fellow keynote speaker, decided to follow suit. “On the eve of the terrible inauguration of Trump, I want to send a message to my sisters,” Waldman said. “We are looking into the darkness of our times.”
Even as the JLF trundled eight centuries back to celebrate its 10th anniversary by bringing a fascimile edition of the Magna Carta to Jaipur’s Diggi Palace, the venue of the festival, the future of the world became a recurring theme at the event. American writer Paul Beatty, who won the Booker Prize four months ago for his satirical novel The Sellout, which is set amidst racial divisions in the US, quoted former US president Barack Obama, who had said after Trump’s election that the sun would come out tomorrow. “He is supposed to say that, but I don’t operate that way. I am pessimistic,” said Beatty, speaking on the opening day.
“In this chaos, the only thing that can make sense is literature,” asserted Sanjoy Roy, one of the founders of the JLF, touted as the “largest free literary show on earth”. Attended by some of the biggest names in the literary world, the JLF this year has lent its weight to the conversation around Trump in various ways. Bringing the Magna Carta, a 13th-century deal between the English king and his barons, to India is an example. “It was one of the foundation stones of modern democracy,” said Scottish writer William Dalrymple, co-founder of JLF, which runs till January 23. “The Magna Carta is the root of human rights,” he said, explaining how the document spelled out for the first time the right of the subject and the duties of the ruler. “Till that time, the assumption was that the ruler’s power and rights were absolute,” Dalrymple said.
The co-founders of the JLF, which has celebrated writing and reading, and courted controversies since it began in 2006, inaugurated this year’s edition between high-profile international events like British PM Theresa May’s unveiling of her plan for Brexit (on Tuesday) and Trump’s inauguration as the 45th American President (on Saturday). “Brexit is irrelevant. The Magna Carta is timeless,” Dalrymple explained, adding, “The Magna Carta transcends its British context.”
Looking for meaning
Many writers tried to make sense of the misery at the fest. “We must look into the darkness,” said American poet Waldman. Beatty himself offered an anecdote to explain what he feels about potential racial tensions in the Trump era. “A black man in London thanked me for writing The Sellout. He asked me what he should do now,” recalled Beatty, whose answer was, “Stay black. Just be yourself.”
With Brexit putting a big question mark on the future of migrants in Europe and Trump’s inauguration sending the world into a sense of uncertainty, the JLF shows how the response of writers to these challenges can provoke thinking among people. Sharupa Duttai, an event manager from New Delhi, said she is excited by the release of State of India’s Environment 2017 written by climate change activist Sunita Narain. “It’s a reality check,” said Duttai, who came with her friend Sheuli Sethi.
Claes Karlsson, artistic director, Stockholm Cultural Festival, said he was attending the JLF ahead of making India the focus country at his festival this year. “We will open the festival on August 15, the independence day of India,” he beamed.
Plotting free speech
In a first for the JLF, leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) were invited to talk about their ideology. “For years, the RSS had been left out of any open debate because of intellectual untouchability practised by Left liberals,” said senior Sangh leader Dattatreya Hosabale, adding, “They never allowed others to enter the debate. If we did, they would walk out,” Hosabale said.
Dalrymple defended the festival’s decision to invite Sangh Parivar leaders to the literary event, the theme of which this year is creating a platform for free speech. “We have a duty to (help) express all opinions,” he said. “You can’t expect people to tolerate your views if you don’t tolerate theirs,” he added, before going on to quote French philosopher Voltaire: “I am among those who abhor your views, but I will defend to my death your right to express your views.” Dalrymple said he “abhored many things that the RSS stands for, “but they (the RSS) are an important segment of the Indian jigsaw and have the right to be present,” he said, adding, “There is no point of this
festival being just a bubble of Left liberals talking to each other.”
Also in attendance were Sangh leaders SL Bhyrappa and Manmohan Vaidya, who said education should be based on the “ethos of this nation”. “Distorted history is being taught in the county,” said Vaidya, repeating the RSS criticism of Leftist historians hijacking academic discourse on history. Asked about the views of the RSS on political violence, Hosabale said if there were attacks on the RSS, “it is human to retaliate”, citing clashes between the Left and right wings in north Kerala.
New writers, new voices
For its 10th anniversary, the JLF also launched a ‘First Book Club’ at its parallel event Jaipur Book Mark, which aims to bring new writers and publishers together. “We received 200 entries for the club,” says Neeta Gupta, who heads Jaipur Book Mark, which shortlisted 20 entries to participate in the JLF. “The new writers come from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and their voices are fresh,” says Gupta. “One of them has a book centered on a character in one of
VS Naipaul’s books, who walks out of the Nobel laureate’s work,” she adds.
The festival has also spawned a culture of literature across the country. Raman Shresta from Gangtok in Sikkim, who came to talk at Jaipur Book Mark, said his four-storeyed home has a book café on the ground floor, a book shop on the first and a book-themed bed-and-breakfast accommodation on the second. “All our guests make sure that there is a ‘literary festival’ happening under our roof everyday,” says Shresta.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer