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Almost Live from JLF 2012 – Day 3

January 28, 2012

I had seen the consequences of arriving one session late on the second day so on day three I was right in time for the first session. But the JLF was being inundated. Even before the first session people were swarming on the check post.

The first session I attended was ‘The Superpowers of the 21st century’ with Thant Myint-U of Burma, Geling Yan of China, David Malone, the Canadian ambassador to India and Shashi Tharoor.

When I first looked at the session details I was dismayed to find Tharoor on the panel. To me he always works best as a program dampener, but this time he was useful. Due to huge crowds at the check post I was about ten minutes late, but Tharoor was 20 minutes late, so when I arrived the session still hadn’t started and I found a comfortable enough seat.

Tharoor began by reinstating his friendship with Malone and Myint-U and as usual started with the romantic notion that 21st century was no longer the century of the superpowers, that it was the century of trade and democracy. Brushing aside the romanticism, Myint-U told that the U.S. is still a superpower in many regions, including the Pacific; that there are many other geographical areas where superpower influence still can not be denied. He also emphasized that predicting the future in this way was a risky business.

Summing up the thesis of his book Where China meets India – that with changing of geography in Burma and the neighboring states of India and China, geopolitics is also changing – Myint-U said that Chinese influence in Burma was increasing with every passing day. Over 2 million Chinese from the neighboring Chinese state of Yun-nan had immigrated to Burma in the past two decades. China is building huge ports and fast track railways in Burma. The next couple of decades will be very crucial for Burma and for the entire South Asia region. China may convert Burma into its province and Indian Ocean its local pool.

India, on the other hand, is now barely a presence in Burma. Though there has been an increase in trade between the two countries, China is the more visible and decisive influence in Burma. Myint-U said that the reasons behind this difference is that while Yun-nan, the Chinese state neighboring Burma has seen a lot of development and a decrease in its ethnic and religious tensions, the north-east region of India is still an underdeveloped region economically and with ever-increasing ethnic and sectarian violence.

To that Tharoor responded with another clichéd romanticism that Burma had been always been a focus of India too, quoting Nehru’s ‘Look East’ policy to the effect.

David Malone said that while India is already a recognizable international power, it has barely learned to respond to international situations. During the ‘Arab Spring’ India was totally lost as to what should be its policy towards individual countries of the Arab Spring. It was trying to be good to everyone and consequently was lost. It was a fine demonstration of the fact that India had virtually no foreign policy.

Baithak is the best venue of the Festival. It gives the feeling of shelter and openness at once. Colorful twilight coming through the tents adds to the atmosphere. The second session The Question of Jerusalem with Simon Sebag Montefiore, Sari Nusseibeh and Jonathan Shainin was there. The discussion was mainly in the context of the book Jerusalem: the Biography of a City by Simon Sebag Montefiore with the Palestinian ‘thinker’ and ‘activist’ Sari Nusseibeh thrown in for ‘balance’ and ‘variety’.

Simon started by stating the importance of Jerusalem in history, calling it a fulcrum where conflicts like Israel vs. Palestine, Secularism vs. Fundamentalism raging unceasingly.

Responding to the question of Shainin about how did he come up with the idea of writing a book about Jerusalem, Simon responded that Jerusalem being the birthplace of Judaism and Christianity and one of the most important city of Islam, was always a fascination for him. He wanted to read a book about Jerusalem, about its people, its structures and its conquerors. But he couldn’t find such a book. So he decided to write one, quoting ‘In a way reading is writing.’

When Shainin asked Sari about the importance of history for Jerusalem, Sari replied that for him history does not weigh much on the present and an individual like him was just trying to find a way to live a normal life. Sari had an air of affected aloofness, a sort of artificial objectivity of a deliberate intellectual. Though he goes farther than any Palestinian commentator in recognizing that there was originally a Jewish temple in Jerusalem and dares to go beyond the literal translation of the episode of Muhammad flying to Jerusalem on Al-Burraque, the liberalism only goes this far.

I wonder whether the rejection of history as an important factor, Sari was trying to avoid confronting it as history is not on the side of the Palestinians. Israel was the homeland of the Jews and at the first place, Christians and Muslims had driven them away from their land.

Replying to Sari’s romanticism, Simon said that history really does matter in general and also in this particular case to which Sari said that history which does violence to the daily life of the common man today should not matter much.

Sari went poetic and said that he calls Jerusalem as the gateway to heaven because in Muhammad’s journey to heaven Jerusalem was where that he had finally taken off. To him the idea of Jerusalem is celestial because of this. Simon replied that Jerusalem had obvious political dimensions as Muhammad himself had political ambitions and Islam is inextricable from politics from the beginning.

He said that the present rule under Israel is actually a comparatively peaceful one. Under the Ottomans and during the Mongol raids Jerusalem was often a bloody heap. The Ottomans started practicing tolerance only under the Western pressure. Sari had nothing to say to this.

In all it was a very good session, mainly due to the depth of scholarship of Simon Sebag Montefiore. I have not read the book yet, but am definitely going to soon.

It was straight two sessions with comfortable seats for me and God only allows this much to an individual. I had to go to the toilet. The queues at the main entrance of the Festival are only trumped by the queues at the toilets. And as I was inching to the happy emptying of my bladder I had to listen to an Indian woman vociferously lecturing about the extreme plight of sweepers in India like the lady cleaning the toilet there. Both the sweeper and the white lady were clearly uninterested in her raving but when does that deter any modern Indian philosopher? I bet that if they put signs in front of the toilets saying Indians can lecture here, more than half of the crowd problem will be solved.

Anyways it whole process took about 20 minutes and when I finally reached for my intended third session at the smallest venue of Durbar Hall to listen again Thant Myint-U on the topic Aung San Suu Kyi and the Future of Myanmar, it was already more than full. There was no room for even standing. I lingered for a couple more minutes and then headed for the Festival Book Shop. This has become my daily ritual at the Festival now. Today I bought the cookie again, but also bought a book, Cairo – The City Eternal by Max Rodenbeck as it was actually cheaper there than at flipkart, a rare thing.

After paying I went back to Durbar Hall and found that the question answer session was coming to an end. Thant was answering to a question about the awareness of the trouble in Indian North-East in the Burmese population, to this Thant replied that the Burmese population was not informed about the situation in Indian North-East as there are simply no connections. After the session was over, I followed Thant back to the signing area and got my book signed and what more; I even got a picture with him.

The next post-lunch session was again in Durbar Hall. As I had already taken lunch, I occupied the best seat I could get, which was in the third row. The topic was Public and Private Portraits: The Biographer’s Art involving Joseph Lelyveld, Sugata Bose, Peter Popham, David Remnick and Simon Sebag Montefiore. As I have mentioned earlier, I don’t really like biographies a lot but as both David Remnick and Simon Sebag Montefiore were on the panel, I decided to attend the session.

Responding to Sugata Bose’s question about difficulties in writing a biography Simon responded that the problem of access of archival material is always a spectre looming close while working in the former Soviet Union. He expressed it very poetically saying that although the warm Kremlin Sun did shine upon him sometimes but he also felt the cold winds of Tundra coming out of the Kremlin.

He said that timing in Russian Federation is often critical and when he came out with his book in 2000 Putin was very unhappy with the book. Not surprisingly, he was blacklisted for some years. Simon was actually the writer who made the session ticking. Carrying forward the point raised by David Remnick that why lives of famous personalities get written again and again, Simon said that when he was not satisfied in calling monsters like Stalin and Hitler just as psychopaths. Just calling them psychopaths won’t explain their coming to power. He had to look deeper into the origins of these monsters and the result was Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar.

Commenting upon Obama, David made an interesting point. He said that coming to power and exercising power are not same things. Successfully winning an election does not guarantee that the exercising of power will also be smooth. He also added that biography is a strange, lonely and different kind of experience. With some questions the session came to an end. Though I had scheduled to attend one more session on this day, but my mind was full of the thoughts from previous sessions and so I slipped out at 03:30.

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