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Sea of poppycock

Literary production may take place in the writer’s private space. But literary culture, a more social affair, flourishes in crowded places, writes Amitava Kumar.

india Updated: Feb 16, 2012 22:01 IST

Recently, Amitav Ghosh announced in these pages (Writings, not writers, February 7) that he wasn’t going to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival any time soon. Or ever. I don’t harbour any illusion that attending a literary festival is like a visit to the library. Literary production might take place primarily in a room, where the writer sits alone, but literary culture as such, aided by conversation and debate, is a more social affair and flourishes in scores of crowded places.

It is bewildering why Ghosh has singled out only the festival in Jaipur as a spectacle. Yes, the Jaipur festival stands true to its self-description as the Kumbh mela of literary gatherings. But why would anyone want to go to the Kumbh mela to read a book? Or go at all? I have asked myself these questions. And yet, of all the literary festivals I have attended, Jaipur is easily the most bizarrely democratic, not only because it is free, but because the vast cross-section of people I see there simply aren’t present at other such events.

I’m aware that this is something very polemical to suggest — after all, we treat even our minor deities with reverence, and garland them daily after performing our morning ablutions — but is it possible that Ghosh simply doesn’t like democracy?

The Jaipur festival is the only gathering where I’ve had to rush from one panel to another, each populated with one or two, but sometimes three, of my literary heroes. Is this what irks Ghosh? The danger of being put on equal footing, if not with readers, then with other writers! Especially those who aren’t wholly worshipful or servile. It seems quite likely to me that the interiority Ghosh wants us to preserve by staying away from such events is not anything other than the fragility of the writerly ego.

It strikes me as odd that Ghosh’s grand statement about the need for a writer to carefully cultivate interiority was made public on his blog and published in a national newspaper. Consider also Ghosh’s advice to writers that they retreat — and protect their solitude — from their readers. This was immediately contradicted by his careful curating of several admiring readers’ responses to his original piece.

His is an utterly selective, self-serving narrative. Over the last five months or so, I have attended five literary festivals in the US and India. Except for the meeting in Jaipur, which has served as the occasion for his fatwa against festivals, Ghosh participated in each one of the others. So, he is being more than a bit disingenuous here and his agenda remains baffling to me.

I note all this not to point out the hypocrisy and bad faith. Instead, I want to underline why Ghosh’s piety appeals so much to our middle-class souls. I think this is because even his most calculated statement is wrapped, like a hard betel-nut, in the fragrant paan of high-minded morality.

On the very first day of the Jaipur festival this year, four writers read from Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses to protest the threats made against the writer. I was one of those four. Ghosh had nothing to say in support of Rushdie during those days — his tweets were about his travels on the Mekong, river dolphins, and such like — but some days later, on February 2, while providing a link to a fatuous article written by Shiv Visvanathan, Ghosh asked on Twitter, “Do writers (Arundhati and a few others apart) run the risk of making fools of themselves by aspiring to activism?”

I was happy for the rare concession granted by him to Arundhati Roy. But why did Ghosh think that we had aimed to be activists? When Hari Kunzru and I read from The Satanic Verses, we were performing as writers, showing public solidarity with someone who had been silenced. Unlike Ghosh, we had decided not to cynically treat a literary festival like a circus. And how, pray, had we made fools of ourselves? Was it by not risking arrest, as our armchair agitators would have wanted us to do? Four authors read from a banned book; they, along with the Jaipur Literature Festival’s organisers, are facing a long battle in courts. Following the controversy in Jaipur, writers and journalists in India have begun commendable new initiatives to challenge the laws on free speech. We do not deserve the derision of a writer like Ghosh, whose only public act of protest I can recall from recent years is his defying his critics — and travelling to Israel to accept a shared million-dollar prize against the worldwide appeals from Palestinians and others.

If Ghosh’s tone of high self-regard and general disdain left me cold, what stirred a different emotion in me were the letters he had quoted from younger, admiring readers. “I read your piece on Jaipur and tamasha with great enjoyment, putting neon ditto marks under every single sentence. Thank you. It means a lot to us that a writer of your stature…” How familiar I was with that vulnerable genre of writing! Such discriminating praise! Such exhilarating prose! (Mirrored subsequently in the great writer’s brief phrases about his loyal admirers: “a novelist of exceptional talent” or “another hugely talented novelist.”)

I myself remember having written numerous letters, full of deference and praise, to eminent writers. Dear Sir, Please pardon this intrusion. I am writing to you because I have just finished reading your masterpiece, Moby Dick. Well, not exactly, but you get the picture. Inevitably, the prose was awkward. There was a lot of clawing in empty air, and, on not finding sure footing, a leap into hyperbole.

If this is at all possible, despite your busy schedule, I’d like to meet with you and interview you for a chapter in my book in which you play the part of, well, God.

Those were not dishonest sentiments, but it is also true that because the letters were not exchanges among friends or equals, they were less about truth and more about power.

I sent one such letter to Ghosh more than a decade ago. The occasion was his withdrawal of The Glass Palace from consideration for the Commonwealth Prize — this, of course, was long before people asked why he didn’t do the same when a later novel was nominated for the Booker Prize. Had I praised his letter to the Commonwealth Foundation? I must have. I remember that my own letter had been displayed for quite a while on Ghosh’s website.

(Amitava Kumar is the author of A Foreigner Carrying In The Crook Of His Arm A Tiny Bomb. He lives in upstate New York and can be found on Twitter@amitavakumar)

The views expressed by the author are personal