The subaltern can speak

The organizers of the 2014 festival felt - if the Hindiwallahs and the Rajasthani heritage experts wanted more time, let them have it. As a result, the subaltern got to speak.

L.K. Sharma
L.K. Sharma
13 February 2014
Amitabh Bachchan in conversation with Neville Tuli at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2009

Amitabh Bachchan at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2009. Demotix/Khans Null. All rights reserved.The Jaipur Literature Festival has not just grown; it has evolved into an Indian show. The global meets local will be one way of describing this transformation. The literature in Indian languages, the culture of the state of Rajasthan and even the endangered languages figured prominently in the event this year. The organizers felt if the Hindiwallahs and the Rajasthani heritage experts wanted more time, let them have it. As a result, the subaltern got to speak.

It is called the world’s biggest free literature festival. However, despite there being no entry fee and no reserved seats, the festival has been blamed for being elitist. The dominance of the English literature and a token representation of the Indian languages came at the cost of diversity. The importance given to western voices, including those of the Indians settled in the west, devalued the other.

It is as if the festival had taken a cue from Salman Rushdie’s judgment that only the English writing in India mattered.  The very idea of a white man being an arbiter of the literary tastes of Indians was questioned! This in turn had offended the festival director William Dalrymple who commented on the “racist” overtones of an article published by an English magazine. But he took note of the criticism and with the help of the Indian co-director, Namita Gokhale, gave the literature in Indian languages its due.  

Making an event more “inclusive” would have been recommended by any marketing expert also. The commercial companies now know about the “fortune at the bottom of the pyramid”.  The Jaipur Literature Festival’s record in the marketplace has been very creditable. Dalrymple always recalls how far the festival has come. At the first festival, he did a book reading in front of a dozen people including “some Japanese tourists who wandered into the hall because they had taken a wrong turn”. This time more than 220,000 visitors came to listen to 240 authors. The footfalls and eye-balls matter to the sponsors and advertisers. As long as huge crowds keep coming, the festival’s success story will continue.

The 2014 festival struck a fine balance between the global and the local and between English and the Indian languages. One panel debated the “global novel” and another discussed “an Indian way of thinking”. Several sessions covered Hindi and other regional literatures. The topics ranged from “the story of poetry” to “the aural tradition in a regional language”. The festival covered the vanishing Great Andamanese languages and the losing Himalayan languages.

Inviting the Hindi writers is a complex exercise. For the English sessions, one can invite the usual suspects as panellists and their fellow writers do not mind. The Hindi writers are more sensitive to the ideology of the organisers, to the list of invitees and to the topics selected. This literary world too has lobbies. One section would boycott a festival one year while the rival section could do so the next year. The Hindi poets lamenting the encroachment by politicians into their literary world face factionalism in their own community.

Whatever the difficulties may be, the organisers managed to Indianise a foreigner-led and Edinburgh-inspired festival. India has been doing this to the outsiders, to their belief systems and to their food items. But today the local wants to be global and the global forces keep intruding into the local domains. A Bengali writer finds that 20 years of his eminence in his own region means less than the global reach his book acquires when translated into English! How will it influence the writing of those using Indian languages? A stage may come when it would be hard to define what is Indian. The triumphal march of the western canon of literature will continue.

Thus the Indianisation of a literary festival will be worth observing. Can this “inclusiveness” be an asset? How will the various stake-holders receive the festival if it underplays its English credentials? Will the allocation of more time to writers of regional languages bring down the status of the festival a notch or two? Give a dominant position to the writing in Indian languages and the crowd-pulling celebrities and the elite may start giving the festival a miss. They feel proud of not being fluent in their mother-tongue and read only the books published in English. The Hindi newspapers that criticised the dominance of English at the festival have their pages scarred with English words in the Devanagari script! When the BBC outsourced more work to its Delhi office, some Indian listeners protested saying they did not want to hear English as spoken by their countrymen.

After all, as a Hindi publisher said, the Hindi reader thinks in Hindi, dreams in Hindi but aspires in English. It is for this reason that the walls in every town are plastered with posters promising to impart the knowledge of English in 10 days.

Will the slight weakening of the hold of English over the Jaipur Literature Festival put off the advertising agencies and sponsors who focus on a specific category of Indians prefixed in their trade lingo by an English alphabet. Will this democratisation of the festival’s programme lead to the “disintegration” of the brand?

The writers at the festival exercise their freedom of expression. At times it leads to controversies and even court cases. One time when a writer was not allowed to have his say at the festival was when some religious extremists threatened violence if Salman Rushdie was not disinvited. They succeeded.  Fortunately, till now no sponsor or advertiser has tried to influence the proceedings. A young writer once criticised a sponsor’s policies as the theme of his talk had demanded. This year some writers, including the keynote speaker, Prof. Amartya Sen, highlighted the failures of the markets and the need for state intervention. Their message on markets and morals was hardly palatable to business leaders. One can only hope that the sponsors just keep counting the visitors and not pay attention to the content.

The organisers, not lacking commercial acumen, may have taken all this into account. A more “inclusive” festival will bring its own rewards. They have pre-empted the threat of a rival festival that focuses on the literature in Indian languages! They understand the importance of “diversification” for any venture. The festival covers as many genres of literary and non-literary writing as well as music and visual arts. This year it also featured a popular science lecture as a major event. It was a big hit with students who were present in large numbers.

The winning strategy is to present some thing for every body - A-grade writers from London, B-grade writers from Bollywood, music-makers of every kind, cuisine of every region, academics unfolding their minds, celebrities unfolding their bodies, politicians and publicists, the ethnic touch, the contemporary design and variety of sounds, both traditional and modern. The invitees also represent gender fluidity. Age is no bar. Two young writers were girls aged 12 and 17.

A wide variety of immigrant men and women writers are sourced from America. These include Indian, Iranian, Ethiopian, Irish, English, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim. Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are represented. The Dalai Lama has graced the festival in the past.

This year the political themes of “democracy” and “India on the crossroads” were great hits. Two senior leaders of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party came to share their views. The white Aam Aadmi Party caps were sighted on the rostrum and among the audience.

The organisers always spice up the literary festival with the presence of celebrities and with the topic of “sex”. This year Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World was presented by its author, Shereen el Feki. It will be of immense interest to the American security experts busy exploring the topic since 9/11. According to them, an act of terrorism gives a sexually repressed Muslim fundamentalist an orgasmic experience.

 Of course, sex was discussed seriously. Notwithstanding the unprintable words printed in the book, there was no flippant note in the questions or answers. And unlike what had happened at an event in Goa, no organiser egged on the participants to go and enjoy themselves!

Lay readers in the west are sated with the stories of sex in their own society and are interested in the exotica. An account given by a west-based native informer is considered very credible. An American-Iranian author’s book “Reading Lolita in Tehran” sold like hot cakes in America in the aftermath of 9/11.

Salman Rushdie being invited and disinvited, Ashis Nandy insulting a certain class of Indians and a writer appearing on the stage with glass of wine – such happenings gave a lot of publicity to the festival in the previous years. This year a local caste group’s protest against a TV Queen did not last more than a couple of minutes. Not even a non-sexual controversy materialised.

The festival may do better in this regard next year since Sir V. S. Naipaul has been invited. Naipaul was not present this time when Prof. Rukmini Bhaya Nair kept using the word “relexicalisation”. That would have provoked Naipaul to deliver a diatribe against the academics. Just in case Naipaul fails to turn up next year, the festival should plan to engineer a wardrobe malfunction!

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