Thursday, February 14, 2013

Notes from the Jaipur Literature Festival – Part 2

25 January 2013

On the second day of JLF 2013, I attended two sessions: one by Faramerz Dabhoiwala on The Origins of Sex and another by Jawed Akhtar on Bollywood and the National Narrative.

Faramerz Daboiwala on The Origins of Sex

Faramerz was in conversation with William Dalrymple. Dalrymple introduced the teacher at Oxford in most glowing terms and then took a back seat.

Faramerz made the following main points, in relation to his book, The Origins of Sex. The book was based on his PhD thesis and portrays the history of sexuality and sexual mores in the last two hundred years.

- Sexual revolution did not start in the 1960s. It started in 18th century England.

- Then, sex outside marriage was not acceptable at all; vigilante groups looked for any couple who indulged in extramarital sex and presented them to the courts. They were punished, flogged and paraded naked on streets. Listening to him, I began to realize how the West sees many Muslim societies today: two centuries ago, they weren’t any different from them (from what we see and hear about sexual crimes in the Arab or other Muslim societies).

- Aristocrats in England started demanding that they be allowed to have a private sex life separate from their public life.

- Courtesans were the first celebrities. They published memoirs and were scandal mongers. Their memoirs sold in large numbers making them money to survive in old age. They also blackmailed aristocrats and threatened to expose them in public.

- A famous courtesan (who is on the cover of Faramerz Dabhoiwala’s book) ordered her painting and published stamp sized prints for men to carry them in their watches (like today's cellphones)

- There were people who wrote books anonymously, published them and wrote glowing reviews of their own books. 

Javed Akhtar on Bollywood and National Narrative

Well-known lyricist and scriptwriter Javed Akhtar was in conversation with film historian Rachel Dwyer.

- Javed Akhtar said that when they (he and Salim) were writing scripts, they did not know that they were creating a phenomenon (The Angry Young Man of the 1970s). They were just writing good stories. Only in hindsight did they know that their works were path-breaking, and that they were defining a generation. What were their heroes rebelling against? Very minor things, like, they wanted to marry the girl of their choice; it was a rebellion against their parents. They did not touch any institution.

- Being a film lyricist, Javed Saheb dwelled heavily on the devolution of lyrics in Hindi cinema. He said that film songs earlier had tehzeeb (courtesy, a cultivated manner and civility) in them; now that etiquette is gone. In the past, even B-grade films' songs had a soul, poetry in their lines.

- You have to be kindhearted to say today's lyrics are poetry.

- We are also responsible for degeneration of our films and songs: Choli ke peeche kya hai (the suggestive but popular song from Subhash Ghai’s film, Khalnayak) was made by 9 people; who made it a hit? Who were the other 9 crore people? At homes, people proudly told me, he said, see my 8-yr old can dance so well on Choli ke peeche kya hai? What does that say about us as parents? Where are we going as a society? 

- Our Vocabulary has shrunk; proverbs have died; we have replaced them with poor language and some bad American words, not even proper English.

- Today's kids have less than half the vocabulary of their parents.

- Only the poor go to vernacular schools, so they use cheap language, it gets reflected in our cinema, giving it even more credibility.

- Good and bad films were always made: but in the past, most hits were good films; today, most hits are bad films. Show me a good film that has done a business of 200 crores?

- Some young filmmakers are making quality films today. It is good. (Examples: Farhan Akhtar, Zoya Akhtar)

- We had abandoned language and arts in the last 30-40 years. We wanted cars and fridges. Now today's generation takes them for granted. They want something else. They want arts, and literature, so (that’s why we see) this revival of arts and literature in India

- I am not pessimistic. In the next ten years, we will make even better films which will have better aesthetic quality.

Friday, February 08, 2013

Notes from the Jaipur Literature Festival – Part 1

[Random Shots: Journalist and novelist Tarun Tejpal interacting with his readers at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2013]

24 January 2013

On the first day, I attended three sessions: the Art of the Short Story, Ismat and Annie, and the Novel of the Future. I did not take any notes. I wrote down the following the next morning (from whatever I could remember). If some statements sound weird and don’t make sense to the readers, I take the blame for sloppiness and apologize in advance.

We don't tell novels, we tell short stories

The Short story: The Art of the Short Story panel had Nicholas Hogg, Richard Beard and Yiyun Li and Anjum Hasan was the moderator.

- Yiyun Li said show and tell is a wrong advice
- Bring the narrator back
- She said she represents only herself (not any group or community as a writer)
- Length in a story does not matter; she refused to reduce the length of a story just to get into The New Yorker

Anjum Hasan referred to the Chekhovian Little Man (mentioned Frank O'Connor's book on short stories)

- Why do you write short stories: The panelists said that one is able to explore other lives through short stories
- Short stories are great as a genre as they allow great room for experimentation (for example, the stories of Georges Perec)

The panelists were of the opinion that short story as a genre is not dying; it will live as long as there will be human beings. It is very natural for us—we don't tell novels, we tell short stories

Ismat and Annie

This session was about two famous Urdu fiction writers: Ismat Chughtai and Qurratulain Haider.

In this session, Javed Akhtar and Ameena Saiyid (head of OUP, Pakistan) were in conversation with Syed Shahid Mahdi.

Javed Akhtar: Both Ismat and Annie (Haider) were rebels in their own way. Annie was from an aristocratic background and was scholarly; if she was confident about something, she would put her foot down. Otherwise, she would say I don't know anything about it; tell me about it. She would quote from magazines and books. She would think in terms of centuries. 

Ismat was more from a middle class background. She was a fighter and was so dogged that even if she had said something wrong and she knew it, she would stick to her point. She thought in terms of mosaic, short stories.

In this session, Javed Saheb said some very interesting things about the Urdu and Hindi divide, which he considers an artificial divide. He said that what we commonly speak in India is Urdu or Hindustani. But what is people’s attitude? When do they think one is speaking Urdu and not Hindi? “Jab kah (baat) samajh me aaye toh who Hindi hai. Jab samajh me aana band ho jaye toh Urdu hai.” 

He exhorted people to learn Urdu if they wanted to enjoy the works of genii like Ismat and Annie. “Learning Urdu is not that difficult,” he said. “Learn the script. Don’t just look at the script and run away scared. Doosre ki galiyan hamesha tedhi medhi lagti hain.”

In the futuristic scenario, everybody is a writer, no one is reader

“The Novel of the Future” was a very interesting session. The participants were Howard Jacobson, Nadeem Aslam, Linda Grant, Zoe Heller and Lawrence Norfolk and the moderator was Anita Anand. Mohammad Hanif was supposed to be a part of the panel but he did not show up. Later on, I found out that he got his visa too late in the day and cancelled his plans to come to Jaipur.

The discussion opened with a reference to the famous Naipaulian claim that the novel is dead. Long ago Naipaul had declared that the novel is dead.

Nadeem Aslam: The novel's health is not exhausted in my study.  If you say the novel is exhausted, it means you are exhausted.

Howard Jacobson: Looking at the success of Fifty Shades (the trilogy by E L James), we are doomed. 

The problem is with readers, not novels
Everyone wants to write, not read
Meeting authors has replaced necessity to read

We need novels. It is an argument, not a single voice of dictatorship.

In the futuristic scenario, everybody is a writer, no one is reader.

Anna Karenina is a young adult novel.

Don't change your writing to suit the market; stick to your style, at any cost, and your audience will change

Zoe Heller: What is worrying is that kids are losing the art of reading long fiction; they have short attention spans.

What's happening in the US will happen in India too. The market for novels is shrinking in the US. The same will happen in India in the future even though right now the market here is expanding.

Howard: Don’t read novels for information. Novels have no information to provide.


Someone asked: What about the novel in the e-form, with embedded video and all that jazz we could do with the form in a digital age? Answer: Novels will change—like a parachute, with trimmed strings. Will the parachute remain the same and will provide the same functionality if you trimmed it strings?

E-books are not same as the hard copy novels.

Nadeem: You don’t need video and music to be embedded in the novel’s pages. The words, the sentences, they should evoke the music and picture in your head.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Voices from the Jaipur Literature Festival

There was a time when India barely had any literary festivals. There were readings and book launches, there were mushairas and kavi sammelans but not literary festivals—it is a western import like the ‘novel’.

Just as there is an epidemic of novel-writing in India these days, there is also an outbreak of literary festivals in the country. Every city worth its salt has a lit fest going on and writers, publishers and readers aren’t exactly complaining. In India, when we like something, we tend to go overboard. The same is true of lit fests. But I hope we stop at the city level and don’t take literary festivals to the mohalla level. A Kirti Nagar literary festival or a Jorbagh lit fest does not sound right. A reading group would be much more appropriate at that level.

I was recently in Chennai and one of my friends told me that his daughter who is in third standard wants to become a writer. That’s great, I said. When I was in school, I could barely get my head around what was happening in the classroom, let alone think of becoming a writer. India’s new generation will take the country to another level. Who will not welcome such glad tidings about India?

On my way to the Jaipur literature festival (JLF) this January, I was pondering why was there so much growing interest in reading and writing in India now? Why so many literary festivals? While this is a welcome pandemic, there must be some robust reasons behind it.

I found the answer in one of the sessions by Javed Akhtar Saheb, who is a well-known poet, screenplay writer and Hindi film lyricist. His name has become synonymous with JLF. He and Gulzar Saheb (though the latter was absent this year or maybe I missed him at the festival) have been crowd-pulling festival regulars.

In one of his sessions, Javed Saheb had this to say about the revival of our interest in the arts: “We had abandoned language and arts in the last 30-40 years. We wanted cars and fridges. Now today's generation takes them for granted. They want something else. They want arts, and literature, and so this revival.” What he says makes sense. Perhaps it is even true. But is this view too simplistic?

I am asking this because a danger lurks around the corner of this insight. While lit fests are an endearing feature of a changing India (along with the nationwide ban on plastic bags), they could signal something else altogether and “Booker-award winning” novelist Howard Jacobson had this point to make which is equally convincing: Today, we have more writers than readers. We complain of the death of the novel. But the problem is with readers, not novels. Everyone wants to write, and no one wants to read. Meeting authors has replaced the necessity of reading.

He had made this point in one of his columns too—I remember reading it. He was, in his column, referring to a literary city like London. The point he is making it this—are literary festivals replacing the reading habit? Is meeting authors, listening to their talks and getting their autographs enough to qualify us to skip the hard work of actually reading their books?

On a panel discussion on the future of the novel, Howard Jacobson was at his cantankerous best, and I loved everything he said. Howard was among the three writers this year who drew me to the festival—the other two were Yiyun Li and Musharraf Ali Farooqi. I admire all three of them (I heard them but did not meet them in person; I did not even take their picture. I just listened to them and took mental notes).

This was my first time at JLF and the festival was as colourful and cacophonous as I had expected it to be. In its first edition years ago, it had attracted 7,000 people. This time the organizers said footfall was about 2 lakhs (Sounds like a mall, doesn’t it?). Getting a seat was always a problem at the festival but people were unfazed. They fought for seats.

While the festival attracts top writers from all over the world, one reason for its popularity is Bollywood. Members of India’s film fraternity are an integral part of the festival (Gulzar, Javed Akhtar, Prasoon Joshi, Shabana Azmi, and this year Neelesh Misra too was introduced to the public). Not satisfied with their popularity, this year the festival organisers added cricket and religion to the mix to a great effect. We had Dalai Lama and Rahul Dravid at the fest who injected a dose of spirituality and sports into the milieu in their own way.

But this was not everybody’s idea of how a lit fest should be. At the same time when Dravid’s session was going on, eminent Hindi writers like Ashok Chakradhar, Ikraam Rajasthani and Atul Kanakk were holding a session on ‘Navras’. The crowd was going hysterical on Dravid’s side (Tata Steel lawns). Ashok made us do a ‘ho ho’ too as a counterpunch to the other side’s level of enthusiasm: it was cricket vs Hindi and the audience did not let Hindi down. It was good fun.

To enter the venue, one had to go through many security checks. But this was not that unpleasant, and once inside, you were in for a treat. Colourful tents, sunshine, bookstores, art and craft shops, people with elongated lenses attached to their cameras, autograph hunters, writers, and food for thought. A lot was going on inside the barricaded Diggi Palace. Besides the chai in earthen cups and pyaaz kachodi with delicious chutney, there was a variety of food available at Diggi Palace. Unfortunately, smoking was banned on the second day but we saw many foreigners smoking away, oblivious to the promised fine of Rs 200 that had been imposed on those who smoked inside the festival venue. When my friend complained to the police, they said, “Kya Karen Saheb? Yeh toh foreigners hain.” (What to do, sir? These are foreigners). My desi friend’s cigarettes had been impounded at the entrance of the Diggi Palace and so he was angry. If JLF organizers are reading this, they should designate smoking areas at the festival venue. Smokers will smoke and if you force them to do it surreptitiously, they become fire hazards. So please, be a little more practical.

The auto wallahs had a field day during the festival. They happily overcharged us everyday from the venue (some 7 kilometers) to our hotel. They justified the overcharging by saying that the traffic is very bad because of the police bandobast. Many fellow attendees I talked to said that orgainsers should arrange bus service to hotels. Another great suggestion.

I had hoped to meet Musharraf Ali Farooqi (whose work of translation, The Adventures of Amir Hamza, I had been enjoying) at the Random House party on January 25 but unfortunately the party was moved to another day because it fell on a dry day. I had to return to Delhi the next day, so I missed the party altogether. We were, however, on the same flight from Delhi to Jaipur and that was a consoling thought.

On the way back to Delhi, I saw newsman Rajdeep Sardesai (CNN-IBN) boarding our plane. He kept to himself and after landing in Delhi, on the bus to the terminal, I got a seat right in front of him. A lady with a toddler was too excited to see him and when she could not contain her excitement, she asked the man: Are you Rajdeep Sardesai? Rajdeep politely smiled and nodded yes. The woman beamed for a while at this affirmation. Soon, we reached the airport terminal and went our separate ways.

During the festival, I did not mob anyone for autographs. I did not buy any books as I had already ordered the books that I wanted to buy through Flipkart. All I had were some good memories, and there were voices from the festival that echoed in my head. I was glad that this year the festival did not generate any controversy. I was so wrong.

The next day I read of the Ashish Nandy controversy in the papers. I had completely missed it but I could not stop smiling. JLF and controversy go hand in hand now—last time, it was Rushdie (in absentia) and this time, Nandy.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Tales from Timbuktu

For most of us, Timbuktu has been a noun and an adjective—a shorthand for a far off place. I also knew of Timbuktu as the title of a Paul Auster novel. Over the decades, Timbuktu has come to acquire the same kind of mystic aura that is reserved for places like Casablanca, thanks to the classic Hollywood love story. What has happened in the case of places like Casablanca and Timbuktu is that cinema and literature have turned a real place into a mythical landscape

Yet, in the last few days, Timbuktu has been hogging the limelight for all the wrong reasons—the desert town had been captured by Tuareg nationalist rebels and Islamic extremists and the French army had to intervene to flush them out.

In the process, it was reported that something very precious was lost—a treasure trove of ancient Greek and Islamic texts. The rebels had torched a library (The Ahmed Baba Institute) that was the repository of these ancient texts. They also destroyed some sufi shrines, “claiming such shrines were forbidden” in their version of intolerant Islam.

The loss was mourned internationally and it was on the news everywhere. The rebels, who were adamant on imposing shariah laws, were condemned. 

You can’t miss two ironies here. One, Islamic extremists setting fire to texts that were part of their own heritage. They were not the infidel Mongols who had raided and destroyed the ancient libraries in Baghdad in 1258. During the siege of Baghdad, many books on subjects ranging from medicine to astronomy were destroyed. The siege marked the end of the Islamic Golden Age.

Two, the saviours in Timbuktu were the French. In 1789, when Napoleon entered Cairo and “vigorously appeased conservative Muslim clerics in the hope they might form the bulwark of pro-French forces in the country,” there were many revolts against his occupation. “Many other Muslims saw plainly the subjugation of Egypt by a Christian from the West as a catastrophe;” writes Pankaj Mishra in his brilliant book, From the Ruins of the Empire, “and they were vindicated when French soldiers, while suppressing the facts against their occupation, stormed the al-Azhar mosque, tethered their horses to the prayer niches, trampled the Korans under their boots, drank wine until they were helpless and then urinated on the floor.”

One can argue what Napolean’s army did was more an act of bravado, showing how they could morally subjugate an occupied people and disrespect their culture; something quite different from an act of pure philistinism as was demonstrated by the fleeing extremists in Timbuktu.

How do we square these ironies? Let’s put it this way: time heals everything, people are ennobled by forces of civilisation and there is redemption in God’s kingdom.

Now, let us come back to the present.

While peace has returned to Timbuktu, new stories about the burning of manuscripts are coming out into the public. I read in today’s newspaper that all has not been lost.

According to a report in the IHT, the imam of a mosque in Timbuktu was able to save 8,000 volumes of ancient manuscripts by moving them into a bunker in an undisclosed location—that was before the attack. “These manuscripts, they are not just for us in Timbuktu,” said Ali Imam Ben Essayouti. “They belong to all of humanity. It is our duty to save them.”

And that’s the point I want to make here: it is our duty to save them. So what can be done?

While the act of this saviour Imam is laudable, something more needs to be done by the international community, and organisations like UNESCO and Google can really help in this matter.

Given the kind of turmoil the Middle East and Africa are going through, won’t it be wise to get all ancient manuscripts scanned and digitally saved? UNESCO knows where all these treasure troves are. Google already has a global book scanning project on. If we do this, we need not fear the extremists torching ancient libraries anywhere in the world anymore. Not that we want it to happen, but better safe than sorry.