How Hindi Writers Are Fighting for More Gender-Just Spaces

Several authors boycotted the Hindi-focused literary festival organised to give the Jaipur Literature Festival a run for its money because of abusive language its convenor used against women.

At the Parallel Literature Festival in Jaipur. Credit: Twitter/@idnmail

At the Parallel Literature Festival in Jaipur. Credit: Twitter/@idnmail

Jaipur: As Bollywood divides itself over a woman’s right to critique a movie, the Hindi writing community is paving the way for a more inclusive, respectful environment for women writers and poets.

The Progressive Writers Association’s decision to launch a Hindi-focused literary festival to give the Jaipur Literature Festival a run for its (corporate) money with the independently-funded Parallel Literature Festival (PLF) made the news, but not for the right reasons.

In December 2017, eminent poet and president of the PWA Rituraj told The Hindu, “[The JLF] has become a tamasha of the tourist season where the so-called celebrities are hailed by an ignorant audience and only the English language reigns.”

However, by the time the festival began its inaugural last week, several prominent writers including Ashok Vajpeyi, Om Thanvi, Geeta Shree and Meenakshi Kulshresht had withdrawn from the festival to protest against the PLF’s convenor, poet Krishna Kalpit.

Geeta Shree, who told The Wire she was waiting for an invite so she could get an opportunity to decline it publicly, issued a statement saying that no self-respecting woman would attend a festival at which Kalpit was also present, and also questioned the progressive nature of the organisation that had decided to appoint such a convenor. Several people The Wire spoke to pointed out that Kalpit has abused several noteworthy women writers using foul language on social media in the past. Gagan Gill, a Punjabi poet, had even written a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi about Kalpit’s behaviour, the fate of which remains unknown.

After first accepting an invitation to speak about nationalism and violence at the PLF, Vajpeyi too issued a public statement on Facebook to explain why he would not be attending the festival. He explained to The Wire, “If I were to go there, somewhere I will be providing – by my presence – a sort of legitimacy to this abusive language of dishonour, and therefore I have withdrawn from the festival.”

While the PLF’s organisers did not respond to Vajpeyi’s statements, Thanvi had his invitation publicly revoked after he questioned Kalpit’s presence at the PLF.

Thanvi explained that him and others had initially planned to attend both festivals, and that the idea of an independently-funded festival was closer to his heart since corporate sponsorship can be pulled at any time. However, the PLF organisers’ rhetoric about JLF and its attendees combined with Kalpit’s presence as convenor made him question their behaviour.

In one screenshot of a WhatsApp conversation between the PLF’s organisers, someone commented saying Manisha Kulsresht would not be attending and so her picture should be removed from the promo. However, Kalpit responded, “Why do you want to remove the photo? It’s a beautiful photo.” The following comments show other members of the group making jokes about Krishna’s love for ‘gopis‘.

Criticism of such behaviour was met not with apologies or explanations but an attack on JLF and its attendees. Thanvi said, “They compared JLF to a donkey fair”, implying all who attend it are not better than donkeys themselves.

On Facebook, Kalpit compared the JLF to the East India Company but said nothing about the accusations of misogyny and disrespectful rhetoric against him. He did not respond to The Wire’s request for a comment.

At the JLF’s concluding press conference on Monday, January 29, festival director Namita Gokhale responded to questions about the PLF saying, “We will always cooperate with other festivals in Jaipur and [emphasise] that literature is greater than the individual.” However, she brought the press’s attention to the fact that several female writers chose not to attend the PLF, encouraging them to ask why.

It would have been all too easy to ignore the issues raised by Kalpit’s involvement in the PLF and focus on the PWA’s commendable attempt to widen discourse beyond the walls of the Diggi Palace. In fact, many in Bollywood have responded to Swara Bhaskar’s open letter by encouraging the community to rally behind the call to protect freedom of expression, even if it comes at the cost of gender sensitisation. However, Shree, Vajpeyi, Thanvi and countless others are showing that ‘women’s issues’ aren’t as easily dismissed anymore.

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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