Saturday, 10 December 2016

Writers and Celebrities: Times Lit Fest

I was back in Mehboob studios in Mumbai after forty years. This time it was for the Times Literary Festival. It was a day of listening to writers and journalists as well as to two Bollywood celebrities - Kangana Ranaut and Karan Johar.


Nothing looked the same at the Mehboob Studios, starting from the entrance gate. Forty years ago, we had been stopped at the gate by the guard wanting to know who were we meeting. Inside we had been wide-eyed with wonder as we had seen the Bollywood stars of that era - Ashok Kumar, Jitendra, Navin Nischol and Prema Narayan. Except for Jitendra, who is known as father of Ekta Kapoor, probably people today won't even know the names of those other persons. For the Lit Fest, the studio halls were converted into discussion rooms and though there were a film actor and a film director, there were no film sets or shootings going on.

I had come to Mumbai for the launch of the new film of Sujoy Ghosh - Kahaani 2. Along with the well known Vidya Balan and Arjun Rampal, the film also has the film debut of my niece Manini Chadha, who plays the wife of Arjun Rampal in the film. If you have seen the film, do tell me if you remember Manini and how did you like her!


My Mumbai days were hectic - apart from the literary festival and the launch of Kahaani 2, it was a time for family reunions, as well as, some work meetings related to a research project. However, this post is only about my impressions from the Times Lit Fest.

Arguing About Politics - State of Democracy in India

My morning started with the two well known journalists, Rajdeep Sardesai and Tavleen Singh. It was good to see both of them in person but in terms of what they were saying, both seemed to reiterate what they write every day in their columns. Which means that Sardesai was more critical of Modi while Singh was more critical of the liberal-left.


Talking about the state of democracy in India, Singh said that it was a democracy without justice as even serious criminal cases of murder and rape dragged for twenty years. She also felt that the inability to ensure decent education for the children and minimal health services for the citizens were failures of the Indian democracy.

Sardesai said that there were limited choices for the democracy in India as we are only asked to choose between Congress, a family-owned private limited party, or a street populist like Kejriwal or a demagogue like Modi. He also felt that over the past few years, media has also failed to stand up to the Government.

Singh felt that media had been co-opted by the Government immediately after independence of India when Nehru had offered government houses and other perks to big journalists who had accepted those perks. When you are taking benefits from the government, how can you criticise anything, she asked.

In another session in the afternoon, I listened once again to Sardesai and Singh. This time they were accompanied by two more journalists - Jyoti Malhotra and Kumar Kekar. In this session, Sardesai became more emotional, complaining about the pressure of the Modi government on the media houses and how this is affecting journalism.


Kekar also joined in the criticism of Modi by raising the issue of 2002 Gujarat riots and claiming that Modi Government has suppressed the new book "Gujarat files" of Rana Ayyub. (I am not sure about the suppression of Ayyub's book as I saw it displayed in a book shop at the Mumbai airport. It seems to be a best seller.)

Singh asked why media continues to focus only on Modi, forgetting the other riots in India such as the riots against Sikhs in 1984 and the infamous Maliana killing of 42 youth.

Overall, this session was like listening to one of the debates that they have on the Indian TV channels on most evenings, without anything new in it.

Equality, Liberty and Sexuality

I was looking forward to this session on alternate sexualities and it did not disappoint. The session had three well known persons - French author Charles Dantzig, Isreali author Gil Hovav and Indo-German artist Katharina Poggendorf-Kakar. It was moderated by Vikram Doctor.


Vikram Doctor started the session by talking about the rise of nationalism and the power gained by conservative right wing persons/parties in different parts of the world, asking if this is going to create new challenges for persons of alternate sexualities.

Charles Dantzig explained that it is not correct to equate political right wing persons with sexual conservatives. For example, Marine Le Pen has many gay friends and many French gays support right wing parties in France because they are afraid of Arab immigrants. Even the other rising figure of French right, Francois Fillon had started his career with support from an important gay parliamentarian.

He felt that perhaps more public hypocrisy and restraint was needed and that he had been shocked by the kind of backward things said by people against same-sex marriage law in France.

Gil Hovav supported Dantzig's position by explaining that in Israel, in spite of the right conservative parties which are in power and gay marriages are not legal, the government and society are very accepting towards alternate sexualities. He lives with his companion, his former commander in the department of Israeli intelligence, with their daughter, who is biological daughter of his companion with a Lesbian friend. The Israeli society is very accepting and they have not faced any kind of prejudices.

Being a gay or a lesbian is also not a issue in the Israeli armed forces where all are expected to do service, while in France, the army is more anti-gay.

Gil also spoke about the Palestinian issue by saying that he completely supports the right to freedom of the Palestinians. He agreed that the persons with alternate sexualities face a lot of difficulties in the Palestinian society and many of them prefer to live in Israel, but he feels that right to sexual freedom is less important than the right to freedom of the Palestinian people.

Katharina Poggendorf-Kakar said that like gays and lesbians, even for the women, it is difficult to say if they are margainlised by conservative regimes since many women play an active role in these right wing parties. It is the same in India, where women play an active role in the oppression of other women, for example, mothers-in-law in the families. It is more about patriarchal mindsets then about the parties and more dialogues are needed on these issues starting from the schools.

Katharina also said that expressing love in public by persons of same sex is threatening to public because it forces them to confront their own sexuality. The changing society threatens notions of masculinity and patriarchy and thus there is rage among young men. While she feels that the percentage of rapes is higher in Europe than it is in India, here the rapes are more vicious and violent because there is much more rage among young men in India than there is in Europe.

I enjoyed this session very much, it was very thought-provoking. My only complaint was that for the one hour or shorter sessions, they should not have more than 2 speakers since it is difficult to give sufficient time to more persons.

Jonathan Clements, Pallavi Aiyar and Kangana Ranaut

Both Clements and Aiyar are travel writers, writing about Asia. Clements has written exclusively about China and he feels that knowing the local language and a deep knowledge of local culture is necessary to write about a country. His interest in China came at an early age since his father was part of a band, which played in a Chinese restaurant. "Whichever place in the world I visit, I always stay in the Chinatowns", he explained.


Aiyar, on the other hand, writes from a more external point of view without getting too much mixed up with local cultures. She was in the US when she first went to visit her Spanish husband in China and it hooked her, resulting in her first book. Since then she has written about other Asian countries.

Aiyar raised up the issue of the country stereotypes that dominate media. For example, in 2008 during the Olympics in Beijing, the foreign media wrote extensively about the pollution in the city. Two years later, in 2010 when the commonwealth games were held in Delhi, though the city's pollution was as bad as in Beijing, no one ever wrote about it, focusing instead on women oppression and rapes.

I found this session a little boring. My disinterest was probably also because I have not read either of them. So I left their session half-way to go and listen to the bollywood star Kangana Ranaut.


Kangana, being a Bollywood celebrity, had her own session in a big hall, full of people. She was being interviewed by journalist Manu Joseph. She is very articulate. However, the hall was too crowded and I thought that I had already read so much about her views in the newspaper and magazine interviews, so after five minutes, I decided to give it a miss.

The Ethical Slut

This was another session related to sexuality, asking if polyamory is the answer to our promiscuous instinct. The short answer to this question was "No", though the different persons present in this session came to that conclusion very differently.

There were 3 persons in this session – Dossie Easton, Barbara Ascher and Hoshang Merchant. It was moderated by Pragya Tiwari. Both Dossie and Barbara were a kind of therapist-counsellor-spiritual writers kind of persons while Hoshang, is a more rebel poet, looking from his role as a gay activist.


It was not a good combination of persons, because Hoshang clearly did not agree with many of things the other two were saying and came out a bit too strongly. The other two seemed a bit unsure of how to deal with him. Each of them had a lot of interesting things to share and merited their own separate sessions, grouping them together like that did not allow enough space for any of them. It was not a dialogue between them but rather a conflict, till Hoshang decided to leave the stage.

The discussions touched on ideas of romantic love and how these initiated in Europe in medieval period and later came to be seen as universal. Hoshang felt that the ideas of romantic love originated among gay poets and was later taken over by heterosexuals, who began to question if gays can experience romantic love or if they are just sexually promiscuous.

Another area of discussion was instinct versus culture and the possibilities of learning new ways of thinking and controlling the instincts. Regarding polyamory and the ideas of having multiple romantic/sexual partners, the discussions also touched on the role played by jealousy.

I was not satisfied with this session because it did not give me enough time to listen to the views of the three speakers. However, after the Lit Fest, I looked for and bought Dossie Easton’s book “The ethical slut”, because I want to read more about her ideas. I have already read some of the works of Hoshang.

Devi and Demon

I was really looking forward to this session, hoping to hear some stimulating discussion. Arshia Sattar has translated Ramayan while Amruta Patil had done a graphic novel on Mahabharat. Thus the session was organised to focus on the figures of goddesses and demons in these two books and was coordinated by Devdutt Pattanaik.


Pattanaik started the session by talking about the contraposition between the ideas of hermit versus householder in the Indian philosophy and how these two books look at these two ideas.

The session was a little disappointing since both Arshia and Amruta were unable to point towards any new facets of the Devi/Demon characters from the two books. Amruta did talk about a relatively unknown character of Mahabharat, Satyawati, but she was not able to express it in an interesting way. Similarly, Arshia talked about the Shakuntala story but it lacked the spark. The most interesting part of their discussion was about the figures of Mriga (deer) hunting in the two epics.

Both Arshia and Amruta emphasised the need to look at the context of the two epics rather than jumping to conclusions about the motivations and actions of specific characters. For example, Arshia talked about Ram and the difficult choices he makes throughout his life, while grappling with the responsibilities of his public role leading to the negation of his personal desires.

Compared to Arshia and Amruta, Pattanaik was a much more interesting and articulate speaker, but his role in the session was limited.

Loneliness of Men and Women

Before leaving the Lit Fest, I also went to the session of Karan Johar who was interviewed by Jitesh Pillai. Like the Kangana Ranaut session, this was also in the big hall and was full of people. As usual, Johar was very articulate and also seemed sincere in sharing his thoughts and angst. However, most of it was not new since he had already spoken about these things in his numerous interviews in magazines and newspapers.


Others

Among others, I also saw William Dalrymple, Ramchandra Guha and Sudhir Kakkar.


I briefly listened to an Australian Aboriginal poet, Lionel Fogarty, in a session moderated by Ranjit Hoskote.


Conclusions

Overall the festival was a good occasion to see many persons whose works I have read and admired. In terms of new ideas and discussions, there was not so much and the quality was uneven, however that is inevitable in the events of this kind.

It was a bit sad to think that the literature festival organised by one of the most important publication groups of India had not even one big Indian literature figure and no one from the world of Indian languages. Probably after Mahashweta Devi, we do not have any towering literary figures in India any more. Is it because our society today is all about superficial fun-and-having-a-good-time, and there is no time to stop and worry about literature which does not bring any money or power?

It was not possible to participate in all the sessions. For example, I would have loved to attend Devdutt Pattanaik’s session “Is God a boy or a girl? And what about Devil?” I would have also loved to listen to Ram Chandra Guha on history as it happens and history in hindsight. But these sessions were planned too late in the afternoon for me, as I had some other engagements.

However, as a result of the festival, I am planning to read the works of two authors that I have not read before, Gil Hovav and Dossie Easton. So I can say that it was a worthwhile experience.

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    1. Thanks राकेश जी for reading the post and for your appreciation.

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