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Shashidhar .S. Kapur

Hyped as the world’s greatest literary “ show ” , the Jaipur Lit fest
had big ticket authors , A-list celebrities , eclectic food & fashion-all the makings of a multiplex experience. Just as multiplexes have enhanced viewing experience of action / sci- fi flicks & thrillers , the presence of Booker and Nobel winners and major Non-fiction daddys ( incl. Pulitzer winners) makes it a unique experience. It certainly is mentally invigorating and creatively stimulating. However, just as the scale of multiplex has meant the death of small budget family dramas, folksy themes and B- town sensibilities , JLF seems to be heading the same way.

In a festival of South Asian Literature , European and American entries dominated. That it was overcrowded and too hectic was a minor irritant. The major pain was glamour – which is dumbed down creativity- holding centrestage besides business persons and ad-men posing as intellectuals. As if film lyricists being feted as great poets – Javed Akhtar , Gulzar & Prasoon Joshi was not cringing enough , the agony was compounded by simplistic translations by Pawan Verma. To make matters worse, Chetan Bhagat & Shobha De ( Rakhee Sawant and Gulshan Nanda of Indian Writing in English ) being the star attractions made you run for the puke bowl. The limit was when Suhel Seth started pontificating on cerebral matters while sharing the dais with serious wordsmiths. All in all, I must admit that the festival was entertaining , even amusing but in many parts less than elevating.

The point is that with event managers controlling the show, focus was on packing maximum activity into the schedule so as to accommodate as many glitterati to rub shoulders with the literati as possible. Problem arose when the former instead of basking in the reflected glory of the latter started overshadowing them. That the Oprah session was flooded while the DSC prize winner was just a byline is a case in point. One must appreciate the audacity of the organisors for trying to fit in both fiction & non- fiction, airport literature , street literature and youth literature in the same event. If the logic was to get the numbers to justify the “greatest” tag , even a public loo in India gets more footfalls than Louvre. JLF almost had the feel of a power event – too orgainised , too formal with too many self important people. In this, the media too is somewhat at fault since it covered the festival like a political event – focusing on heavyweights and controversies while overlooking debates & discussions ; even those shortlisted for the prize barely managed to make their presence felt in the mediaspace. As a PR exercise , JLF can be labeled as a success but as an intellectual- creative experience it felt synthetic at times.

Perhaps to justify the South Asian tag a section- of course a minor one – was dedicated to Hindi and regional languages. This half hearted attempt at inclusiveness was more often than not inorganic. When TV poets such as Ashok Chakradhar batted for Hindi , it made one queasy and when Kabir was discussed in English it sounded like Michael Jackson dubbing
for Amitabh Bachchan. The moment one set eyes on “Get to the top” by Suhel Seth there was a an overpowering urge to commission Duncan Fletcher to write a book on the “Art of hitting rock bottom instantly”; and when Kapil Sibal was presented as a poet one could clearly hear Dom Moraes turning in his grave.

JLF had a few foreigners, many NRIs’ ,a whole lot of NIR’s ( Non- Indian Residents ) – all People Like us -the public School ,Christian College types – all looking , sounding and smelling the same. However , when one saw a whole lot of school children being herded in ,it made one worry. Shakespeare in addition to Prem Chand and Ghalib may be O.K but in their place ?

Just as in the multiplex deprived small town emotions have resurfaced in their nude-crude versions in Bhojpuri Films, there is a possibility that in the inherent inability of English to capture Indian sensibilities soft porn and ludicrous writings may have a central presence in the Indian firmament. Tarun Tejpal echoed this when he said “ English is a Language of understatement and irony- not quite suited to our kind of over the top , loud , colourful emotional matrix”. Like the term “Bollywood” reeks of being wannabe Hollywood, there is a probability that “ Inglish ( Indian English) Literature” may turn out to be wannabe English Literature.

As in the case of films our uniqueness of song & dance family dramas is being chipped at, the specialty of our literature- its sentimentality- may be corroded. In the manner in which the business of filmmaking has become more important than filmmaking, the business of books may gain precedence over books.

All I’m saying is that the global publishing giants are eyeing the Indian market as the next big thing ,particularly for fiction .Having infiltrated into controlling positions in media and entertainment , the focus is now on publishing and music . In their own backyard , it is mostly the elite , women and elderly who read fiction ,if at all. Their big boys focus more on intellectual non-fiction; they’re more into understanding the real world than deconstructing the “ imaginary” universe . No harm in India filling up the space since it hopes to become a soft skills power ; the problem is with the extent – English fiction ought never to outreach ,outsell , outdo Indian language literature since that’ll snap our roots.

The point I’m trying to make is that this scenario is both an opportunity and a danger – an opportunity in that it gives a chance to Indians to engage with a bigger chunk of the global mindspace and the danger is that it may be done at the cost of disengaging with our roots. In any case , can this be blocked altogether ? In a globalised economy that isn’t possible. However, with informed engagement and enlightened seclusion a win – win scenario may be attempted. It ought not be merely about what they want to sell but also regarding what we want to buy. We want the non- fiction , intellectual titles at cheap prices, they’re angling at providing cheap literature at high prices. The area of translation has to be protected with care – remember what happened in films- within two decades of allowing Hollywood films to be dubbed, they’re all over our TV channels. In general ,we need to read their non- fiction works more in translation while our translated fiction must travel in a bigger way abroad. Besides, anomalies like reading our own ancient texts via Max Muller translation should never recur.

If our head is going to be dominated by the marketing , management ,PR & technology of Americans and the heart gets mostly controlled by the books and TV of Britain / Europe ,what remains of India ? What else is neo-colonisation ? Or is it re-colonization?

Festivals like the JLF are Armadas of the Publishing world with big ticket authors as their admirals. If allowed unchecked, they soon rule the waves – and some of the rogue admirals even become pirates. In the short term ,all looks good but in the middle term corrosion sets in and in the long term they destroy.

The way to engage is thru Public service and social service Publishing – esp. in non- fiction , regional fiction, little magazines and translations. Just as the Publishing corporations cannot thrive without community backing in the form of events like JLF, public service publishing cannot survive without society support viz. in inculcating reading habits- particularly among youth and areas where TV has reached before newspapers. Moreover, all this has to be done simultaneously , actively and not piecemeal, reactively.
One isn’t hinting at throwing the baby with the bathwater – only that the bathwater is getting a tad too much. If one doesn’t belch out some of it, there is a danger of baby drowning.

P.S : The Rushdie drama was a no- brainer. Perhaps Rushdie and his liberal friends do not know that only in science ( pure maths in particular ) can there be no limits , since it tends to infinity. In every other area of human thought there is some sort of limit or the other – it is relative .Those who try to propound limitlessness in areas other than pure science are extremists – perhaps liberal extremists. More often than not they’ve had no religious / spiritual experience .Likewise , conservatives often are ignorant of the fact that only in matters of religion and spirituality can limitations be imposed across the boa rd –rest everything is subjective. This is so since they alone pertain to universal ,even timeless emotions. Thus when they start demanding limitations in areas beyond religion /spirituality -esp. in pure science , they become fundamentalists- perhaps conservative fundamentalists .They fail to see the pointlessness of it since most of them haven’t had much to do with science. In the light of the above , “ Satanic Verses” being no work of science is subject to limits – more so since it treads on religion.

P.S -II : Rushdie is undoubtedly a good wordsmith. As for him being great , the jury is still out – Booker of Bookers notwithstanding. Ideally ,to be a great writer in the classic western traditions one deals with imaginary characters in imaginary settings a la Joyce , Proust etc… the other category with claims to greatness comprises high energy writers like Hemingway & Churchill ( Non- fiction ) .Rushdie belongs to neither – or at most only partly to each. On the other hand , in the Eastern / Indian tradition the immortal writers are those who have lived those experiences rather than reading about them – Ghalib, Premchand , Kabir or even a Muktibodh. Rushdie certainly doesn’t belong to this one. At this point , he is a beacon light of global literature – only time will tell whether he belongs to the world literature as one of its greats.

P.S : As a passing thought one does wonder whether it is convenient for some to have a non- practicing Muslim like Rushdie have pot shots at Islam. He may know a lot about Islam and talk glibly about it but it is doubtful whether he ever “lived” Islam or has experienced it. Come to think of it Jehadis are perverse Muslims who’ve misunderstood Islam or follow the lesser vehicle ; by that token, is Rushdie some sort of a Liberal jehadi ?