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.
43 thoughts on “Festivals and Freedom”
Without malice, informative, with new ideas, should be read as an opening paper in all future Tamasha festivals, why not,
yah ek melaa hai vaadaa kisii se kyaa legaa
Dhalegaa din to har ek apnaa raastaa legaa
At last, a voice from the world of books which is confident enough to call the ‘tamasha’ what it is!
I once went for a book reading session where the who is who of the NRI world was rubbing shoulders with a very famous bookwriter. None of them seemed to remember a line from his work. Not meaning to be judgemental here but is the author really bigger than his books?
How true. Unfortunately, it also seems as if many of the newer writers quite prefer riding on orchestrated tamasha and back-slapping peer-marketing rather than on the strength of their book. Sub-standard writers especially benefit.
Your point — that even countries with more effective policing are today unable to protect their creative artists — is very valid. India, with its fractured polity could hardly do better.
In my opinion, the corollary would be that governments are gradually losing their monopoly on violence to these non-state forces. I find this notion rather disturbing. Would you agree with this assessment? Or do you think that such non-state belligerence has always existed, but was less visible because of lower media penetration? And what do you think does this belligerence portend for the future of the democratic process?
I had another thought about the role of the public intellectual today. It strikes me that it could be likened to that of young women accused of witchery half a millennium ago. In both cases, the individual is perceived as different from a community and acts as a lightning rod for inchoate anger against any number of real and imagined slights. The writer / witch becomes a crystallization of nebulous fears and angers that stem from the friction between the community and the world around it. The sacrifice of the unfortunate condemned is then cathartic: by slaying the totem the community gets rid of its doubts.
The parallel is not exact: the critical writer invites censure by daring to roil the surface, by bring the community’s unformed, perhaps subconscious fears to light. Perhaps s/he is even complicit in this demonization. Any thoughts?
I went to the Jaipur Literature Festival with a friend two years ago, as usual, out of curiosity, and realised that the visitors were talking about everything except writing (which can never be public). The event could put you off writing for a long time.
But it was fun under the winter sun, because it was like being in a mela. So many attractions– stylish writers, stylish fans, fashion and books– even Amitabh Bachchan came, and I heard him from a rooftop along with political scientist Chistrophe Jeffrelot (since there was no room on the courtyard).
A middle-aged woman by my side shouted at him: “Mr Bachchan, what would you have been had you not been an actor?
And he replied: “I would be where you are now.”
This line seemed to explain the whole “tamasha.” – of the performer and the spectator.
The only amazing person I met at the fest (since he happened to sit across the lunch table) was the humble travel writer Colin Thubron, with whom I kept communicating over the years.
I like the word you coined: Cricpollywood. Also glad to know about the dubious stand of David Remnick, who was idolised by the media during the fest.
Just after the Rushdie affair, I wrote this blog on the IANS news site.
also, Besides Gaddis, there is Thomas Pynchon, who is far greater writer than Rushide and who very few people recognise. It was amusing to think: Had he even come to that festival, no one would have known! Or worse, he could have sent another man in his name and watch the fun on TV while fans chased the body double for autographs!
There is an amazing episode on such writers in the book, ‘Bartleby & Co’ by Enrique Vila-Matas, about writers who would say: “I’d prefer not to– (write a book or, for that matter, attend a literary festival)”.
?”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.”….. in my own little way. I have always tried to follow and advocate this very principle and so i completely agree with you on this….writing was always about quiet introspection….sometimes we tend to forget that….great post!
Agree with sourabh about Pynchon. Plus, there was a certain Mr. J.D. Salinger.
I agree with you when you make the vital point that the latitude of meaning, the ‘unrealized surplus of humanness'( à la Bakhtin), and the mystique of a book will be lost if the author has to appear to the public as a spoekesperson for her/his book. Jaipur jamboree reveals the flip side of the writing business.
“A person should not be too honest.
Straight trees are cut first
and Honest people are victimized first.”
Chanakya quotes (Indian politician, strategist and writer, 350 BC -275 BC)
What a refreshing dose of sanity from Amitav Ghosh. Probably only somebody as dedicated to the craft of writing can write like that, clear and honest, against the grain of modern trends, saying what so urgently needs to be said.
For me he says it all with his comment that he took to books as a refuge from a world that seemed to be at war with the idea of an inner life.
The inviolate inner space of the writer seems healthiest in writers such as Coetzee, Cormac McCarthy, Doris Lessing to name just three authors i admire, and one just hopes that the unholy non-state Trinity with their shop and spectate till you drop credo does not eat away into the fibre of the truly genuine authors who love and respect and nurture the inner spaces.
Otherwise Heaven help us.
An interesting thought, but, if I may say so – a bit flawed. I think there is a lot to be gained from a writer – reader interface, for both sides. As a writer and a reader, it is very interesting, and even fulfilling, to see packed halls of people listening intently to what writers have to say, apart from their books. Like it or not, Authors are great influencers, and it is a amazing platform for them to speak directly to readers without going through the filter of journalists, interviewers and sound bites.
It is a bit unfair to deride all this as a tamasha – it is an expression of the love of books and reading; which we all should welcome.
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.
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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.
Your piece captures very well much of my angst about what is happening in India today. There seem to be few quiet spaces left as everyone is rushing to climb one pretentious blingy ladder or participate in the ‘tamasha’. This may well be a function of the stage of development India is in. It seems to function rather well to reinforce and expand the gap between the masses and India’s elites.
Enjoyed reading your article in HT this morning. Much relieved to know that you find JLF a tamasha! I do believe that there is serious lack of thought leadership in India and as our towns and cities get overpopulated, we are seeing more and more tamashas and noise trying to grab attention. Hundreds of news channels delivering rubbish, silly bollywood movies, lurid newspapers, long list of award shows (best singer, best dancer, best actor, best Indian,…:-) sponsored by tv channels, newspapers, shady universities, and even gutka and pan masala companies. Our business channels are obsessed with India Vs China debate and recently when Amartya Sen was asked about the same, he called it “silly comparison”. A sort of Page 3 factor has taken over and events like India Art Fair, JLF seem to be benefiting from it.
Book reading or quest for knowledge in general hasn’t sunk in our DNA yet. Probably due to our history as we have been struggling with invasions for last 1200 odd years and Europeans have had that much time to digest periods of Renaissance, Age of Reason, Printing Press, Industrial Revolution. Certain parts of India like Bengal were fortunate (or maybe not) where British/Scottish influence gave them a lead of 200 odd years over rest of the country and these same parts continue to produce eminent writers, economists, lawyers, doctors, scientists, thinkers. However majority of our country is mired in ignorance and it is the moral duty of Indian elite to bring awareness to rest of our countrymen or at least not mislead them towards darkness. Good news is that Internet has arrived and has the ability to bring about as much change as Gutenberg’s printing press brought to the masses.
Today, top selling books in India are limited to Chetan Bhagat, Arindam Chaudhry type books. Many are buying award winning books just to decorate their bookshelves or to make a social statement and western organizations continue to reward plots involving poor slum dwellers. Even Mein Kampf sells a lot in India…wonder why? Our rote learning in schools ensures that we lose interest in history, geography, social sciences, mathematics, science forever. If you happen to be in Delhi, try visiting any of the museums (National museum, Teen Murti, Gallery of Modern Art, JLN science museum, Natural history museum) and I can bet you will find handful of people (either foreign tourists or few villagers). The guy selling tickets at Natural history museum gave me a look as to why would anyone want to enter this building and isn’t one supposed to be in a mall on a Saturday. And the one selling ticket at Ferozeshah Kotla did not know that there was a 2300 year old Ashoka pillar inside the fort! Wonder if 20 million residents of Delhi ran away to JLF or the Auto Show at Pragati Maidan ?
Lastly, I believe now that you have used it, the word ‘Tamasha’ stands a good chance of entering the English dictionary.
Ashutosh – thanks for this thoughtful comment. The word tamasha/tumasher etc has been in English dictionaries for a long time. It actually derives from the Arabic root for ‘walk’.
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!
Am I the only one who sees the irony in Amitav writing this piece on his blog??
There’s nothing wrong with having a little tamasha, its like TV, if you don’t like what you’re watching. Turn it Off. As simple as that.
Drawing attention to a tamasha to criticise it, is doing it a favour.
I like the idea of a literary fest, or any fest for that matter. I see no harm in people celebrating literature, and it does attract a robust crowd every time. I think one would get a broader view on current literature, just by meeting the many people flocking around over there. What’s wrong with meeting people, after all?
I’ve been writing a book for the last ten years. I just finished. I was hoping to swan about at festivals. Now you’ve gone and ruined it.
Wait a minute – festivals are to be your reward for writing a book? If so you will be terribly disappointed…
This actually is abou two separate issues which may or may not be linked at all.
There is the issue of these tamashas. The writer at an individual level does have the right to participate or refuse to do so. So does the lay reader. This therefore may be an issue for the writers that refuse, mainly because of the loss of potential material benefits. I do not track such events but was the poster boy of Indian writing in English Ramachandra Guha present at either tamasha?
The other issue-that of non-state censorship is far more important. Mr. Ghosh opines that perhaps it is not physically possible to effectively police such non-state attempts at censorship. I respectfully disagree with Mr. Ghosh. The state does have the ability, the wherewithal to provide effective protection; it chooses not to.
Every time such an attempt is made by communities howsoever defined, we only hear and see a highly visible minority. There is no attempt made to ascertain the real feelings of the members of such communities putatively represented by self appointed moral and/or theological guardians. An assessment is made by some amorphous authority and police forces are held back leaving the lumpen victors. Each such episode only strengthens the resolve of the lumpen.
Thus we are back with efforts like those of PEN. They need to convey to governments, a job they have done with distinction, that very few votes will be lost if freedom of speech, thought and expression are guaranteed as enshrined in our Constitution.
Good points, but I’m not so sure that the state does have the ability to ‘provide effective protection’. It was not able to protect its most important institution, the Lok Sabha.
Dear Amitav Ghose,
What a whopper of a slap to the flocculating cult of Wharholian celebhood!
So appropriate that Oprah its presiding goddess was there! With a million innamorata sucking off her essence of performing emotions in the most facile manner. But that is Yankee imperialism, not just in India but in societies all over the world, maybe even in the Huli.
As you can see, Dunbar’s number is being replaced by a hierarchy-less, discrimination less, extremely pomo social organisation, a democratisation of values as performance. Which is what a true mobocracy desires: let us perform our desires! Let it all splay and squirt on the proscenium, entrails and gore.
Please do read the Scientific American blog that reports a new book on introverts and the importance of these to societies plus how intensity of response is a prerogative of introvertism.
More power to your elbow!
Very interesting – please do send a link to the Scientific American blog. thanks. Amitav
Bravo AG!! We need more such artists/writers to take a stand.. and not these herd of “artists/writers etc” who love to came on bended knees and beg for attention… sucking up to commercial demands !!
There is a wonderful little piece by Borges titled ‘Borges and I’ where he writes about the dichotomy that exists between the writer (as he/she is publicly perceived) and the individual. By bringing the writers literally in front of the readers, festivals like Jaipur appear to blur the line between the two. For many serious writers, this could be an uncomfortable experience.
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. As early as 1840s ( and later in the 1860s), Dickens was almost mobbed in America in his public appearances (mostly paid public readings). You also mention J M Coetzee as one of the few living writers who shun publicity. But did he not attend Jaipur last year ?
One of the problems with festivals like Jaipur appears to be that ‘literary’ is very loosely defined. What explains the appearance by the likes of Amitabh Bachhan and Oprah Winfrey – who are at best tangentially involved with things ‘literary’ ? But one can still make a case for serious festival without the celebrities. I lived in Jaipur in the late eighties and early nineties. There was not even a single decent bookstore in the entire city. Once, I think it was in 1993, there was a regional book fair – like the ones you see in Pragati Maidain in Delhi almost every winter. I can still remember the talk and reading by Sunil Gangopadhya that opened up (for me) the entire world of Bengali literature.
Niraj: thanks for mentioning the Borges piece. Re your point about writers interacting with readers: 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 among the more thoughtful magazines, the coverage of literary controversies, scandals etc. takes precedence over the discussion of books. As for literary festivals, when they are discussed by the media, the attention given to controversies, quarrels and scandals far outweighs the space devoted to books.
I think we have to ask ourselves what these developments signify.
Tamasha now comes packaged.
The characteristics of “marketing”, “selling” and “networking” I see these days are mostly US origin. In the US, the message received daily by artists/writers/performers over the past almost two decades has been – you are a package, sell yourself. Sell, sell, sell. For art is about business and numbers and Facebook likes. Your worth as an artist is determined by your “brand”, well described by Mira Kamdar above.
Now India, we are by nature a people predominantly concerned with show-sha, a preoccupation which has manifested itself via the business folks over at, as you aptly put it, Cricpollywood (and if I may add, the Shaadi industry). However, we’ve also always been preoccupied by appearing acceptable to the “western” audience (perhaps because we want to look like we’re polished to ourselves or simply for the opportunity to expand business abroad). So today, by the wonders of modren science and globalization, we’ve instantaneous access to “western” methods, and gleefully emulate them. The western arts industries must be delighted too, what a convenient adaptation of their business methods, what could be better to lubricate their penetration of this emerging market.
…reading as an exercise can never be collective like either the performing arts or some kinds of group music, hence writing is an individual art form and hence “anonymous”…amitabh is right to term literary festivals as tamashas…it is only what happens after reading which can either be collective or remain individual…it is there that questions of “anonymity” can arise…kaushik is only partly correct…writers in any age rarely relate only to their writing…they consciously or otherwise always relate to society at large…anonymity is born out of the fact that a text can have infinite “readings”, and this anonymity is a writer’s privilege, right, discretion and armory…
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.
See my blog to understand how much some of us got out of the festival. And no, I was not there for Oprah, though I love her, or for any of the Bollywood celebrities. Them, I can see on TV.
Shobha: Thanks for this. Of course many writers enjoy speaking and are good at it. I don’t grudge them this 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 terrific novel 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.’
Reading Amitav Ghosh’s article here was an exhilarating, engaging and thought-provoking experience.
By the end of it, I have been pretty much convinced by his opinion and observations about the present state of the world, where serious peril looms over the realm of free, artistic expression in general, as well as, more specifically, the realm of the abstract-space that should probably be considered axiomatic to the interaction between a writer, the written words and its reader.
However, a part of Shobha Sriaiyer’s comment, which evidently posits an interesting counter-point to the argument, provoked a thought which seemed like a worthwhile deviation from the main topic.
But before I group around with words any further, I think I owe readers here an apology – I am way out of my league here, in the midst of such eloquently written passages!
I grew up dyslectic; I am, even today, scared of the written word.
I began training as a fine-artist (sculptor/ painter), but was forced (thanks to departmental politics) to specialise in history of art, in spite of my apathy for ‘history’ classes.
I consciously opted out of a ‘career’ in art at the very outset, preferring to work as a school-teacher rather than to produce art according to the requirements of a market.
I presently live and work as a manager at a project in an interior village in West Bengal.
Through my experiences as an art-teacher in mainstream, alternative, public, private or ‘NGO’ institutions, juxtaposed with my exposure to the so-called ‘un-educated’ masses during my tenure at this rural project, I have come to seriously doubt the fundamental precincts of what goes by the name of ‘education’ today.
I totally fail to understand the justification behind the all encompassing marriage of institutionalised, literacy-based information-exchange with pursuance of knowledge, skill, understanding or creativity!
While reading Ms Sriaiyer’s comment, where she presents the case of “many individuals who are more auditory than visual in their linguistic abilities” (as I myself happen to be), I wandered what relationship might exist between present-day literature, which is primarily written, and the long history of oral-traditions that are, as far as I am aware, not a part of mainstay literary activity today?
Could it be that a revival of such an oral form of linguistic expression, as a parallel presence to written literature, is more warranted, in this age of ‘publicity’, whereby the writer and the reader is spared their privacy and abstract distancing, which seems so fundamental to the charm of written expressions?
The world of fine-art today is hardly much different, in terms of having to live up to the requirements of the tamasha. Many artists routinely paint in front of an audience in fairs or festivals or camps, which I cannot personally fathom. For me the interaction between brush, pigment, the painting surface and the artist has to be an acutely private endeavour (the Ch’an painters probably epitomised this approach during the Five Dynasties period in China).
It is only the outcome of the process which is meant for the public eye.
Performance was very much a part and parcel of fine-art in forms such as the tradition of pata-chitra in Bengal.
Today, the form known as Performance-Art may arguably be looked upon as a successful equivalent to that history.
Maybe a ‘festival of oral literature’ could cater to the specific demand that Ms Sriaiyer’s refers to – while sparing book-writers the unjustified demand of a well turned-out ‘public presence’…
Dear Amitav da
In Hindustan Times(Feb 8), Kabyo Mitra has commented that you are contradicting your own views. I feel this is incorrect. A writer indeed is a private creature but to promote that writing one has to go to some form of publicity. There is nothing wrong in it. But to participate in the “tamasha” like JLF is something else. It tends to become ‘tamasha-like’ because literature takes a backseat and glamour and glitaratti hog the headline. Thanks again for this profoundly thoughtful piece.
What a lovely discussion. Thanks for your thoughts. So many things to think about.
On non-state censorship, I am not sure either what can counter that except a very gradual non-state support and increased irrelevance of those who censor. The rebuttals to the valentines day attacks in India come to mind. But it is perhaps always hard to start reasoning with a weapon-wielding mob.
Of writers and their (in)visible audiences, I wonder how different an experience it would have been if a festival is done on radio. A writer needs a reader or two, and perhaps other writers, too. Would a radio festival be a bridge of sorts, partly maintaining the one-to-one relation between a reader’s imagination and the text?
I was then reminded of this memorable passage in Rebecca Solnit’s book, ‘A field guide to getting lost’:
“The things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation. Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration — how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else?
Certainly for artists of all stripes, the unknown, the idea or the form or the tale that has not yet arrived, is what must be found. It is the job of artists to open doors and invite in prophesies, the unknown, the unfamiliar; it’s where their work comes from, although its arrival signals the beginning of the long disciplined process of making it their own. Scientists too, as J. Robert Oppenheimer once remarked, “live always at the ‘edge of mystery’ — the boundary of the unknown.” But they transform the unknown into the known, haul it in like fishermen; artists get you out into that dark sea.
Edgar Allen Poe declared, “All experience, in matters of philosophical discovery, teaches us that, in such discovery, it is the unforeseen upon which we must calculate most largely.”… To calculate on the unforeseen is perhaps exactly the paradoxical operation that life most requires of us.”
Finally, as an aside, a little search on the history of writing as a performance art led me to…..a link on a degree in performance writing. http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Performance_Writing
Never a dearth of opportunities, it seems.
This is an interesting “insider” piece on the controversy. But then it remains a very personal view of what being a writer means for different people. For some, like Amitav Ghosh, writing is a refuge from the world outside of books. Ghosh does not like going to literary festivals, although he attends book readings, writes this blog and even responds to his readers (accountability?). JD Salinger, on the other hand, did not even publish his later novels.
For others, writing may be a means of reaching out to the world. Attending festivals as a writer would be another such means. Salman Rushdie is apparently of this variety. In fact, I would imagine that it was such people, who felt the need to extend their thoughts beyond their bodies into the world outside, that turned to writing in the first place. Along side, they turned writing into a professional world, one that is now big enough for “asylum-seekers” to enter as well.
If the world of writing is to remain an open world, it should not impose conditions on why a person turns to writing, or judge the quality of their writing on this account. Whether you want to run away from the world or towards it, or do both in varying degrees, you should be free to write. And Ghosh of course concedes the point that writers who want to attend literary festivals should be allowed to do so.
That said, I totally agree with him that litfests are little more than tamashas. I also agree that public life in India has turned into a continuum of cricket, politics and Bollywood, and I would add media to the melange as well. It is breeding a personality culture in which the “haves” are people who have managed to become public figures for one reason or the other, and the “have nots” are those unknown beyond their immediate surroundings. Belonging to the set can thus become the reason for attending litfests, and that in turn could become the motive for writing itself (as Shovon Chowdhury’s comment reflects).
Writing because you want to be known and writing because you want to reach out to the world are completely different things. And it is the former that the literary world should guard against, for that is the sort that will make the most compromises.
Thank you for underlining these nuances. It is important to keep them in mind.
Reading this reminds me of Jeanette Winterson’s words, “The question ‘What is your book about?’ has always puzzled me. It is about itself and if I could condense it into other words I should not have taken such care to choose the words I did”. But all this is a symptom of a wider problem pointed out by Jean Baudrillard in his essay “The Ecstacy of Communication”. The nature of alienation has changed. Earlier alienation was characterized by distance, a sense of being isolated or cut off from the substance of life. But now it is characterized by an overwhelming proximity to everything. Deprived of sheltered spaces for reflection one gets reduced to “pure screen, a switching centre for the networks of influence”. For those of us above the age of 45 who have lived through these changes, we notice that at one stage in our life these sheltered spaces for reflection came easily, they were provided by the routines of everyday life. But now to have such spaces in our life requires a conscious and deliberate effort that is not always easy.
Thanks for these insightful comments. Rohit Chopra, who wrote to my mailbox, made a similar point: ‘There is one other aspect to the nature of such threats in the present
historical moment that compels our attention, I think. For all the euphoric celebration of individual empowerment supposedly enabled by the internet– and here, in the Bay Area, where I live and teach, it is impossible to escape being hounded by such narratives– it is the collective voice that has gained in strength and visibility. And this collective voice threatens to swamp and dominate the individual voice and imagination.’
The question of government’s capability aside, is there even a will? As far as I know the state of Rajastan or India did not say, “Salman Rushidie is welcome to the JLF. He has every right to do so. His opponents may protest, but peacefully within the confines of the law. And, we’ll do our part to provide Mr. Rushdie the security that we are capable of providing to any private citizen or visitor, and to the festival, as we would to any organized event.”
Therein lies the problem, not in the increasing exposure of writers to the public. Remember, the fatwa on Rushdie and the ban on his book were issued decades before JLF, and they were both by agents of the state.
Good points. But let’s consider an instance in which the government has undeniably demonstrated its will and capability – the case of Taslima Nasreen. She has been provided a safe haven and is guarded at all times by squads of bodyguards. Yet the threat to her person has not disappeared or even diminished. Similarly, let us suppose the government had indeed shown its will in Jaipur, and a battalion or two of the CRPF or other paramilitary forces had been deployed. Could the people there have been confident of the outcome? Even if no harm came to Rushdie himself, what about the safety of the thousands of people in the audience? What the government should have done is apparent, as you quite rightly point out – but perhaps it is has a better awareness of its limitations than we do.
That is a dangerous concession to the state.
A (liberal democratic) state’s primary responsibility is to protect the life, liberty, and property of its citizens. Without that it has no raison d’être, and its citizens are left to mercy of anarchy.
Living through the age of terror we only know too well that despite the best intentions and good faith efforts of the state there is no guarantee against terrorism. That does not mean that the state throw up its hands and plead inaction, or worse, appease the in-your-face goons who brazenly threaten violence, as it happened on the eve of Rushdie’s video talk. India might as well shut down its parliament (and its courts and offices) permanently, because there is always someone, somewhere, threatening violence against its occupants, and the government should only well aware of its limited capacity to prevent it.
[…] criticism of the theatrics of such exhibitions, brings to mind the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh’s blog post from the previous year, which stirred up a hornet’s nest in the literary world. Among many points […]
What would they name it ?
Mahatma Gandhi named his autobiography ,
” My Experiments with Truth ”
If some of our politicians were to author their own biography ( – even if actually written by ghost writers ) , what would they name it ?
Here is my guess :
> Man Mohan Singh…………… In Search of Silence
> Sonia Gandhi……………….. The Guns are Booming
> Robert Vadra ( Kin-politico ).. From landless to landlord in 40 days
> Suresh Kalmadi………………. The Game Theory
> Pawan Bansal ……………….. Toofaan Mail
> Shriprakash Jaiswal…………. The Dark Matter Underground
> Ashwini Kumar……………….. Superior to Supreme
> Kapil Sibal…………………….. Two-timing Lawyer
> P Chidambaram……………… Re-Count to Re-Instate
> Kamal Nath …………………. A Road Less Travelled
> Prafulla Patel………………… Gone with the Wind
> A Raja……………………….. Last Come , First Served
> Dayanidhi Maran…………….. Quid- pro- Quo
> Kanimozi……………………… Father Knows Best
> Jayalalithaa…………………… Heaven – for those who touch my feet
> Mamta Banerjee……………. The Triumph of the Lawless
> Narendra Modi………………… Gujarat – that is India
> Arvind Kejriwal……………….. AK-49 and lesser Weapons
Feel free to add to the list
In case they decide to come out with their biographies , one thing is certain
Royalty percentage will need to be the same – or more – than the percentages that they are used to get so far !
And , the branding rights will be sold separately !
What with the way current Lok Sabha elections are going , most of these Netas will have plenty of time on hand to pen their travails !
Don’t miss the next year’s Jaipur Literature Festival
* hemen parekh ( 30 April 2014 / Mumbai )