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‘Hindi speakers aren’t interested in literature’

His language sits lightly on his shoulders. Delhi-based poet and critic Ashok Vajpeyi gently rebuffed a few who came complaining that the Jaipur Literature Festival has largely ignored the national language. Mayank Austen Soofi reports.

art and culture Updated: Jan 26, 2010 01:29 IST
Mayank Austen Soofi

His language sits lightly on his shoulders. Delhi-based poet and critic Ashok Vajpeyi gently rebuffed a few who came complaining that the Jaipur Literature Festival has largely ignored the national language. “But I’m not feeling ignored,” the long-haired poet said. “If others feel that way, you’d better organise a festival of such scale than crib about it.”

Pointing out at the crowd of foreigners, the former vice-chancellor of the Indira Gandhi International Hindi University said, “You don’t see many Hindi lovers here because the Hindi-speaking society doesn’t show interest in literature. Tell me why are there hardly any Jaipur’s Hindi literature lovers coming here when the entry is free?” Without sounding bitter, Vajpeyi added, “It’s the Hindi media that have failed to support the contemporary Hindi literature which is of world class standard.”

Dismissing the tendency to compartmentalise writers in their languages, Vajpeyi said that a “good writer is a good writer. If Salman Rushdie had written in Swahili instead of English, he would still be a genius.”

The 69-year-old poet himself has transcended the language boundaries. A lover of vocal Indian classical music, Vajpeyi has written the text of photographer Raghu Rai’s new book on 13 musicians — in English. And when he’s talking, he is likely to quote William Butler Yeats (English), Mirza Ghalib, (Urdu), Kabir (Hindi), Bulle Shah (Punjabi) and Kalidasa (Sanskrit)

in one single sentence. Not a friend of the computer, Vajpeyi writes on

typewriter “not every day, though I read every day.”

In a session with his one-time teacher, author Krishna Baldev Vaid, Vajpeyi said, “Poetry writing is not considered a good thing in Hindi society,” he said to a much amused crowd. He also spoke about the difficult relationship he had with his father. “I always thought my father never understood me. Thirty years after his death I wrote a poem on him and realised that I never understood my father.”

After the session, a member of the audience tried to gift him an Osho calendar which he politely refused. “There’s a Jewish proverb which says, ‘Cry before god and laugh before men’. Since I don’t believe in god, I do a little bit of crying in my poems.”