JLF2019; At the Mahakumbh of literature
Every January, numerous representatives from India’s bourgeoning class of the Inglis-ispikking culchaared converge upon Diggi Palace, venue of the Jaipur Literature Festival, for five days of intense litfesting.
This is where Established India -- writers, novelists, the rare handsome politician, poets, boyfriends of cousins twice removed of government VIPs, celebrity journalists -- holds forth on issues of great import to an audience comprising Sir VerbalWankalot, Aunty Intelkettual, and armies of Young People-Here-To-Take-Selfies-With-This-Year’s-Bollywood Star-Who-Has-Written-A-Book.
The glamorous garnishing includes Nobel and Pulitzer and Man Booker Prize Winners, irrepressible old school feminists, international tourists who earnestly take notes at sessions, and hugely popular novelists who’ve done jail time.
Inglis-ispikking India loves men who’ve been incarcerated for minor things like perjury; moral outrage is reserved only for politically incorrect deviants who frighten genteel ladis with rude truths, the powerful who engage in a bit of quid pro quo with pahties who later tweet about each gruesome bedroom move if they’ve got nothing but dreary sex out of the experience, and for anyone who doesn’t grovel at the alter of Liberal Righteousness manned by the extra judicial mob of Middle Class Brain Cruds (in the interests of brevity, henceforth referred to only as MCBCs).
And then there are the grubbing hacks on the Press Terrace vaping desperately, wailing about the wi-fi, and leaping on authors for sound bytes. You’ve been a part of this embittered contingent for a decade almost, a decade when you could have written your own novel and retired to a wisteria-fronted colonial cottage in the hills, or at the very least have popped out a couple more brats. So, yeah, your soul bears scars.
Still, you gamely landed up with the hordes on the morning of Day 1 to imbibe what wisdom Nobel laureate Venki Ramakrishnan had to impart in his keynote address that touched on science and knowledge and on living in a world where technology is ubiquitous. “Today, countries which are resource-poor but knowledge-rich do well. Singapore and Switzerland are examples,” he said, adding that the evidence-based facts of science were a necessity in the era of fake news. It was a dignified speech even if it didn’t move and inspire like Mahashweta Devi’s marvelous fiery address did back in 2013. At later sessions, the laureate endeared himself by demolishing the Vedic science mumbo jumbo so beloved of the lunatic-not-so-fringe and the Indian Science Congress. “Most Indian scientists are very mainstream... Most of them don’t attend the Indian Science Congress,” he said.
Sanjoy Roy, producer of JLF, said the festival was creating a space for dissent: “In an extremely divisive world... there is very little space left for those who have a contrarian point of view.” A noble statement that was a tad disingenuous considering the festival seems to have been bullied by the MCBCs into dropping those tainted by #MeToo allegations. A “Mahakumbh of literature” should have resisted being manipulated by self-appointed moral custodians. Mob justice, whether executed in the street or on social media, is undemocratic and vigilante in nature and therefore, should be discouraged by institutions that claim to stand for freedom of speech or expression. This isn’t to say that sexual harassment should be given a free pass but that in a functioning democracy, legal process and not slander should reign supreme.
Sadly, JLF is a victim of its own great success. Keeping the crazies, (and there are many in this nation right across the spectrum from the supposedly liberal to the rabidly right wing), who have, in the past, taken offence to Ashis Nandy’s statements on caste, objected to the participation of Pakistani authors, and threatened Salman Rushdie, from attacking the event and pre-empting them with sanitized programming has meant the festival is safe. A fallen tree and Hari Kunzru’s claim that it was a near death experience was the only disaster news that emerged from the venue. But it has also made the event an anodyne one with very few sessions that genuinely provoke. JLF2019 then was middle brow, mediocre, middle-of-the-road, monoculture India in litfest form. And this will be the case with literary and cultural festivals right across this land that prizes conformity and “the respectable way” above all else, a civilization that is increasingly afraid of radical thought, of debating every issue unless it has been certified as a-okay by Left or Right. Indeed, we’ve reached a space where Left, Right and Liberal, all abject devotees of groupthink, are equally enthusiastic about smothering expression and speech. .
In keeping with the general mood, the final panel discussion on whether Liberals stifle debate turned into a platform for the plugging of books and television channels and for everyone on it to insist they were liberals, even when they had an ancient flying chariot discreetly parked in their personal garage,
Despite these disappointments and the unfunny snark of the JLF Insider twitter handle that seemed interested solely in making personal remarks and spreading unsavoury gossip about people who couldn’t defend themselves, there were some excellent sessions: Namita Devidayal on the genius of Ustad Vilayat Khan, Assa Doron, Ravi Agrawal and Robin Jeffrey on India’s obsession with cellphones, Usha Uthup on her varied singing career, Sanjeev Sanyal on the need for fresher readings of Indian history, Jenny Uglow on Edward Lear, Charles Spencer (yeah, Princess Diana’s brother; journalists got a circular stating he couldn’t be asked about the Princess or the Royal Family) on King Charles II, and Germaine Greer on the environment, and the knot at the heart of feminism caused by the fact that women give birth to sons (ah, that painful truth) proving that age hasn’t withered her admirable brain, were all superb.
Will you return to Diggi Palace next January with the other Inglis-ispikking culchaared peepuls? Certainly. Though after this regrettable bout of truth speaking – a serious character flaw – you doubt you will be invited.