Archive for February, 2012

Festivals and Freedom

February 6, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (43)

 

I have never attended the Jaipur Literary Festival; nor does a visit loom in the foreseeable future. This is largely (but not wholly) because I have no taste for tamashas. Although unusual, this aversion is by no means unknown in the Indian subcontinent. I know of many writers and readers who share it, and I suspect that most of us were drawn to the world of books precisely because it provided an island of quiet within the din of tamasha-stan.

My own inclinations make it difficult for me to understand why Salman Rushdie is so drawn to this festival. But each to their own and I recognize that I am in a tiny minority. The great majority of writers seem to want to go and anyone who does should certainly be able to. It is appalling that Rushie was prevented from attending and I am wholly in agreement with those who believe that this bodes very ill indeed for the future of free expression in India.

But the controversy also raises questions about another issue that touches directly upon writing: this is the way in which literature is coming to be embedded within a wider culture of public spectacles and performances. This process, which got under way almost imperceptibly, has now achieved a momentum where it seems to be overtaking, and indeed overwhelming, writing itself as the primary end of a life in letters.

A  frequently heard argument in favour of book festivals is that they provide a venue for writers to meet the reading public. Although appealing, this argument is based on a flawed premise in that it assumes that attendance is equivalent to approbation. Books, by their very nature often give offence and create outrage, and this is bound to be especially so in circumstances where there are deep anxieties about how certain groups are perceived and represented. In democratic societies, those who are offended or outraged are within their rights to express their views so long as they refrain from violence and remain within certain limits. They are even entitled to resort to demonstrations, dharnas, occupations and the like; in circumstances where any arm of the government plays a role people are entitled also to press for the withdrawal of public funds or sponsorship (something like this has already happened in the US in relation to publicly-funded TV and radio channels). The equation is quite simple: to expand the points of direct contact between writers and the public is also to increase the leverage of the latter over the former.

Writers and readers have not always stared each other in the face. Until quite recently most writers shrank from the notion of publicly embracing their readership. I remember once being at an event with the American novelist William Gaddis: this was in the nineteen-nineties and he was in his seventies then. A major figure in American post-modernism Gaddis had been reared in a very different culture of writing: he would not sign copies or take questions from readers. He refused even to read aloud from his book. After much persuasion he agreed to sit silently in front of the audience while someone else read out passages from his work. When we talked about this afterwards he said quite categorically that he believed that books should have lives of their own and that writers could only diminish the autonomy and integrity of their work by inserting themselves between the reader and the text.

Very few writers could afford to take such a position today (although J.M. Coetzee and a few others do still hold to it). The rest of us have become accustomed, in varying degrees, to doing readings, signings and public events: provisions to this effect are now often written into book contracts. But there still exists some degree of choice in regard to the extent to which writers must also be performers, which is why it is important to remember that if there is something to be gained from the transition there is also much to be lost.

Through the last century the relationship between readers and writers was largely impersonal. The reader related in the first instance to a book, not to its writer; and writers, for their part, did not confront their audience directly in the manner of musicians, singers, actors and so on. This was, I think, one of the reasons why writers were able to take greater risks in hurling defiance at society at large.

The situation has changed dramatically in recent years. The Internet, as I have good reason to know, has made it possible to subject writers to great pressure through mass-mailing campaigns. Face-to-face encounters add yet another dimension to this: to be called upon constantly to provide answers is inevitably to become answerable. If this process continues unchecked its impact on the freedom of thought and expression may be greater than any explicit policy of repression.

The old, impersonal relationship was, in other words, also a form of protection, a first line of defence, not merely within public spaces but also within the writer’s own head. In breaking this down the publishing industry certainly has much to gain, as does the tamasha industry; writers too have much to gain, but they also have something to lose, something that is as intangible as a latitude and yet of enormous value: this is the space that allows them to explore their own thoughts to the fullest.

Nor is this the only loss. As a child I was drawn to books because they were a refuge from a world that seemed to be at war with the very idea of an inner life. That world has become today exponentially more noisy, crowded and intrusive than ever before. Public life in India is now a whirling continuum that seamlessly unites cricket, politics and Bollywood. Each domain leaks into the other and the major figures are all closely linked. It is no coincidence that many of these elements are also much in evidence at book festivals. The intention evidently is to make the book world another link in the tightly joined whirligig of Cripollywood. It is easy to see the attractions of this, especially for writers who are striving to bring their work to public notice. But there is a price to pay: we need to remind ourselves that Bollywood movies are routinely re-edited to accommodate protests of various kinds. Recent incidents in Jaipur and in Kolkata, where Taslima Nasreen was also prevented from participating in a festival, suggest that Indian publishing will have to adapt its practices to those of the film industry if it is to pitch its tent beside the three-ring circus of the tamasha culture.

Another issue that was brought to the fore in Jaipur and Kolkata is that of the relationship between festivals, writers and the government. Much criticism has been directed at the national and state governments in this regard and much of it is certainly well-directed and well-deserved (although there is more than a touch of irony in seeing an editor like David Remnick, who trimmed his sails to the winds of Bush and Cheney during the Iraq war, holding forth on it).

Criticism is vitally necessary if the government is to be prodded into discharging its duties. But it is also important to recognize, I think, that the situation in relation to the freedom of expression today is vastly different from that which prevailed through much of the 20th century when governments were the chief, often the sole, agents in the repression of writers and artists. But states where that is still the case – for example, China, North Korean and Syria – are now the exception rather than the rule. Elsewhere threats to free speech today come mainly from private and sectional interests – fundamentalist groups, identity-based organizations, political extremists, corporations and so on. These may be ‘non-state actors’ but they can be very effective in limiting the freedom of speech. It might even be said that in India they have succeeded in shrinking the space for free expression to a point where it is not much broader than in China.

The institutions and organizations that represent writers and artists have yet to adapt to this change: the reflexive responses of the 20th century still prompt us to point our fingers first in the direction of the state. But today the role of government is often limited to an insidious collusion with various constituencies. Public pressure and criticism can, and must, be exercised to prevent, or at least impede, this collusion. But beyond that the question will inevitably arise, as it did in Jaipur and Kolkata, of whether the governments of today are even capable of providing the security they once did.

This is a matter of doubt not just in India but also in many wealthy countries. Despite the deployment of enormous resources neither Denmark nor Holland were able to prevent attacks upon artists under threat; in the US a woman who put up a website that was offensive to a religious group was quickly forced to go underground. These countries are heavily and efficiently policed: what are the chances that a country like India would be able to provide effective protection?

Whether the threats to the Jaipur festival were invented or real I am in no position to judge. But one has only to open a newspaper to know that certain situations in India are inherently combustible. What then would it have taken to ensure order in Jaipur and Kolkata? One battalion? Two? Or should festivals now invest in creating private security forces in the manner of mining companies? And what would this say about the relationship between writers and the public?

It is when we think of this that it becomes evident how lucky writers are: unlike musicians and actors they do not actually need to appear in public  (although they certainly have every right to do so). Performances are secondary and inessential to a writer’s work. Our books, which are our principal vehicles of expression, can reach people through impersonal mechanisms. This is what make the world of books so uniquely democratic and accessible.

What is of vital importance now is to ensure that books of all kinds continue to be published and are made available to readers: this is where the publishing industry should invest its resources. Public spectacles are a sideshow: if the Indian book world loses sight of this, as it seems to be in danger of doing, it will upend both the cart and the horse.

Of course limiting the role of performance would not eliminate the problem; it would perhaps only make it more manageable. The threats would remain, and the community of writers and artists would still need to find ways of protecting those of their number who are facing them.

How is this to be done?

As I noted earlier the institutions that are active on freedom of speech issues – PEN for instance – have, for historical reasons, attuned their methods to combating governments. There is certainly a place for this, even now, but today’s battle is not the same as yesterday’s. Unfortunately nobody, so far as I know, has yet found an effective means of countering ‘non-state actors’ – certainly I can’t think of one. The problem is difficult enough to make the business of dealing with governments appear relatively easy. But this is exactly why we need to pay proper attention to it. It is futile to proceed on the assumption that governments alone can provide a solution.

 

 


Mekong Journals: 30

February 2, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)

 

[In January 2003  I accompanied an expedition that was conducting a survey of river dolphins on a stretch of the Mekong River in Cambodia. The expedition was led by Isabel Beasley, who was then a PhD student specializing on Orcaella brevirostris: also known as the ‘Irrawaddy Dolphin’ this species is found in many Asian river systems and deltas.

Over the last few weeks I’ve posted the first part of the journal I kept during the expedition: this is the 30th and final post in the present series. I plan to post other parts of the journal later in the year.]

 

 

 

 

The survey that Isabel is doing is a ‘direct count’ survey – which means that she is trying to physically count every member of the orcaella population. This is different in principle from a ‘line-transit’ survey where essentially the data from a certain area is used to extrapolate figures and statistics for a wider population. That is why in a ‘line-transit’ survey great care has to be taken that lines of sight etc don’t overlap – because if they do, then the extrapolation would produce figures that are radically skewed.

 

The river’s course was much broken and fragmented for much of the way today – in places there were huge islands and the channels narrowed as the river parted. In other places the current was so fast that the water was white in patches.

 

 

 

There were acres of bush- and rock-strewn water. Then about fifteen miles south of Stung Treng, the river changed again and there was only one broad channel and the shores were densely inhabited. Huts lined the bank almost without a break. It was like this all the way to Stung Treng and there the river divided again. It’s been pleasantly cool since we left Kratie; last night was cold and the mornings on the river are chilly too.

 

Every now and again Isabel makes a stop to talk to the local fishermen; she asks them about the dolphins and the giant catfish (which was seen up here until quite recently) and she takes pictures of their nets. The kind of net she is concerned about is the ‘gill net’. These are nylon nets that have a large mesh, in which dolphins very easily get entangled. The smaller mesh nets don’t really trouble them as they don’t get entangled in them, but the large mesh nets can snag on many parts of their bodies and they can drown in a matter of minutes.

 

 

Isabel and the others are just back from the survey and they had a good day: they met a ‘travelling group’ of dolphins (between 7 and 13) and followed them for quite a while. The dolphins got alarmed at a certain point and began to push the upper part of their bodies out of the water, swimming in the fashion of ocean dolphins.

 

Isabel is working on a paper on the taxonomy of orcaella. She is hoping to show that the Australian orcaella and the Asian orcaella are different species. In order to write this paper she had to travel around the world: she had to visit every museum that has an orcaella skull. Her travels took her to Calcutta, Paris, London, Copenhagen and many cities in the US. Paris had a particularly rich trove of skulls. ‘Didn’t see anything of the cities – just went straight from museum to museum.’ In the process she met many of the curators who have become legendary in the field and most of them were ‘terribly nice’.

It struck me that this was in a way similar to working with  Geniza documents – chasing a trail of paper around the world. But there are other similarities as well – learning to recognize minute differences; patience; engaging with work that has preceded one’s own – and so on.

 


Mekong Journals; 29

February 1, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

 

 

[In January 2003  I accompanied an expedition that was conducting a survey of river dolphins on a stretch of the Mekong River in Cambodia. The expedition was led by Isabel Beasley, who was then a PhD student specializing on Orcaella brevirostris: also known as the ‘Irrawaddy Dolphin’ this species is found in many Asian river systems and deltas. The journal I kept during the expedition will appear on this site as a continuous series of posts. This is part 29 of the series.]

 

 

Yesterday the ‘Pol Pot times’ burst upon us unexpectedly. We were in a taxi, driving to Sambok when Mr Seng Kim said, suddenly, that compared to his children’s lives, his own childhood had been so different. His entire family was sent to a camp in Kompong Thom province. His father died and his mother had to keep the family going somehow. ‘Very hard – ver-ry dif-fi-cult.’

 

skulls from 'Pol Pot time'; genocide shrine near Phnom Penh, 1996

Mr. Somany began to laugh uproariously at this and said: ‘Did your mother marry again?’ I had the impression that this exchange was founded on the usual Cambodian unease about the ‘Pol-Pot-time’ – any mention of which seems to occasion uproarious laughter. I thought that he himself was perhaps too young to have experienced the Pol-Pot-time and just wanted to put an end to the older man’s reminiscing. But today, at the place where we’d stopped for lunch, he suddenly exclaimed: ‘It was not just him (Mr. Seng Kim). It was all of us – all of us went through it.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘You too?’ I said in surprise. ‘Yes!’ he said vehemently. Somany was 6 when Pol Pot came to power. His father died in 1975. They were taken from Phnom Penh to Takeo province – his mother and his four siblings. Once they were in Takeo Province, they were split up, all five of them. Each of them was sent to a different camp. This was in keeping with Pol Pot’s efforts to dissolve the family unit. Somany was sent to a camp for children of his age. As ‘New People’ they were taught how to pay their respects to the ‘Old People’. He saw sick children being abandoned to die. The soldiers wouuld go through the camp and say (about the sick children): ‘Let them be – maybe they’ll die tonight.’ And when they woke up next morning, sure enough, those children were dead. He would be allowed to see his mother only once every month or so. Sometimes she would bring him a sweet potato. Every time he saw her, all she could do was cry and cry. Sometimes he would run run away from his camp to try and find her.

In 1979 he and all the others at the camp heard the sound of bombs and shooting. They heard that the Vietnamese were coming in tanks. He didn’t know what a tank was and he was desperately keen to find out. He ran out on to the road and waited for the tanks. When they came by, the Vietnamese soldiers were standing in the turrets, waving.

 

 

 

 

[Memorial, ‘Killing Field’ near Phnom Penh, 1993]

 

 

 

 

 

After that he managed to find his mother and somehow, miraculously, all the other siblings managed to find her as well. They started walking toward Phnom Penh – ‘it was very, very difficult’ – he couldn’t find words and almost had to stop talking. He pointed to the sandals on his feet and said ‘we had none of these; just had to walk.’ After that he changed the subject and began to talk about the dolphins and the survey work, which he clearly loves and performs with great enthusiasm.

 

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh, 1993

 

 


Mekong Journals: 28

in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

 

[In January 2003  I accompanied an expedition that was conducting a survey of river dolphins on a stretch of the Mekong River in Cambodia. The expedition was led by Isabel Beasley, who was then a PhD student specializing on Orcaella brevirostris: also known as the ‘Irrawaddy Dolphin’ this species is found in many Asian river systems and deltas. The journal I kept during the expedition will appear on this site as a continuous series of posts. This is part 28 of the series.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mr Somany and I were talking earlier in the evening and he told me that his mother and wife want him to stop working for the government. They want him to join their business – they make vermicelli noodles. He said that he tries to help them as much as he can – his job usually requires him to be in his office only from 8 to 11. After that he manages to take himself off to help with his mother’s business. But they want him to give up his job altogether, which would be a waste of his hard-earned degree in fisheries.

He took his degree from Nha Trang University in Vietnam. At first it was very hard foor him there – he found it difficult to be away from his family. Food was difficult too; he didn’t like the food there. Even though Vietnamese food is quite similar to Cambodian food it wasn’t what he was used to. But then he made Vietnamese friends and learnt to speak Vietnamese and that made it much easier. Even though he felt that he was missing some words, he knew enough Vietnamese to manage in class. It was in Vietnam too that he started learning English. He became friends with an American who was teaching English in Nha Trang University. Later, back in Cambodia, he started taking private lessons. Working with Isabel has been a great help in his learning English.

 



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