Almost Live from JLF 2012 – Day 1
At 09:38 AM I thought I was early at the first day of JLF 2012, but as I was frisked through hordes of policemen and the checking point, the crowd proved me wrong. The Front Lawn, the largest of the six venues at JLF was at least half full when I got there. I took a seat at the back and amused myself with the spectacle of painted old ladies hugging really painted and really old ladies, trying to pass themselves off as foreign, literary and chic.
Just then, the Queen of Bhutan waltzed in. In her books she comes off as one with a humble style, but it was really good to see her functioning as part of a large crowd. The ceremony began with Her Majesty’s lighting of the lamp. It now was time for the keynote addresses. But before that William Dalrymple and Namita Gokhale introduced the Festival to the audience. Dalrymple began with a surprisingly unsupportive stand about Salman Rushdie’s fatwa, saying that the audience should not focus on the author who is missing, but on those who were present. I guess silence would be more becoming of literature and for freedom of expression.
Purshottam Agrawal never fails to disappoint with his lack of novelty. I almost dozed as he read the primary school textbook chapter on Sufism to the crowd with all the necessary clichés such as Medieval Ages not being dark but actually the beginning of the golden period of philosophy; the Ancient Ages not being so brilliant; Sufism as the breaking of the feudal and elitist bonds of Sanskrit and Brahmanism; the Hindu society as a vague, fluffy ball with no apparent characteristic. He also used the minimum number of words from the Marxist lexicon compulsory for one to be invited to any event. Mercifully, he left soon.
A K Mehrotra read some good really good poems at first but not able to resist political correctness, went on a spiral about Sufism being the flame of oneness against the divisions of religion; about how Ram of Kabir is not the Ram of history; about how Kabir was an atheist; and at last justified at the behalf of JLF 2012 the invitation of Richard Dawkins by equating him with Kabir. But again, he was short too.
The first session I attended was ‘Tolstoy the Man’ at Durbar Hall. It was about the new biography of Tolstoy, Tolstoy: A Russian Life by Rosamund Bartlett. The session started with Chiki almost yelling at the audience. When people said they could not hear her, she quickly went, ‘It’s not really my fault!’ Talking about touchy! She spent the rest of the session with an irritated and bored look on her face.
Biographies are the last things I read. I find the details boring. The writer does not get to the subject until half-way through the book and we get to know more about the life of his parents, relatives and neighbors than him. Bartlett show went as expected. She read to the audience, completely without flair, a page from her book; then discussed the role of religion in the life of Tolstoy; and how he was a great personality. Her arguments ran in eight directions at once. No wonder she couldn’t stop writing before filling at least 600 pages. Only when Chiki Sarkar asked a question, did she remember that she has also written bad things about Tolstoy and called him ‘a bit of a narcissist’.
I had better expectations from the second session ‘The Disappointment of Obama’ – about the new book of David Remnick, the journalist and scholar on the psyche of the Russian society after the fall of the Soviet Union. Samanth Subramanian, the upcoming travel writer, grilled him at the stage and I have to confess that the session completely exceeded my expectations. That David Remnick is a hell of a writer, I knew from his books, but to hear him live proved that he is an even better speaker. Ready wits, short quips, sharp and definite answers – this is how he came out to the audience.
Listening to him, I realized the difference between an American and an Indian journalist. Remnick was very particular about the words he used; the meaning of those words; and about what he was really talking about. Talks in India tend to be general than specific, vague than concrete, with rounded-off meanings covering enough political ground to claim ten interpretations at once. Consequently words have lost their meaning, and debate its relevance.
When Samanth said that it can be inferred from his book that the American public is disappointed in Obama, he said that the public is not ‘disappointed’ but ‘wildly enraged’. He called Obama getting Nobel for peace as ridiculous. That he got it for just not being George Bush.
Considering Obama’s rise to Presidency as really remarkable he said that Obama was successful as a politician but fails as a President as he is not a man of deep and serious thinking. He called it the conceit of Obama to say that there are no conservative pockets in America, just United States pockets.
When someone from the audience came up with the cliché that its useless to worry over the fact that the Obama administration is lost without any clues as democracy is all about different view points and about discussion, Remnick quipped without batting an eyelid, ‘It’s also nice to get something done!’
In short, it was a very charming and informative session with no-nonsense approach of David Remnick. After the session I made my way through some truly ugly women ogling over Remnick and got my copy signed with a barely audible, ‘Would you please sir?’
The third session I attended was named after the ridiculous phrase – The Arab Spring – a rehashed term of the Prague Spring in 1956 in Czechoslovakia. The session was held in the Front Lawn again with Barkha Dutt interviewing Kamin Mohammadi from Iran, Navdeep Suri from India, Karima Khalil from Egypt, Raja Shehadeh from Palestine and Max Rodenbeck, the authoer of Cairo. It was an NDTV program transferred to JLF. The filming was also done by NDTV.
Barkha started by making common cause with ‘the plight of Palestinian Muslims’ to which Raja Shehadeh, an apologist of Palestinian terrorists, replied with the usual cliché of the bullying of America. While both the women from Iran and Egypt claimed how Islam is all about peace and love, Karima was a bit more outspoken on the plight of Coptic Christians in Egypt and actually related an incident of about 60 Christians who were recently brutally burned to death by Muslim mobs and how nobody cared about it. But Barkha being Barkha, diffused the informative piece by claiming that Karima actually meant that such an incident is not a result of the entrenched social attitudes but the recent politicizing of the public.
Raja went on to read from the How-to-save-the-face-of-the-terrorists manual and shamelessly made ridiculous claims that the Levant and the Islamic lands have always been more tolerant than other regions on earth!
Max Rodenbeck was the face saver of the session. He made some informative comments on the Egyptian, particularly the Cairo society. When Barkha asked him that aren’t the Western governments hypocritical and immoral in calling others as non-democratic, he replied that diplomacy is not about morality, it’s all about getting a job done. He said that the actual surprise is that America takes so many efforts to veil its diplomacy in the shroud of humanitarian and democratic concerns.
One more face-saver of this session was a very sharp and cutting question from someone in the audience: If secularism is an integral part of a democracy, then are not Islamic Middle-Eastern societies incompatible with secularism, as democracy will give power to Islamists who will deny secularism?
The last session I attended was Mohammed Hanif’s reading and discussing about his new book, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, and it was the best session of the day. Hanif had already become one of my favorite with A Case of Exploding Mangoes, but it was great to see his dark humor and ready wit to come alive on stage.
When he was asked why he has changed from political story to a love story in his second book, he answered that he had been telling people that his first book was a love story and he did not know why but nobody quite believed him. He was constantly humorous even while telling how he researched about his first book, calling it a failed attempt at journalism. He said that half of the country didn’t care about the episode, with some of them even with the expressions of ‘who cares?’ The other half which actually knew something wouldn’t tell. So he finally thought that if nobody was telling him the true story, he would go on and make up a story of his own. The result was A Case for Exploding Mangoes.
When asked about how the idea of the second book came to him, he quipped that once a writer has written a book, he becomes habitual of wealth and literary festivals like JLF and has to come up with another one in a few years. Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is such an attempt. He was also surprised at the writers who are very clear about what ideas come to them and when they come. He claimed himself to be nothing like them.
When audience pointed out that his new book is in support of the minority community of Pakistan, he quipped that to write a book and make stuff up is a lousy way of supporting a community. Support is better given by actually doing something for them.
He also made light of the claims of literary impressions on him. He once read a comment in which he was said to be influenced by Philip Roth, while in fact he had never read him before. But after reading that comment, he went on to read Philip Roth and found him quite a genius and feeling that he himself was nothing compared to the genius of Philip Roth.
Talking more about the impressions on his art, he said that he has an impressionable mind and his reading makes a great and decisive influence on his work. Magical Realism is certainly an influence. Some of his favorite authors are Manto, Llosa, Chughtai and Kafka.
He was very outspoken on the plight of the Hindus, the Christians and the other minorities in Pakistan and said that though he was not in a position to do a lot about it, he was greatly ashamed of it.
In his books Hanif comes out as a witty author. In the talks he came out not only as witty, but also modest, realistic and liberal in true terms.
This was it for me at the first day at JLF 2012. I did enjoy myself. I hope it continues. Will keep writing.