I was extremely excited when I found about the Jaipur Literature Festival taking place at Southbank London on 21st May 2016. Now, this is an event I HAD to attend and I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to be part of one of the greatest literature festivals around the world. I know the real deal is in attending the festival in India but hey ho! For lack of a better analogy, the mountain came to Muhammed!
The festival was a full day event which consisted of a number of simultaneous events lined up during the course of the day. So, choosing one of 6 events proved to be quite a challenge and I did think it would have been handy if I were able to clone myself!
The first event I chose to attend was “British Asian”. The panel consisted of Yasmin Khan, Mukulika Banerjee and Satnam Sanghera. The discussion was enriching as it helped the audience form their own opinions about the journey of British Asians. Insight was provided into immigration, historical links between England and India, the days of the Empire as well as the struggles faced by immigrants in the 60s and 70s. Mukulika Banerjee pointed out how there is no mention of the British Empire and colonialism in school curriculums and how important it is to include this. I was very surprised learning this fact but then, didn’t expect any better! The issue of cultural identity was explored and so was the problem of mental illness which is very often brushed under the carpet. Satnam Sanghera made a reference to his book where he highlights this issue; about how children of immigrants have a huge sword of expectations hanging on their heads and undue pressure to do well in life that sometimes they fall prey to mental illness. The session ended on a positive note where it was felt that although there are issues, one must always count one’s blessings and that the concept of “home” is always a relative one.
Event two was one I was really looking forward to as it involved an interview with Barkha Dutt, focusing on her new book The Unquiet Land. My impression of Barkha Dutt based on her media presence is that of a strong, confident woman and I was impressed by the manner in which she conducted herself and held her own through some very uncomfortable moments during the course of the session. As soon as the session started, we heard a huge commotion at the back of the auditorium where a bunch of protestors were shouting out slogans in the hope of boycotting the event. Although Barkha Dutt wasn’t perturbed by this, it was an obvious distraction for the audience so she very cordially invited the protestors to join the debate. She rightly said that by boycotting the event they aren’t helping their cause. To give you perspective, the protestors were boycotting the event because one of the sponsors of the event was Vedanta which has been responsible for violating environmental and tribal rights and indeed of exploitation of human rights. So after a while, the protestors calmed down. Barkha Dutt spoke about her graduating from Columbia, early days as a journalist and about her experiences as a woman journalist reporting from the front line during the Kargil war. She then spoke about her book where she explores the significance of conversation, the role of food as a facilitator of conversation, the role of women in India, cohabitation, sexual abuse (where she made reference to personal experience) and Indian politics. One comment that she made appealed to my feminist self. She said that she always encourages women to de-gender conversation as much as possible. The reason being, if you as a woman are prepared to take a compliment based on your gender e.g. women are more compassionate then you have to also be prepared to take an insult based on your gender. The session concluded with a Q&A round with members of the audience.
After a scrumptious snack of samosa chaat and some fizzy nimbu paani, it was time for session three where Sunil Khilnani spoke about his book ‘Incarnations : India in 50 Lives’. Khilnani was interviewed by the very effervescent William Darlymple, author, historian and founding member of the JLF. The session consisted of readings from the book and Khilnani explained how he has tried to “humanise” and “demythologise” the 50 characters that he writes about in the book. Characters that he referred to included Mahatma Gandhi, Ashoka, Akbar, Jinnah, Nehru, Mira Bai, Gautam Buddha and Dhirubhai Ambani. The Q&A session was interesting as Khilnani was asked about how he went about choosing the 50 personalities, his views about Indian history and its popularity etc. All in all, this was an informative session.
The next event was the one that I enjoyed the least. I say this because I felt let down by the panel which consisted of Barkha Dutt, Shatrugan Sinha among others. Barkha Dutt seemed to be very distracted by her mobile phone during the course of the session which was a discussion entitled “Against the Grain” which attempted to evaluate how trying it is to go against mass opinion. Shatrughan Sinha said “If you cannot be better than the best, be different than the rest”. Saying this, I rest my case about the session and will say no more.
After a disappointing session number 4, I was happy when I attended session 5, “Inner Life of Translations”, again a panel discussion, only this time chaired by Gillian Wright. I found the panellists to be very engaging, especially Jerry Pinto. The discussion revolved around the challenges faced by those who translate books into English from India’s numerous regional languages. The panellists also spoke about some of the books they have translated and it was wonderful to be part of the book readings. Balootha translated by Jerry Pinto grabbed by attention and I am going to be on the look out for a copy. The only negative feedback for this event was that it didn’t start on time, leaving no time for a Q&A session.