Books

That Jaipur Literature Festival, and the State of Our Imaginations

Day one at the festival offered mixed opinions on how literature comes into the globalisation vs nationalism debate.

Pico Iyer and Patrick French at the JLF. Credit: Twitter/Zee Jaipur Lit Fest

Pico Iyer (L) and Patrick French at the JLF. Credit: Twitter/Zee Jaipur Lit Fest

Jaipur: As we all know and its advertising tells us, the Jaipur Literature Festival, now in its 11th year, is the largest literary festival in the world. For a week in January each year, Diggi Palace turns into an idyllic haven of cosmopolitanism, as people put aside their political concerns to engage with the slow, reflective work of literature. But some years the contrast between the outside world and this inner sanctum is starker than others. This year, for instance, the first day of the festival was marked by a celebration of globalisation inside, while its ideological nemesis, nationalism, led to violent destruction outside.

Pico Iyer, who opened the festival with an optimistic round-up of the state of English writing in the world, spent much time marvelling at the fact that Geoffrey Chaucer and Beowulf no longer monopolise literary education and pointed out that we now live in a world where the “defining American writers have names most Americans can’t pronounce – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Edwidge Danticat”. It was, to be fair, a bracing reminder that we live in a cultural moment dominated by people with flexible identities. It’s not hard to imagine that a white person at some point has asked Adichie, Danticat or Zadie Smith, ‘How come your English is so good?’


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And yet, even Iyer couldn’t skip the fact that our political moment is increasingly defined by a “rise in tribalism and nationalism across the planet”. At a time when more people are crossing borders “not by choice but by necessity”, Iyer sees literature as a healing salve. To him, “the blessing of writing is to speak over the wall and under the wall and around the wall.”

His concluding words stayed with me all day, shaping the subtext of every panel I attended, every snippet of conversation I overheard in the crowded pathways of Diggi, “The single most important state, over which we have most control, is that state of our imagination.”

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Imagination is a flighty thing, especially when you’re surrounded by authors and attendees who are all walking that thin line between the suspension of disbelief and checking the news or Twitter.

At a panel about 18th century art in India, art historian B.N. Goswamy couldn’t help but say, “I don’t think we have had a world more upside down than today.” He later told The Wire that “everything is political today” and although art has always been used to service political agendas to some extent, “What is happening today is different. Art and culture are in furtherance of a political agenda.” Saying that Rana Pratap won the battle of Haldighati, using Ganesha’s head to say that plastic surgery was invented in India and denouncing the film Padmaavat as offensive before even watching it all point to a “particular government’s efforts to win an election,” said Goswamy. But added that despite the “tamasha”, the JLF has done something truly difficult – “It has captured the imaginations of the young.”

Politics might not have featured on the panels but it certainly made its presence felt. People wondered if the Karni Sena would show up. The author of Padmini arrived with a security team as a preventative measure.

Author Mridula Behari (L) with Rima Hooja at the launch her book 'Padmini: The Spirited Queen of Chittor' during the Jaipur Literature Festival 2018 at Diggi Palace, in Jaipur on Thursday. Credit: PTI

Author Mridula Behari (L) with Rima Hooja at the launch her book ‘Padmini: The Spirited Queen of Chittor’ during the Jaipur Literature Festival 2018 at Diggi Palace, in Jaipur on Thursday. Credit: PTI

On an international scale, Leila Somani, a French author who was born and brought up in Morocco (in some ways, exactly the kind of author Iyer celebrated in his speech) referenced the migrant crisis and anti-globalisation sentiments in Europe. She told The Wire, “You know, I know that a lot of people are very afraid of globalisation but I am not, because I had a very cosmopolitan education. My parents always taught me that sharing the world with other people was good, and that the border should be wide open. So, I’m not afraid of globalisation because in a certain way, that’s my identity.”


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The little cosmopolitan bubble conjured up by Iyer’s words just didn’t seem as impermeable by mid-day. My imagination, intently focused on the panels until then, spun away from me fairly quickly.

What Iyer had framed as a victory in the morning transformed into an unanswered puzzle for me. Why is it that our cultural moment is dominated by the voices of immigrants and people of colour but our political moment is the opposite of that?

Amitava Kumar, who once called Iyer the “Dalai Lama of diversity” said he understood Iyer’s impulse to recognise the change in the literary hierarchy and who wins Bookers now, but added, “Whenever we celebrate anything like that, I often think how many people get to shit in a toilet in Bihar. Globalisation might have broken some walls, but only so that you come in through the wall and become cheap labour for the rest of the world.” According to Kumar, this other narrative of globalisation is certainly not the most “pervasive one”.

Although glad for the fact that the festival enables authors to mingle, Kumar said, “Rather than Pico Iyer and Amitava Kumar being the spokesmen for globalisation or new cosmopolitanism, I’d love to know what a Filipino nanny thinks. I don’t think we get that in a literary festival like this.”

And then, as if to reassert Iyer’s now distant words, Rupi Kaur came onstage to the loudest cheers of the day and performed poetry based on her experiences of being brown in a predominantly white world, for an adoring, almost all-brown audience.

Nehmat Kaur is a culture writer based in New Delhi. She writes a weekly column for The Wire called Name-Place-Animal-Thing and tweets @nehmatks.

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