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Almost live from JLF 2012 – Day 2

January 27, 2012

Looking at the schedule I knew that Day 2 was going to be busier. And it was. The first day at JLF 2012 had about 3000 visitors. The second day attracted near about 5000. The way the numbers are increasing every year at Jaipur Literature Festival, I wonder how long before it will stop being literary.

I meant to visit the very first session at Front Lawns – Creativity, Censorship and Dissent’ with the Kashmiri writer Siddharth Gigoo in it, but couldn’t make it. I was even late for the second and the most important session of the day – A Good Man in Africa – a panel discussion of four travel writers about Africa. Travel, writing and Africa… that’s the combination for me! Besides Tim Butcher, the author of Blood River and Chasing the Devil, it had Philip Marsden, Philip Gourevitch and Illja Trojanow. The discussion was moderated by Taiye Selasi.

I was late and the students had crammed every corner of Baithak, the venue where the discussion took place. And so I had to remain standing. The discussion was about foreign writers in Africa. Philip Gourevitch came out heavy on the charges of some of the Africans that outsiders can not know Africa well and will always write superficially. He said that if he is genuinely concerned about Africa, and spending time and effort to understand it then how is he an outsider? He also added that if they want to draw such lines of then it will mean that the Africans too will remain outsiders in the West.

Illja Trojanow said that if Africans are not going to write about themselves then somebody will. There really is no reason to complain. It was also mentioned that Africans have very good oral traditions. They are amazingly accurate in their descriptions, regarding time and place. but they do not have a written literary traditions and that is the gap which the authors like them are trying to fill.

Trojanow said that one problem in writing about Africa is that the colonial terminology has not yet been replaced. The writers, both African and non-African are using the terminology of their former colonial masters. He said that this needs to be broken.

Butcher said that often Europeans try to categorize African problems in very simple terms, like which tribe attacked which one? He said that the reality is much more complex, but it indeed is necessary to learn about this tribal structure in depth, as this is very the subtle details will surface.

In all, it was a very good session, at least to me. Though I had to stand, I enjoyed it thoroughly.

The 12:30 PM session – The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker, was the highlight of the day. It was held in the Front Lawns and was jam packed. Again I had to stand. Pinker summed up his thesis in his new book by the same name as the session with a slide show.

His thesis is that contrary to the public perception, the evil tendencies of human nature have actually decreased in the modern times. He backed up his thesis with enormous amount of statistical data explained with colorful maps and graphs.

First he showed that evil tendencies are decreasing gradually and then he told about some of the plausible reasons behind the decrease. Education, democracy, and freedom of expression were some of the reasons behind the decrease, according to Dr. Pinker.

And guess what? The ubiquitous Barkha Dutt was there to interview him. Barkha, our very own Barkha, that poor girl who barely does anything other than grilling politicians in her life, asking questions from the foremost cognitive psychologist of the world? The galls they have!

At 2:30 PM, due to lack of options and because of the fatigue of standing in two continuous sessions I had to sit through the horrible session of ‘The Chutneyfication of English’ with Rita Kothari, Tarun Tejpal, Gurcharan Das and Ira Pande.

Tarun was late and the ladies started talking nonsense to the public from the first minute. Then Tarun dashed in with a ridiculously macho entry. The whole talk was hokum. I always get sick with the talks of the new brand of English in India, variously called as Indlish, Hinglish Inglish etc. Most of these so-called writers in India barely master Standard English, and they talk about making their own brand?

Sometimes I also feel that it is perhaps the inability to master a foreing language that is converted into desperate attempts at creating their own brand. That way mediocrity can pass as creativity.

Tarun read one chapter from his fiction (yes, he is a littérateur these days!) in which he told about the pain of an Indian boy studying English. Tarun invented a sort of gibberish for this character and while reading from his book, actually used the word for ass in Hindi. It was a disaster.

The next session – In Defense of Enlightenment was much more important with Steven Pinker and A C Grayling. As I haven’t read A C Grayling I could not relate with his talk but still it was an interesting session. Pinker stated some points from his books The Blank Slate and How the Mind Works. Based on his experimentation he said that race is an entirely a social construct and there are more differences between individuals of a same nation than between the average individual of one ‘race’ and that of the other ‘race’. Echoing the socio-biologists he said that humans are fallible; that brain is a system prone to error and to completely purge them of evil is impossible.

He said that to continue the course of Enlightenment it is necessary to continue with reason. He also made a very important point that sometimes not only our eyes, but our minds also perceive wrong things. He called them cognitive illusions and he asserted that it is necessary to penalize these cognitive illusions in order to save humankind from their consequences. I wonder whether it was a direct reference to the cognitive illusions in the limbic system.

When someone from the audience parroted the cliché that science and religion are just two ways of finding the truth, A C Grayling very politely brushed her argument away by saying that there are more fundamental differences between their approaches than there are any similarities.

I was expecting the last talk to be the most interesting as it was named Open Road – a discussion of travel writers and travel writing. Six travel authors were on the stage – Samanth Subramanian, Philip Marsden, William Dalrymple, Tim Butcher, Katie Hickman and Akash Kapur. The original plan was that every author will first read for five minutes from his book and then there will be general discussion with the audience. The authors took more time than stipualated (now why doesn’t that surprise me?) and at last there was no more time to ask questions. It was sad as this was the first session in which I was itching to ask a question. I had grabbed a third row seat with great personal cost as when I left the venue my bladder was about to burst.

Samanth read from his part memoir, part travelogue – a part about faith healing at his grandfather’s home. As is with modern Indian writers he was keen in the book and on the stage to show his skepticism about faith healing. I say, if one is so skeptical, then why take such an issue?

Marsden read from his book on Ethiopia and the Christian community there. Reading out from the passage of his travel to the remote mountain monasteries he held the audience in fascination for about five minutes.

William Dalrymple then boisterously read his piece from his From a Holy Mountain. It was a comic piece about the absurd literal beliefs of an Orthodox Christian priest in the Middle-East. Although the piece was very good, I wondered that how is it possible that an author travels to a country like Armenia and fails to focus on the overwhelming tragedy which befell over it?

Tim Butcher read from his book Chasing the Devil and read out a passage with his encounters with the good and the bad devils in Liberia – something about local lore and tradition.

Katie and Akash Kapur were boring at best, but at least Katie finished early!

That was it for me at the second day.

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