This year, the Kumbh Mela of literary gatherings seemed to have morphed into an universe of literary outpourings spawning galaxies of thoughts and clusters of ideas around the academic magnets.
Descending in the Pink City for the annual literary extravaganza might seem like a passport to fame for the struggling cohorts, or the reiteration of their established reputation for the legends of storytelling, but never was global Indian academic scholarship - plain, rigorous, complex, vigorous, politically difficult and polemically uncompromising - so cheered in a melee as chaotic and as spectacularly commotional as the Jaipur Literature Festival. Yet, the cheerleaders of Indian Writing in English, the fictional variety that is, the dominant, overbearing, omnipresent, excessively talked about Indian literary novels and their equally famous creators, had to give in this year to the champions of something else - ideas, criticism, theories, appraisals, political diatribe, ideology and the most perplexing of all, the thoughts behind the emergence of that quasi-mystical “post-9/11-post-26/11” brand of writings.
This year, Kumbh Mela of literary gatherings seemed to have morphed into an universe of literary outpourings (Indian, transnational Indian-origin, South Asian, Asian, British, British-Indian, American, American-Indian, along with Turkish, Ethiopian, Taiwanese, Pakistani, Sri Lankan), spawning galaxies of thoughts and clusters of ideas accruing around the academic magnets, the Indian-origin superstars of postcolonial scholarships, who pretty much birthed the new cosmopolitan Indian mind. When global personalities like Homi K. Bhabha, Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak, Amit Choudhuri, Faisal Devji, Faramerz Dabhoiwala, Simon Singh rubbed shoulders with homegrown mavericks like Ashis Nandy and Ananya Vajpeyi, what resulted was an India much bigger, much vaster than India itself. It heralded the rebirth of the argumentative, ideating, frontier-crossing Indian.
Hail the Superstar Scholar
A confluence of vociferous, peripatetic scholarship, really? The business of mixing intelligent debate with pleasurable listening and speaking, the art of fusing magical oratory with powerful and substantial and rousing ideas that impregnate the mind and spirit of the multicultural Indian at home in the multiple addresses that she ritually possesses, now? Who’s this globetrotting Indian of the twenty-first century and what is his relationship with such English-medium but postcolonial Indian scholarship? What is the chain of connection that binds the accented English language, the innumerable mother tongues and vernaculars, the variously produced fictions and non-fictions - literary, non-literary, chic-lit, young adult, sci-fi, historical, do-it-yourself, spiritual, inspirational, food talk, culinary, cultural, social, political - and their writers? How is it that the consummate artistry of reflection and thinking in sweeping broad brush strokes, of amalgamating ideas behind the impetus of global penmanship, of congregating the driving forces of the engines of the gargantuan wheel of transnational Indian literary writing, was not given enough recognition, enough space and enough representation at a platform that was supposedly erected to dialogue on literature?
So far, so unfair. Until the 2013 festival unabashedly and unapologetically positions itself as a cumulative corrigendum to the earlier failures. This year the tables were turned decisively and boldly in favor of those who midwifed the birth of the missing link between the writers and the readers, those who critiqued and explained and espoused and shed light upon; who, from their respective vantage points, illuminated interactions between audiences and authors; who translated the codified, desultory obscurantism of fictional bubbles into accessible answers, not simplistic but simplified, not singled out but compounded. As the likes of Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Jhumpa Lahiri, Bharati Mukherjee, V.S. Naipaul, Ruth Jhabwala, Anita Desai, Arundhati Roy weaved the looms of their esoteric protagonists inhabiting wonderfully magical colonial andpostcolonial worlds, their myriad migratory minds travelling between the East and the West, dissolving borders and boundaries, waging wars with barb wire fences, a band of scholars without frontiers had been the quiet interpreters of these mystified maladies for three decades now.
But now, they are at the forefront. Their artistry has transmogrified from a quiet hum of footnotes to a majestic orchestra of criticisms and essays, reflections and diaries, histories and biographies. The transnational, postcolonial Indian academic has emerged, as it were, from the hallowed corridors of university halls and the insulated walls of seminar rooms into our drawing rooms, our television screens, our literary festivals, our public sphere.
They are not the crowd now. They are the faces. They have arrived from Sorbonne, Oxford, Harvard, Cornell, East Anglia, Columbia, Cambridge, Stanford, Birbeck, Bristol, Melbourne, La Trobe universities.
Suddenly, in the din and clamor of sounds and silences, phrases like “poststructuralism” or “enunciatory present” are heard, distinctly clear, though their meanings escape the eager ears at times. The audience, young and old, trained and untrained, receptive and dismissive, are jostling for intellectual leg space with the fire-breathing academics. Diggi Palace, the venue of Jaipur Literature Festival, is resounding with fragments of half-uttered and half-heard (despite the microphones and loudspeakers, some, much is lost in translation, but what the heck) notions - imaginary geographies of the mind, cultures of collision, politics of representation, theater of identity, face as the mask, the colors of performance, race as caste, brown Othellos of India in Britain and America, yellow Desdemonas and black Rosalinds (politically black, that is), the genetics of rebellion and intellectual revolt, canonicity and the modern Indian literature, women at literary crossroads, novels of miscegenation, fictions of fakeness, museums of mimicry, cosmopolitan religiosity and limits of secularism, margins of the mainstream, politics of alternative possibilities and the dislocated locations of (uprooted) cultures.
What do these things even mean? How are they cool enough to be popular enough to be present, here, in this boiling plasma of literary exchanges? Are we going to make a thesis out of everything now? But then, if the Michael Jacksons, Elvis Presleys, Madonnas and Lady Gagas of literary scholarship are beckoning to you with their “come hither” tongues, you are stupefied and lulled and lured into a consensual intellectual intercourse with them.
You have to listen to them. They are that good and that exciting.
Of Mimicry and Madness
So when Homi Bhabha, the feted Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of English and American Literature and Language, and the Director of the Humanities Center at Harvard University, talks to you about the poetic madness of post-9/11 literature, you are seduced into sadness. A deep melancholy hovers around you, like a wounded but still alight bird, and you see its blood dripping, drop by painful drop. You feel its grim viscosity when he tells you how the Indians residing in New York, along with the Arabs and Persians, the Pakistanis and Turks, have gulped down insult after insult in the aftermath of the twin tower tragedy. How Sikh taxi drivers have been abused and held responsible for flying the plane that smashed into the World Trade Center building, once the defining feature of the New York City skyline, now a memorial, a placard called Ground Zero. When Bhabha casually invites you to dip into the changed everydayness of America and hints at the subtler change in the accusatory stares that being brown invites, still does, in America, in Britain, haltingly in Australia, in other parts of Europe, in Canada, he extracts you from your casual role as the visiting literary tourist and implants you suddenly into the matrix of volatile global debates, asks you to question the much circulated template of the clash of civilizations, nudges you into identifying the sly existence of the security apparatus inside your bedroom, the disconcerting presence of the surveillance state inside your homes, your minds. As you are jolted into a snappy realization, Bhabha turns this Kafkaesque condition on its head and asks you to reverse the gaze, fix your interrogatory eyes on the prying Big Brother, hybridize, multiply, mimic and indulge in some heady miscegenation. Bhabha invites you into the global drawing room of debates and the shadow libraries of contemporary thought, by applying post-structuralist methodologies to colonial texts and templates, which means talking back, using the tools of writing and rewriting, subverting, reworking.
Bhabha’s son, Satya Bhabha, essays the role of Saleem Sinai in Deepa Mehta’s rendition of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Thirty years have rolled by since Bhabha Sr. rocked the world with his essay titled “How Newness Enters the World” - a treatise on Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses. A generation passed by, a new generation emerged, within it sweetly homed the seeds of newness, the fruits of old labor, the leaves and branches of the primordial intellectual defiance.
Bhabha, like James Joyce, the pioneer of twentieth century Modernism and Irish-English writing, favors “silence, cunning and exile” over absolute defiance, absolute negation of the colonial encounter. Bhabha is welded to the jocund ambivalence afforded by the double-edged sword of hybridity, of cultural fusion, confusion and profusion, the bubble universes of the pop up mega cities of ideas and calisthenics, spurred on by repetition, guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, spurious authorities, jargons, superstitions, faded and jaded belief systems, backdated texts, scrolls and antiquated shibboleths, of anything and everything that populate and copulate in the seemingly normal and rational worlds of our mutual existences. Past sliding into present, future encroaching into the past, effervescent time making dunes out of the convalescent, ephemeral now, and blowing away the sands into the vast, expansive oceanic aridity of understandings.
That Woman in Cowboy Boots
From the verdant enclave of Char Bagh, where you heard Bhabha, and, transfixed, moved sideways, walked ten meters about and spent a day or two experimenting with speech-acts, your own, others, theirs, until you arrived at the date and time and place where you were told about “the vanishing present.” Without realizing it, you have made a leap from Bhabha’s laudatory celebration of the moment and mimicry of the migrants (the transcendental migrants, the perennial travellers, the raiders of the eternally lost arks, the always nomads, the all time paratroopers, the highwaymen on the road to cultural perdition, the seekers of inferno, the founders of self-styled underbellies) to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s world of the forever subaltern, forever silenced, forever quelled and quashed.
Who are these unsavory faces in this jouissance of cerebral love and happy communion of ideas and ideologues? What are these unsettling thoughts in this marquee of multicultural mixing, motivational plurality, beautifully wondrous and expansive idea of the accommodating multitude? What talk of exclusions? Why now? Why here? Why her?
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak - literary theorist, philosopher, University Professor at Columbia University and founding member of the school’s Institute for Comparative Literature and Society, best known for the essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” and interestingly enough, still an Indian citizen by passport and nationality after teaching in the U.S. for forty years - is a walking collection of anecdotes, mostly about herself. At a public lecture once in Arizona, she cracked a joke about a “Spivak-themed costume party,” wherein everyone was supposed to come dressed in a sari and cowboy boots. Spivak also is famous for donning the Indian attire almost all the time while in America, or anywhere in the West for that matter. However, she ritually and in principle defies the dress code while in India, and always, almost always, is spotted sporting tees and jeans, often with hats paired with Kolapuri chappals! Cross-dressing has been suitably reconfigured, but that’s not the tip of the Spivakberg.
Spivak is here in Jaipur to talk about the “vanishing present.” But Spivak talks about a hoard of other things, not necessarily cued in or in order. Spivak speaks, writes, with asides, digressions, parentheses, paragraph breaks and ellipses taking up bigger chunks than well-meaning lined up thoughts and elucidations, with pregnant pauses to chide a fellow speaker, agitated listener, angry questioner, eyebrows arched and glasses (taken off, put back again) continually adjusted. Spivak, in a note of self-rebellion (she fights off her own multiple avatars, who are also her intellectual rivals) is wearing a sari! Does she think that the front lawns of Diggi Palace (sponsorship of the venue offered by Tata Steel, duly noted in magnified hoardings) are an extension of her Columbia lecture rooms? She possibly can.
Did I imagine all of the unfolding Spivaknama, or is she really saying what I’m thinking she’s saying? [I, an unformed lump in the audience, a nebulous dot, a face in the crowd, a fly on the wall - until now - was suddenly woken up to the fact of my own presence in this great congregation. As I pinched myself to determine if I was dreaming it all up, I was pricked and tricked into existence. From a listener, I became, as I reinvented Spivak for myself, for this retelling, an addressee, the second person-first-person combine that Spivak often talks to and banters with.]
Spivak seated on the corner chair, jostles mind space with Amit Choudhuri - in every way, her polar opposite. Choudhuri is younger, male, suave Bengali Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of East Anglia, Britain and also, chiefly so, a novelist and a writer of mesmerizingly associative narrative non-fiction. He had won the Betty Task Prize for his first book, A Strange and Sublime Address, published in 1991. Spivak arrived in Columbia in 1991. At least, there are temporal intersections, the enigmas of coterminous arrivals.
Spivak unspools literature and colonialism, the moderator says. She revises how the relationships of power continue to work into the present, rewriting history, revisiting moorings of modernity. She unhinges the latches of thought, uproots and replants the saplings of the Indian mind, grappling as it is, with the forces coming to duel with from all over the globe. The footprint of the migrant, Spivak excavates, leaves the forensics of cultural baggage, the traces of civilizational smack down. But who inters the buried bones of the untravelled? What is the relationship between the peripatetic academic, the world-travelled professor of comparative literature with the language and tongues and folk myths and superstitions of those who did not cross over, who stayed behind, who are the leftovers of history, as it were?
Dear me! Spivak wants her bag! She interjects, butts in, cuts the moderator - a very exasperated Anjum Hassan, book critic and a younger novelist herself - short, and declares that she needs her bag, a jhola of sort, which has all her “stuff” in it. She means copious notes, or something else? Perhaps, a kitten or a goat, or imaginary being, an elf? What? Amit Choudhuri helpfully offers that we have the “case of a vanishing bag.” At last, the missing bag is recovered. Good heavens, it’s white in color! A statement, Prof. Spivak? Can I take a look at your cowboy boots?
On to the subject of global Indian literature then, on the aesthetic education in the era of globalization, an hour of riveting discussion on issues as potent as the ethical impulse in literature, the poetics of the politics in humanities, on the role of literature in this ever-churning oddities of global realities, of digging out the essential detail on which hinge the value of the writer in this age of digital reproduction and writing software. This represents a shift from Spivak’s earlier focus on the literature of imperialism and the struggles against it, the quiet, unreported, undocumented everyday ordinariness of the revolt emanating from nineteenth century Bengali women, whose household revolutions had echoes in the submerged voices and hissed whispers that could be heard in the plantations of Caribbean islands, in Trinidad and Tobago, in Jamaica. Spivak has looked at texts that have spoken back to the imperial masters, and distant vocal chords have found resonances across continents in her understanding of the literatures of women’s resistance. That resistance has shaped the women’s movements in modern day India, America and Britain, be it the works of the Southall Black Sisters in London, or Jagori in New Delhi. Spivak evokes Jean Rhys and Mahashweta Devi in one breath and then connects the dots, links the Bengal famine of 1942 to the watery imprisonment of the slaves during Middle Passage. The bridges she burns, in hindsight, light up the routes she exposes, illuminating the capillaries branching out from the main trunk, the innumerable junk notes and the crumpled papers thrown away in the effort to extricate the master narrative of the imperial civilizing mission, the white man’s history.
By sheer associative logic, one can achieve the incredible feat of adjusting from Spivak’s high-intensity provocations of postcolonial critique to Faramerz Dabhoiwala’s decibel-defying discourse on decadence, ugh a peculiarly British variety of it, mind you. Dabhoiwala is a very young and very brilliant addition to the trillion-watt galaxy of our academic-author luminaries, whose incandescence makes scholarship illuminating, and in this case, titillating. Dabhoiwala is the author of last year’s international bestseller The Origins of Sex, an examination of how a culture of sexual permissiveness came to govern eighteenth century restoration England, which saw a relaxation of moral codes and loosening up of sexual rules. How is it that an Indian-origin Parsi-British came to investigate the profligacies of pre-colonial England, with mercantile capitalism barely beginning to raise its menacing head? Is this an annotated Kamasutra for the British, better known for their stiff upper lip and collective weather recriminations. Dabhoiwala bypasses the allegations that are aimed to ask why, of all possible subjects under the sun, did this Oxford historian pick the licentiousness of the former colonizers? Is this to draw swords with Philip Larkin, the quintessential twentieth century acerbic English poet, who had emphatically announced that “sexual intercourse began/in nineteen sixty-three/ between the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP”?
Dabhoiwala counters that the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which brought with it the resurgent culture of a pubescent media, the fourth estate, the public culture comprising journalists, courtesans, rakes, dandies, essayists, novelists, poets, philosophers, playwrights, comedians, and social reformers, effectively demolished the earlier moral morass of Tudor England, with their rigid religiosity and sterner than steel laws. Sexual policing gave in to sexual libidinousness, as “virtue” lost its sheen, as it were. Obsession with the “fallen women,” the prostitutes, the seduced, the sex workers, the sexually active widows became a national pastime, as journals, magazines, broadsheets dedicated reams of printed matter to the archetype of the whore. Dabhoiwala links this gendered gaze at the sexual woman with the later criminalization of prostitution by the British imperial forces in India, in mid-nineteenth century, as a reverse obsession with the Indian prostitute and courtesan occupied the colonizers’ minds, coupled with fears of sexually transmitted diseases that the sailors and naval officers brought with them to India and quickly spread on to women they had had sex with. A regime of transcontinental sexual health and sexual security, with strings crisscrossing three centuries, is unraveled by Dabhoiwala’s meticulous juxtaposition of sexual origins, and its re-beginnings in the colonial contact zones.
In Other Tents, Other Wonders
Scholars sans frontiers, but rooted in their multiple footholds. Ashis Nandy and Ananya Vajpeyi, with their cultural politics of “selfhood in this age of relentless redefinition and reconfiguration and their attempts to search for the “righteous republic,” that of ideas and received wisdom, represented the other side of the transnational teaching machine that sends off academicians into the farthest corners not to preach and propagate, but to breach and debate. These Ôindigenous’ homegrown Indian scholars are not posed as the antidote to the traveling salesman and saleswoman of ideas that some the global academicians disparagingly refer to themselves, but they are travellers of a different kind. They travel intellectually, in leaps and bounds, but choose to “work” in India. Are they respecting the frontier by any chance? Are they resurrecting the border then, in this borderless world of capacities and possibilities? What is their precise politics of location?
As questions swarm around, as writers and academics lounged and chatted at Diggi Palace, as eager students and callow reporters aggregated and scattered around them, gingerly throwing requests and enquiries about, getting books signed, as some heaved a sigh of relief and began celebrating the point that the LitFest was taking off without a glitch, exactly at such a vulnerable moment came the customary controversy that Jaipur Literature Festival has become synonymous with.
Anyone who was present at the session, titled “Republic of Ideas” with panelists Tarun Tejpal and Shoma Chaudhary of Tehelka, along with moderator Urvashi Butalia, Ashutosh of IBN7 and Ashis Nandy, could only be baffled at the turn of events that emanated from the rather heartening, and perhaps a trifle provocative, albeit intentionally so, discussion that took place.
The thread of “corruption as a leveling force” started when Tejpal, and not Nandy, first came up with the suggestion and commented that in a country like India, where entrenched systems of self-aggrandisement are well in place for those with the means, mostly along caste lines, corruption could also be seen as a method of subversion by the poor and the historically disenfranchised, so as to gain access to the very entitlements that are guaranteed by the Constitution. Nandy, who has throughout his long and illustrious academic career as a social psychologist championed the cause of the “others” within India - whether religious minorities, SC/ST and OBCs, or the rural and urban poor - took up the idea and elaborated that corruption was indicative of a social churn and a republic at work, because corruption need not be the domain of the elites only.
Then came the bit that ignited the furor. Nandy went on to declare, sounding the prior caveat that it might sound rather “vulgar” to the general ears that are more used to hearing unequivocal and uncomplicated paeans to the national ideals of secularism and anti-casteism, that most of the corrupt in India happen to be SCs, STs and the OBCs, but as long as that is the case, he still had hope in the republic. Thereafter, Nandy explained his admittedly gauchely formulated words to the fidgeting and fretting audience, by saying that the corruption of the SC/STs and the OBCs are visible, because they have not yet developed the mechanisms of effective social camouflage, which the elites are adept at, of course. Such mechanisms of hiding and masking self-serving systems turn deep-rooted corruption into accepted techniques of socialization and social engineering. Because the Dalits, the OBCs and other historically disenfranchised lack the finesse, their corruption remains crude and visible to the general eye. Their bonds and affiliations still tend to be dynastic or familial, instead of global or transnational class patterns, which keep the status quo of contemporary capital flows intact. When the marginalized start subverting the system by using the very tools of the system, we call it corruption.
Did Nandy behave irresponsibly by falling back on the banalities of empirical evidence? “Most of the SC/STs and OBCs are corrupt” sits extremely well with gems like the following, all backed up by enough statistical data and market surveys, of course - “most working women tend to drink and smoke”; “most college-going girls have premarital sex”; “most of the terrorists are Muslims”; “most AIDS patients in the 1980s were homosexuals”; “most musicians are drug addicts” - the list can go on.
That Nandy, in a charged moment of displaying his marvelous rhetorical flourish, and unable to resist yet another feat of showcasing some intellectual calisthenics, imagined the podium in Diggi Palace’s Char Bagh to be an extension of his office in Delhi’s Centre for the Study of Developing Societies or his own drawing room, or the seminar halls of India Habitat Centre, where this remark would have met with characteristic applause - is cause for concern too. The venerated sociologist had momentarily forgotten the enormous consequences of a slip of tongue in a mass culture as volatile as ours, in an age of (mis)communication as instantaneous and as fabricated as ours. In a way, the global media perhaps ended up thanking Ashis Nandy, because his deliberation and undaunted reflection could be suitably twisted and turned and coated with layers of belligerence and put into mass circulation. For the sake of popular consumption, much was wringed off, and, once more, in historical memory, all the festival had to say and contemplate upon could once again be transmogrified into pure cacophony and one more doctored controversy, much to the relief of our hyperventilating 24X7 media.
Much hot air was blown into the nippy January nights of Jaipur, as the Nandy controversy pumped in some newsworthy adrenaline into a forum that had increasingly begun resembling a very colorful university campus. If alternative to prissy solitude of libraries is a noisy hullabaloo of colliding minds, then so be it. As international publishing house executives shared wine and whine with authors - Indian, foreign, brown, white, some black - snobbery and triviality shared bed-space with wide-eyed wonder of intellectual stimulation.JLF has learned to take controversy in its stride; has adjusted its podium to house an unannounced guest dispute, which though threatening to take over and hush out every other voice in the crowd, never quite manages to do that fully. The LitFest simply absorbs it, one more time, and its new normalcy includes, rather than excludes, the latest shape of dissonant intolerance. Nothing is left out, almost nothing is not responded to, even if just half an attempt is made at answering the nonchalant and blasŽ remarks.
Enduring legends aside, the literature festival in Jaipur this year was conferred another layer of meaning by the solicitations of the literary philosophers and academicians. The evidently unconstricted and unpredictable ways of meandering discussions that the professors of literature could effortlessly delve into, and stay along, are no less rewarding than the surprising and enriching ways in which Anglophone Indian-origin writers have shaped the contours of our literary landscapes, the geographies of our imagination. The festival turned out to be an intimation of pluralities and polyphony of voices strung along like notes in a song, astonishingly multifarious, many-tongued, many-headed but also united in their dauntless spirit of continuous enquiry.