LONDON, England – India’s literati turned up in force at the weekend for the London edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), which has been dubbed “the greatest literary show on Earth.” All tickets were sold out for the JLF at Southbank which provides a platform for stimulating and often fiery debates and discussions reflecting diverse perspectives and identities. The event, now in its third year in London, has become a firm favorite for those interested in South Asian literature and culture.
In “The Third Gender,” prominent writers and activists broke new ground by describing their painful physical and emotional journeys to gain acceptance and respect. One of the speakers was A. Revathi whose autobiography, “The Truth About Me: A Hijra Life Story,” is the first of its kind in English from a member of the Hijra (transgender) community. Jerry Pinto took the stage to speak about his translation of the iconic Marathi book “Baluta” by the Dalit writer, Daya Pawar, and of the rights of marginalized sections including LGBT rights.
At another session, “Women Writing War,” writers and historians, Shrabani Basu and Yasmin Khan, discussed their perspectives on the First and Second World Wars, including the little-known contributions of former colonies. Alex von Tunzelmann shared her analyses and observation of the Cold War. In conversation with author, blogger, and columnist Sidin Vadukut, they explored how, traditionally a subject of male scrutiny, war narratives and military history are increasingly being examined by women writers.
The Festival took a closer look at ethnicity and cultural identity in a globalized world with a focus on Britain where British Asians form a large part of the diverse population. The festival director, Namita Gokhale, said she had been especially looking forward to the session, “British Asians: The Changing Face,” which had Sathnam Sangera and Yasmin Khan in conversation with Patrick French. She thought the session would be of interest to people in India and the UK and was especially significant in the context of the recent mayoral election in London which saw the installation, for the first time in the country, of a Muslim, Sadiq Khan, as mayor. Discussion points ranged over resisting stereotypes, integration, adaptation, alienation, and the changing attitudes and affiliations of the second and third generations of South Asian Britons.
In “Tears of the Rajas,” authors Ferdinand Mount and Nick Robins, in conversation with William Dalrymple, took a hard-headed look at the East India Company. In Dalrymple’s view, India was conquered not by the British government but by the East India Company which he described as the most violent and corrupt corporation.
Ferdinand Mount, who has family connections to the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, spoke of his shock at discovering that his ancestors who served in India may not have been as pious as they had appeared and were possibly complicit in atrocities committed there.
In the course of the discussion, it emerged that there had been huge protests in Britain in the past against some of East India Company’s questionable activities in India. Ironically, these protests were echoed at the South Bank event where civil rights campaigners distributed leaflets accusing the mining group, Vedanta, one of the JLF sponsors, of human rights abuses, causing pollution, financial mismanagement, and a raft of other misdemeanors. Vedanta denies these charges.
Questions were asked from the floor about the whitewashing of history in the UK and the dark side of the British Empire in India being glossed over such as the slave and opium trades.
The prominent Indian journalist, Barkha Dutt, chaired a lively discussion on “Reporting India” from the perspective of western journalists. She asked John Elliott, Dean Nelson, and Andrew Whitehead, all of whom have long experience of covering India, how they responded to criticism from Indians who can be prickly about foreigners often presenting what they regard as simplistic or stereotypical images of their country.
John Elliott, who has been based in India for more than twenty years, commented wryly, “After initially thinking you understand India after a short time there, the nuances pile in, and you get confused again.”
Andrew Whitehead said he found reporting on Kashmir difficult and bruising during his time as a BBC correspondent in Delhi. Many Indians had been incensed when he referred to “gunmen” in Kashmir, because this was regarded as giving them legitimacy. He said the difficulty was that all sides wanted their version of events to be presented.
Dean Nelson recognized that nobody likes outsiders criticizing them but said that, on the whole, he saw India, with Bollywood cinema, art, and culture, as a positive story. This contrasted with reporting on the Middle East and Africa which tended to be about unrelenting misery. He admitted that initially he found covering Indian elections with their complexities daunting.
Barkha Dutt asked the speakers about an impression that there is a bias in the English media in India against the Modi government.
John Elliott thought the English media reflected the inability of the Indian elite to accept the changes that had been inevitable when the BJP and Modi came to power.
Barkha Dutt commented that in response to this perceived bias, politicians had learned to bypass the media and did not seem to have suffered as a result.
The session “Ideas of India” examined the bewildering diversity and plurality of India which has come under intense scrutiny in recent times. Prominent writers and thinkers explained their individual perceptions of “their” particular idea of India and what it meant to them. Among them were Swapan Dasgupta, Rakhshanda Jalil, Salman Khurshid, Pragya Tiwari, and Mukulika Banerjee.
JLF at Southbank, much like the main festival, aims to reflect multiple viewpoints on the basis that open dialogue is critical to finding understanding and a common ground. The London edition retains the unique spirit of the annual Jaipur Literature Festival, which has firmly established its place in the global literary calendar as the world’s largest free literature festival. The credit goes to the Festival Directors, Namita Gokhale and William Dalrymple, and Teamwork Arts for bringing together writers and thinkers, poets and balladeers, to the UK to showcase South Asia’s unique multilingual heritage.
With so much intolerance in the world today, it is reassuring that there is an appetite for the eclectic mix of voices, debates, and ideas which characterize the JLF. Judging from the turnout in London, there is clearly a growing interest in the annual event not just in India but across the world.