The Jaipur Literary Festival, the world’s largest, has an outpost in London – but it is not just for writers in English, says Rita Payne
The Jaipur Literary Festival has been dubbed ‘the greatest literary show on Earth’, but devotees of Indian literature and culture do not need to travel all the way to India to enjoy the best of the country’s offerings.
where discussions this year ranged from cricket to Shakespeare, crime writing to feminism, and politics to a history of cultures and the implications of conflict.
The festival co-director, Namita Gokhale, thought the session, British Asians: The Changing Face, was especially significant in the context of the recent election in London which saw the installation, for the first time in the country, of a Muslim, Sadiq Khan, as mayor. Discussion points included resisting stereotypes, integration, adaptation and alienation, and the changing attitudes and affiliations of the second and third generations of South Asian Britons.
Gokhale was keen to ensure that the festival did not just focus on writing in English, saying: ‘I think the key to transformative literature is translation, something which we at Jaipur have been working on for the last ten years. I personally head a publishing company that does a lot of translation work. Every year we have a session on that, and suddenly around the world with the Man Booker International [prize], people are waking up to literary cross-connections and cultural bridges through translation.’
Gokhale herself moderated a session on the Third Gender which included a conversation with A Revathi, a transgender activist. According to Gokhale, attitudes to transgender reflect conflicts within Indian society at a time when space for open discussion is shrinking. ‘These are huge issues,’ she said. ‘There are so many infinite ways in which India is opening up; there are also ways in which India is closing down conversation. What saddens me is that… the extreme positions never listen to each other.’
Rakshanda Jalil, a literary historian and translator who writes about being a Muslim in India, was equally frustrated by the media’s tendency to pigeon-hole people: ‘Now the electronic media – not so much the print – wants people who conform to a type. So if you are a hijab-clad woman and you are taking a position either for or against, let’s say, the Muslim Personal Law, then you are very attractive to the media. But if you are talking about things in a very general way, about education, or Muslims not being used as vote banks, then suddenly you are not. Provocative for the sake of being provocative… that is what they want.’
A session on Partition was especially well-attended. Jalil says we are still feeling the consequences today: in 2017 it will be 70 years since India and Pakistan became independent amid bloodshed and trauma, and she believes this is an important time for South Asians to reflect on what both countries went through.
‘We seem to think Partition literature ended with a generation of writers like Manto or Krishan Chander or Bedi,’ says Jalil. ‘It didn’t. There is a whole generation of young writers in Hindi and Urdu who were not first-hand witnesses to Partition the way Manto was, Krishan Chander was. Nevertheless they are interpreting and analysing and talking about the consequences. In the fractured times we live in, I think it is very important to understand what went wrong.’
Conflict of another kind was discussed in Women Writing War, including the little-known contributions of the erstwhile colonies in the First and Second World Wars. The authors felt traditional military historians failed to convey the human aspect of war, such as Shrabani Basu’s moving story about a cleaner, an ‘untouchable’, who died of pneumonia in the UK in 1915. Hindus and Muslims would not bury him, but the local vicar came forward, and the man was buried in a church in Hampshire. Often with just a photo to work on, Basu travelled to remote villages in India to track down the families of Indian soldiers in the First World War. The descendants of a woman whose soldier husband died when she was 14 said she never remarried and proudly wore her husband’s Victoria Cross pinned to her sari till her death in 1981.
British authors Ferdinand Mount and Nick Robins, in conversation with William Dalrymple, took a hard-headed look at the East India Company. In Dalrymple’s view, India was conquered not by the British government but by the ‘violent and corrupt’ Company. Mount was shocked to discover that his ancestors who served in India might not have been as pious as they had appeared, and could have been complicit in atrocities.
It emerged during the discussion that there were huge protests in Britain against some of the East India Company’s questionable activities in India.
The company is accused of pollution, human rights abuses and financial mismanagement, which it denies.
The prominent Indian journalist Barkha Dutt chaired a lively discussion on Reporting India from the perspective of Western journalists. She asked John Elliott, Dean Nelson and Andrew Whitehead, all of whom have long experience of covering India, how they responded to criticism from Indians who feel foreigners present simplistic or stereotypical images of their country. Elliott, who has been based in India for more than 20 years, commented wryly that the longer you were there the more confused you became.
Whitehead found reporting on Kashmir bruising during his time as BBC correspondent in Delhi. Many Indians were incensed when he referred to ‘gunmen’ in Kashmir, because this was regarded as giving them legitimacy. The difficulty was that all sides wanted their version of events to be presented. But Nelson said that he saw India as a positive story on the whole, in contrast to reporting on the Middle East and Africa, which tended to be about misery.
Many other writers and thinkers gave their perspectives on the country’s bewildering diversity and plurality in a session entitled Ideas of India, which epitomised the place of the Jaipur Literary Festival. Already the world’s largest literary gathering, its extension to London is now well-established, but with such prominence come concerns. As organiser Sanjoy Roy commented over the Vedanta controversy, ‘It’s the expectation that JLF is the keeper of India’s conscience, and has to steer its moral rudder with great sensitivity.’
Rita Payne, born in Assam, India, is President Emeritus, Commonwealth Journalists Association, and former Asia Editor, BBC World News (TV). She is an adviser to Asian Affairs and The Democracy Forum