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