Archive for February 9th, 2012

Responses to ‘Festivals and Freedom’

February 9, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (15)

 

 

 

 

 The responses to my post ‘Freedom and Festivals’ suggest that I am not in as small a minority as I had thought.*

 

Salil Tripathi worked for Amnesty for many years and is a leading authority on issues related to the freedom of expression. His book Offence: the Hindu Case; Manifestoes for the 20th Century is one of the most important inquiries into contemporary threats to the freedom of expression. He is also a noted reviewer, blogger, human-rights activist and an occasional writer of fiction. He sent me this message (it is reproduced with the author’s permission, as are all the others that were sent directly to me):

 

Very thought-provoking ideas about Jaipur. The key question is how does one confront non-state actors. I’ve some experience in this, having worked on human rights responsibilities of business for some time now. Business is a non-state actor, but businesses, by and large,would at least like to appear to be law-abiding.

 

 

What about armed groups? The International Council on Human Rights Policy in Geneva did produce human rights principles that apply to them. The humanitarian law too applies to all of them. Armed groups also benefit from humanitarian laws; vigilantes don’t see any benefit from such laws, and we are talking about vigilante groups here. The fact is that many of them are religion-based – though it isn’t only religious groups that object to this and that; in India caste groups and professions too have objected to films – the challenge is to make them accountable under human rights law. 

 

That seems almost impossible, because human rights law is human-made; religious groups take instructions from what they think of as a ‘higher authority,’ which is why state-centricism is all we have in international law. 

 

 

We need the state to protect the vulnerable – and in this case, it is the writer under siege. Returning to such basics might help. I accept, as you say that the Danes, the Dutch and the Americans haven’t been able to protect the individual. But focusing on the state might be the only practical way forward. Jailing violent rabble rousers – note, violent rabble rousers, not mere rabble rousers – is one way forward. 

 

 

After Jeet Thayil, Ruchir Joshi, Hari Kunzru, and Amitava Kumar read from The Satanic Verses, why were they being held accountable for inciting violence? The incitement was done by the ulemas or other “community leaders” who said we’ll be hurt and beware of consequences. That’s the fundamental issue that the state misses. And the state panders to that, and infantilises an entire community. 

 

 

 

 

I think Salil makes some very good points here, especially in the last paragraph. But in regard to ‘focusing on the state’, it seems to me that the issue is this: the state has finite resources. If we had the choice would we want these resources to be used to provide security for events like festivals? Or should the top priority for the Indian book world consist in ensuring that the government uses its resources to make sure that writers and publishing houses are protected from pressure and from threats? Unfortunately we don’t have the choice, but if we did I don’t see how we could possibly choose the former over the latter.

Vijay Prashad is the author of The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, The Karma of Brown Folks, Uncle Swami: South Asians in America Today and many other interesting and influential books. We have had our disagreements in the past, but in this instance he sent me this:

 


 

Dear Amitav,
I read with great pleasure your blog post on festivals as tamashas, and books as creatures with lives of their own. This is very meaningful.
I do, however, love book fairs, but mainly for the browsing, and the sense of being in a place with others who love books. It is like being in a great bookstore or in a venerable library — to walk amongst books, and then to glance occasionally at someone who also shares that same kind of silent reverence. The tamasha of the book fair or in its own way the library-bookstore is a nice social way of sharing that solitude. The literary festival, on the other hand, has nothing of solitude in it. I too do not go to them, but for the one in DC where we were on the same panel!
My best, Vijay.

 

 

 

Amitabha Bagchi is a novelist of exceptional talent. In his first novel Above Average, he performed the remarkable feat of transforming an IIT into a microcosm of contemporary India. His new book The Householder is an equally impressive accomplishment: it is a powerful account of a minor bureaucrat’s journey through New Delhi’s corridors of corruption.

 

 

Amitabha sent me this:

 

 

 

Dear Amitav,

I read your blog entry about the dangers of literary festivals. Thank
you for writing it. I could not agree more with your formulation that
repeatedly answering questions makes writers answerable in a way that
inhibits the fundamental processes of writing.

There are, to my mind, a couple of other aspects to this problem of
writers being increasingly pushed to (or willingly acceding to)
offering their own person as the axis on which their writings turn.
The first problem is that by willing interpreting our work for our
readers we run the danger of stifling other readings that may emerge.
I am sure you have also experienced the joy of finding that a reader
has seen something in your work that you had not deliberately placed
there. We strive to create rich textures, but the test of that
richness has to be the exegesis that the author did not expect. When I
read Ghalib’s poetry and found that it spoke seamlessly to situations
that arose in a world whose shape Ghalib, living in his time, could
not have even begun to imagine, it sparked in me the urge to write in
a way that would perhaps be able to wrap around a larger swathe of
human experience than is within my immediate knowledge. But not
wanting to wait till I am dead, it is out of pure selfishness that I
routinely and without exception deflect questions that are framed to
extract from me some definitive (“authoritative”) reading of my own
work, in the continuing hope that it will bring out things I didn’t
plan for. I have had the pleasure a few times, but it is perhaps
because I wanted this so badly that a lot of people have leveled the
charge of “autobiographical” writing against me, and, even worse in
some way, told me they liked Above Average because they “identified”
with the character.

The other aspect of too many public appearances is that the writer
loses the power to frame the terms of the debate, gets dragged into
the framework set by the moderator or the loudest person on the panel.
In your blog entry you took the space of several thousand words to lay
out your argument. You framed the piece by talking about the quality
of interiority that drew you to literature. If perhaps you had been on
a TV show you would have been repeatedly asked questions like “So, Mr
Ghosh, do you think there are too many literary festivals?” or “Why do
you think the Jaipur Literary Festival has become so popular?” or some
such, and these would be the kinds of questions that the anchor would
think to be deep or probing. The loss in this is, as you said in your
piece, that the writer who probably took to writing because he or she
doesn’t possess the physical courage to bungee jump or become a Navy
Seal will be censored for fear of physical harm. But, at a less
political level, there is also the loss in terms of being unable to
talk about things that do matter to writers, like the aesthetics of
language for example. I have tried to talk to interviewers about my
prose style and where it stands aesthetically, the relationship of
that aesthetic to the place and people I am writing about, and so
forth. They nod politely and move on to a question about Chetan
Bhagat.

Perhaps the thing I liked best about your piece was the acknowledgment
that in today’s world the market is the writer’s patron and that those
writers who do not have the stature of a Coetzee or a Pynchon must bow
to the wishes of their patron and bring their “personality” to market.
But, as you very cogently point out, we can decide the extent to which
we do so. And if we decide that we will limit that engagement, then we
must not feel upset when we find that the squeaky wheel is getting the
grease.

Thanks again for putting that essay out there. I think there are a lot
of people (I saw quite a few comments) who have been sitting to one
side of the racket surrounding the events at Jaipur last month,
waiting for someone to say something that would rescue them from the
banality of what went on there.

 

 

Amitabha is absolutely right about several things but nowhere more so than when he says: ‘I
routinely and without exception deflect questions that are framed to extract from me some definitive (“authoritative”) reading of my own work’.  

 

 

Neel Mukherjee is another hugely talented young novelist. My book Sea of Poppies, shared the Crossword Prize with his widely-acclaimed Past Continuous some years ago. He sent me this message:

 

 

 

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 has articulated the outrage and disgust we feel at this unspeakable circus. You’re not a tiny minority — I know lots of writers who feel the same about Jaipur. The problem is that there will always be a sizeable group of writers who will, despite misgivings, say yes. Beyond the immediate spectacle of Jaipur, the article contains some extremely lucid and valuable thinking about the changing terrain of freedom of expression and the actors involved. It’s the sanest, best and the most intelligent piece so far on what happened in January. (Needless to say, I wasn’t there, never will be, just followed it in the press; I was in the country and the newspapers contained little else).

 

 

The Goan writer Cecil Pinto sent this link to an article by another exceptionally promising young writer, the novelist Anjum Hasan, author of the touching and beautiful Lunatic in My Head. She makes some interesting points in this piece: http://www.tehelka.com/story_main49.asp?filename=hub230411SILENCE.asp.

 

 

He also forwarded this response from Sajan Venniyoor:

 

 

 

‘Last week, I took part in two meetings on threats to freedom of expression (or FoE as our netizens prefer to call it) and much of our time was spent, as Ghosh says, seeking methods to combat the government. But as he adds, “threats to free speech today come mainly from private and sectional interests – fundamentalist groups, identity-based organizations, political extremists, corporations and so on.” 

 

 

‘This is something many of us are unwilling to accept and it may be too late for us when we do.

 

 

 

 

Namita Devidayal posted a comment directly on my blog: it was nice to see her name there because I loved her book The Music Room, which brings the world of Hindustani classical music richly and resonantly to life.

 

 

 

dear amitav
thanks for writing this. i fully agree, even though i find that as a young writer, i’ve had a lot to gain from being at festivals.
but yes, the beauty of writing and reading is in the quiet. after finishing a book that moves me, the last thing i wish for is to meet the writer and be distracted from the experience, and have that intimacy (between me and the book) get transformed into some ghastly pointless social exchange!
namita

 

 

 

 

 

Many others have posted insightful and interesting comments on my blog. I was a bit surprised though that no one brought up the issue that is today perhaps the most pressing in relation to the question of authorship and performance. This is the possibility that the publishing industry may have to go down a route similar to that of the music industry, where content is now given away almost free in order to boost performance-related revenues. This demands serious consideration and I plan to write a post about it some time soon.  

 

 

But for now here are some of the questions and comments that appeared on my blog.

 

 

 

Ketan wrote:

 

‘Government and censorship aside, what every writer wants is a reader, and this festival is about that. The biggest block in this is the elitism and exclusivity of a select group of writers who want to avoid the ‘unwashed masses’.

 

‘I think you might want to think about that – if you write about the unwashed masses, then there is nothing wrong in embracing them once in a while – especially when they are enthusiastic fans and paying consumers.

 

Speaking purely for myself, I would love to have seen and listened to you at the JLF, as you are one of my favourite authors.

 

This was my reply:

 

 

Ketan: I appreciate your response and I’m glad to know of your regard for my work. I don’t for a moment want to dismiss what you’ve said here: I take it very seriously indeed, not least because it comes from a reader.

 

 

I’d like to address the part of your post where you suggest that a writer who personally interacts with a large number of readers is less elitist and exclusive than one who does not.  This seems plausible but if you think about it for a moment I think you will see that in fact it is the face-to-face meeting that is by its nature elitist and exclusive. This is because no matter how many people attend an event they are but a tiny minority compared to those who are excluded by reasons of geographical proximity, language, mobility, affordability etc. Whether there are 7 or 70,000 at the event is in this sense, immaterial: the number of people a writer can reach through the printed word is far, far greater. This is actually the very reason why people are attracted to public events with writers: because these occasions seem to promise something more than the printed word, something exclusive and personal, an added value.

 

 

In fact the least elitist and least exclusive means by which a writer can reach his or her readers is through the printed word: this is what makes literature such a democratic and accessible art. The great virtue of the printed word is that it does not have to be embodied in the person of the writer: it is open and available to all. A performance can be experienced only by those who are in attendance, as in recitals by musicians or singers. Why should writers embrace the limitations of the performing arts when they have the inestimable good fortune to work in a medium that allows them to reach an audience that is much larger than any that could be contained in a stage, theatre, tent or even mela?

 

 

Please don’t get me wrong. I am glad you take the trouble to seek out and listen to the writers you like. Had we ever met, it may well have been a pleasant encounter – but it would not even remotely have approximated the experience of reading my books. And it’s perfectly possible that you might have been terribly disappointed (I say this because I know it has happened more than once).

 

 

This is why I am in complete agreement with Namita when she says: ‘after finishing a book that moves me, the last thing i wish for is to meet the writer and be distracted from the experience, and have that intimacy (between me and the book) get transformed into some ghastly pointless social exchange’

 

 

 

Shobha sent this message:

 

 

As a person who thoroughly enjoyed the festival, saw huge numbers of young school children and college-goers attending enthusiastically, saw locals participating with genuine interest, I favor literary festivals. Writers who are too introverted to attend and speak, shouldn’t feel compelled to participate, as perhaps their focus on writing will make their work that much superior. But many writers are great speakers/orators, and to listen to them articulate their ideas on the fly in response to an audience helps many individuals who are more auditory than visual in their linguistic abilities (i.e., those who will retain more of the spoken rather than the written word). And if a writer’s intonation, and explanations at the festivals bring many non-readers into the fold, long live the festivals. Those who can do without the tamasha always have the freedom of staying away.

 

 

 

This was my reply: Of course many writers enjoy speaking and are good at it. I don’t grudge them that in the slightest. The problem is this: as public appearances become more and more important it creates a loop that influences who gets published.

 

 

The writer Linda Grant (winner of the Orange Prize and author of the surprising and moving The Clothes on Their Backs which was shortlisted for the Booker the same year as Sea of Poppies) tweeted about my post and received the following response: ‘agent watched 3 of us at one event and only took on best performer.’

 

 

Linda’s reply, appropriately, was: ‘That really disgusts me.’

 

 

Sadly this is becoming a common experience. In considering manuscripts for publication editors now often take into consideration such factors as the writers’ appearance and speaking abilities. It gives new meaning to the old saying: ‘You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.’

 

 

 

The writer Mira Kamdar (author of Motiba’s Tattoos, an excellent account of her familial connections with Burma) pointed exactly to this when she wrote:

 


 

Thank you for writing this profoundly thoughtful comment. I am ever reminded of the foresight of Guy Debord. His book La société du spectacle, published in 1967, remains one of the most brilliant analyses of the very phenomenon you describe here with such eloquence.

 

As a writer of middling success who lives as I can from my writing, I feel under incredible pressure to make of my person the salable product publishers increasingly seek. Am I with a speakers bureau? To I tweet? Am I on Facebook? Do I have a web site? Do I do television? At its extreme, the publishing “industry” pays the biggest advances to celebrities for books they often pay others to write, knowing that a certain threshold of sales will be attained simply because the author is a “brand”. I’ve actually been told by agents and editors: “We love this but (we can’t pay you more because) you are not a brand.”

 

You’ve given me new courage to resist.

 

 

 

Ashutosh posted a thoughtful response, at the end of which he said:

 

 

‘Lastly, I believe now that you have used it, the word ‘Tamasha’ stands a good chance of entering the English dictionary.’

 

 

 

My reply: Ashutosh – the word tamasha/tumasha/tumasher etc has been in English dictionaries for a long time. It actually derives from the Arabic root for ‘walk’.  

 

 

Niraj wrote: I have to contest some of the points Amitav has made in his post about the relationship between the writer and the reader. Many writers in the past – especially the famous ones did interact with their readers mainly through public reading.

 


 

My reply: I certainly don’t believe it to be unacceptable for writers to do public appearances – I do many myself. The problem arises when public presentations gain ascendancy over the printed word – and this is certainly happening in India today. Just consider this: some years ago a leading Indian newspaper chain decided that it would no longer publish book reviews. Yet this same chain publishes reams of articles about various festivals, literary controversies, quarrels and so on. Even in serious magazines, the coverage of literary controversies, scandals etc. often takes precedence over the discussion of books. As for the general media discussion of literary festivals, the space devoted to books is far outweighed by the attention given to controversies, quarrels and scandals.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What do these developments signify?

 

 

A tamasha is, in a sense, a kind of hectic noise-making, resorted to when there is nothing of substance to say. It is what comes about when presentation overtakes content, when spectacle overwhelms substance. At a certain point the sparkling surface ceases to be merely a kind of packaging and begins to devour the thing within: the waraq makes a meal of the barfi and the curtain will not yield to the stage.

 

 

What results is a kind of flattening. Every meaningful activity is specific and particular but all tamashas are essentially the same; they are predictable and repetitive. When the Tamasha colonizes activities a sparkling skin forms over them, slowly fusing them together: they become a continuum, a single seamless tamasha. The activities are digested to form a gas, light but flammable, that can hold aloft a great shining blimp. This is how Cripollywood came about.

 

 

It would be sad indeed if books too were to disappear into this floating void. But I don’t think it will happen. The responses to my post leave me in no doubt at all that books will be the principal site of resistance to the Tamasha’s advance.

 

 

 * An earlier version of this post contained a critical discussion of the Oxford University Press’s decision to suppress A.K.Ramanujan’s seminal essay ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas.’ At the time of writing I was not aware that the OUP had reversed its decision: I offer the Press my apologies and applaud it for doing the right and responsible thing.

 

 

 

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