JLF 2020: Adventures with the elephant in the room
For this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival – it’s 13th edition, which saw around 4,50,000 visitors and 500 speakers - there was no elephant in the room as such. The controversial Citizenship Amendment Act, and the politics and protests surrounding it, were discussed, debated or at least alluded to in numerous sessions. Protest slogans chanted on the streets found their way into panel discussions, as did trigger words and phrases like bhakt, tukde tukde gang and kapdo se pehchanenge. So common was it to see speakers and audience members spontaneously indulge in sloganeering that it stopped feeling truly rebellious after the first day.
The anti-CAA sentiment permeated sessions both likely and unlikely. Nandita Das spoke about not just Manto the author and playwright, but “the Manto in all of us”. “Kuch jail main hai, kuch ko maar diya, kuch protest kar rahe hai,” (some are in jail, some have been killed, some are protesting) she said, and joked that if Manto were alive today, he’d be asked to show his papers. In a session on Faiz and Firaq’s poetry, intellectual discourse was punctuated by ghazal performances of the poems, giving JLF 2020 one of its most poignant moments – when Faiz’s Hum Dekhenge, which has become an anthem of the protest movement – was performed. An almost reverential silence greeted the performance, which was shattered only at the end by applause.
Suketu Mehta launched his session with a tongue-in-cheek speech that poked fun at and extolled the true Gujarati ethos - that of being tolerant, hospitable and pragmatic - in equal measure. He then called out some Gujaratis for not living up to this ethos and giving the whole community a bad reputation. What came as a surprise, though, was when Vishal Bharadwaj, who was there to speak about his unlikely comedy-drama Pataakha, recited a poem he’d read at a Carter Road protest, Hum Maayus Nahi, Hum Hairaan Nahi. It didn’t end there as he also performed his never-before-heard poem, Jaag Bhi Jaao, Jagao Bhi, Jaga Ke Rakhna in honour of Republic Day.
Because of all the talk, it was disappointing to discover that a group of young protestors had been roughly expelled from the premises, and detained for close to five hours, after they started chanting anti-CAA slogans. It was even more disappointing to note that not even a handful of authors took a stand against the treatment meted out to the youngsters the following day. “We just wanted a safe space to express ourselves,” said one of the protestors. “In an instant, we were made to feel unsafe.”
Then there were those who found the overwhelming anti-establishment sentiment problematic. An audience member, who was also a professor of communication skills, felt that the panels lacked diversity of opinion. “At a literature fest, there should be room for all kinds of opinions to be heard. And it should be left to the audience to pick the ones they want,” she said.
A sliver of diversity shone through some sessions, like the one centred around the book, Eyes Right: Awakening Bharat Mata, which saw the author of the book Swapan Dasgupta explore the evolution of right-wing thought in India, question stereotypes ascribed to the growing faction, and highlight why a true democracy must not dismiss conservatism. There were light moments too, like when the author exchanged banter that masked stinging jibes with fellow-panelist and ideological opponent Saba Naqvi. Such witty repartee also marked a session that saw journalist Rajdeep Sardesai and politician Sachin Pilot discuss all that is hampering India’s democratic spirit. After lampooning the ruling party for playing divisive politics, and the Congress for not striving hard enough to be a worthy opposition, Sardesai turned his attention to his own profession. “Do not watch news channels, it’s injurious to health,” he said.
But there was room for topics other than politics. Pulitzer-prize winning poet Forrest Gander walked us through the philosophy of “ecopoetry” and how it informs his upcoming book of poems, Twice Alive; Krishna Ramanujan and Guillermo Rodriguez invited the audience to discover some of celebrated poet, AK Ramanujan’s, most captivating diary entries, like the one he wrote right after he found out that his wife had read his diary, or the one he penned when riding the highs of a hallucinogenic.
Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee shed light on RCTs or Randomized Controlled Trials and how they can help alleviate a range of problems plaguing society. Another fascinating session saw award-winning journalists, Katherine Eban and Jeffrey Gettleman discuss the former’s latest book, Bottle of Lies: The Inside Story of the Generic Drug Boom, which talks about how ubiquitous and lethal bad-quality generic drugs are.
Fiery feminist authors addressed a variety of apprehensions and issues. Elizabeth Gilbert, who made her maiden appearance at JLF (It took 10 years for her to visit, but not for a lack of trying, informs the author) told women fretting about being unmarried – to “just chill out” as studies have shown that single women enjoy better, longer lives. While talking about her latest book, City of Girls, which celebrates female sexual desire and was written in the midst of the Me Too movement, she hoped that conversations around consent wouldn’t shut down those around female sexual desire.
Franco-Moroccan author, Leila Slimani, whose bestsellers have given us some deliciously devious and layered female characters, told women that it was okay to have secrets if it gave them a chance to have a life of their own. She also spoke about the Me Too movement, and what’s next. “We didn’t do enough for the movement. I’m a feminist because I want my son to be free; I want him to live in a world where women are not afraid of him. The big question we should be asking ourselves is how we’re going to redefine the idea of masculinity and virility,” she said.
The much-anticipated closing debate sought to investigate the culprit dividing society (no it’s not a person, but social media) – and whether it was the only entity responsible for doing so. The debate was a lively one, and was made livelier still by thumping drums that silenced speakers who rambled on post the given time limit. Those not in favour of the argument – ‘social media has divided society’ – championed the platform’s democratic nature and argued that it wasn’t fair to lambast the medium, since it was merely reflecting biases and hate already prevalent in society.
Those in favour argued that social media didn’t just hold a mirror to society, but amplified, twisted and polarised these reflections, fostering hate and hyperactive troll armies. While both sides eventually acknowledged that the medium is sinister, what with full-fledged IT cells and elaborate algorithms monitoring and controlling discourse, those using the medium weren’t let off the hook. “We’re all accountable for fake news. Question your own self, your own tendencies,” said journalist Mihir Sharma, while academic Makarand Paranjape urged the audience to be “united in our wariness about social media’s divisiveness.”