“These are very dark times for India and the US. Delhi is in complete meltdown,” writes an author friend in India. The Jaipur Literature Festival, it might be said, is the place where the question feels most urgent: “Where do art and politics meet?” After five months in India, I felt my shoulders relax upon arriving at this forum for open discussion of so many topics taboo elsewhere in my travels—with panelists representing on gay rights, gay marriage, eschewing marriage altogether, Hindu supremacy, the conflict in Kashmir, the P word so rarely spoken in polite conversation (Pakistan).
In Delhi, a friend who works for a major Indian corporation recently described how an e-mail from management asked a co-worker about his anti-government views. In Ladakh, Assam, and elsewhere, the Internet was shut down, and news of protests against the ruling Hindu nationalist government (might we call it fascist?) filtered out clandestinely. The theme was tied tongue.
The CAA anti-Muslim immigration law had been unveiled in the final weeks of the previous year. The new decade brought violent protests and incalculably harsher anti-protest crackdowns by the state. Also, there was a government intent upon deflecting from the real problems at hand by casting blame upon Muslims in Kashmir and among the desperate immigrant population along the Bangladesh border. Plus, there was the encroaching of development upon natural habitats, including the roaming grounds of the 600 last Asiatic lions and the 3,000 last Indian Bengal tigers. And, it had been raining, only the monsoon was supposed to have ended months ago: bookmark, global warming. In 2020, the globe’s problems exist in boldface in India.
Against this daunting backdrop, some 300 authors and political figures and (while it’s hard to get an official figure) as many as 100,000 spectators and reporters joined up for the 13th annual meeting of what the organizers call “a rewarding pilgrimage of the mind and spirit” and what Time Out Mumbai once called “the Woodstock, Live 8, and Ibiza of world literature, with an ambience that can best be described as James Joyce meets monsoon wedding.”
Thronging happened. One elbowed through crowds in winding outdoor throughways connecting six event tents seating in the range of 500 spectator-participants each. Also vying for attention were tea stands, regional food stalls, a press terrace where one could eavesdrop on the likes of Elizabeth Gilbert, Suketu Mehta, William Dalrymble, and Shobhaa De. There was a handicrafts, ethnic wear, and fine linens bazaar, and a festival bookstore where kids crowded onto the floor reading Dog Man. Come evening, there was a “fashion showcase” and Indian classical performance at the sixteenth-century Amer Fort, and off-site music and art events at posh, New Delhi-style eateries offering curated martinis and pomegranate beer.
By the weekend of the five day festival, it seemed, if not a fire hazard, sensory overload. Wrote a friend over WhatsApp, “too many kids … to see, be seen, and take selfies … I.e. be kids! Or as I was told to picnic. Although I don’t think the word picnic means the same here as it does to Americans.”
And yet, I thought, how often do teenagers back home flood literary festivals to the point they overtake, annoying the bookish adults?
Nothing was correct or easy. Why were so many Western and non-Indian writers represented, why were there so many all-white panels, why were there so many all-male panels? Why was the Kashmiri Hindu poet from New Jersey, Rakesh Kaul, allowed to tell the Muslim author also from Kashmir, Asiya Zahoor, that her people’s protest movement was too “angry” and was out of keeping, in spirit, with the “beauty” of the Kashmiri language? “We have long been a part of a story which we have not authored,” Zahoor asserted.
And yet for every misstep or error on the part of the organizers, the amount of audible criticism or debate on the same seemed to make it all, if not tolerable, exciting, engaged, and engaging.
“I want to personally apologize,” responded panelist Fintan O’Toole in response to a question from the audience about the galling gender monotony on the panel “Present Tense,” about current events, climate issues, and water. Water, after all, is a female issue, said the questioner. “I didn’t know this would be an all-male panel and if I had I would have refused.” Another listener grumbled that the same speaker had been spotted on other all-male panels.
At another forum, an audience member asked, in Hindi, “Why aren’t your panels in Hindi? We should be celebrating the Indian language. “I’m sorry, sir,” responded a panelist in English, if disingenuously. “I could understand you if you asked in Malayali, but I don’t speak Hindi.”
Indeed, it seemed that at most every discussion, everyone had something to offend or to be offended by, and gluttonous audiences grasped at any opportunity to question, dissect, and call out. At the panel on Kashmir, people stood up and clapped and shouted to support one speaker, then others did the same for a speaker espousing the opposite. An elderly man in a Nehru jacket had to be physically coaxed back into his seat by the microphone bearer.
I was left with a vivid impression: in India literature matters, and speaking the truth, whatever one’s truth is, is a privilege to be celebrated and undertaken with relish.
Elizabeth Kadetsky is a nonfiction editor at NER, and her new book is The Memory Eaters, a lyric memoir. She is spending the academic year in India as a Fulbright Scholar and attended the Jaipur Literature Festival (January 28 to February 1, 2020).