Questioning the Free Lunch: On the Recent Protests at the Jaipur Literature Festival in London

Sponsors like Vedanta give money to festivals in order to buy the power of controlling the narrative, not out of the goodness of their hearts.

From the protest against Vedanta held at the Jaipur Literature Festival at the Southbank Centre, London. Credit: Facebook.

From the protest against Vedanta held at the Jaipur Literature Festival at the Southbank Centre, London. Credit: Facebook.

The recent protests at the Jaipur Literature Festival, or JLF, organised at the Southbank Centre in London should have been a moment to reflect on a few things – primarily what the literary festivals, which have popped up all over the place, mean and what they are worth. Unfortunately it turned into a point-scoring competition between those who support the protestors and those who support the festival. Of the many arguments that were made, one was that sponsors don’t affect the content of the festival. John Elliott asserted in these pages that “Sponsors rarely have much influence – at JLF a company chairman might get a spot in one of the discussions, but little more”.

Maybe, just maybe, John forgot the old axiom that there is no free lunch. Nobody gives money away for nothing and anybody who believes that Vedanta, with its reputation for exploitation and trampling over the rights of the marginalised, gave money to the JLF organisers out of the goodness of their heart, understands neither business nor politics. The question to be asked is what was Vedanta buying? Or rather, what is it that a literary festival has to sell, and is it a legitimate sale?

What is it that literary festivals are selling?

Obviously literary festivals have something to sell – if they did not, then there would not be one in every city worth its name – and many that are not worth anything. The obvious answer is proximity to authors. This would be nice to believe, except that authors are rarely celebrities – those that are, are rarely good authors. In fact if you look at the programme of various literary festivals you will find many names – maybe even a majority in some – are not writers. They are actors and activists, politicians and journalists. The presence of a person like Anupam Kher at a literary festival boggles the mind. Fine, he is a great character actor and often a great comic, but he is far more capable of discussing hamming than Hamlet. Then there is Suhel Seth, whose only contribution to literature was to write a book nobody was likely to read, but which resulted in one of the finest reviews written of any book published in India – Mihir Sharma’s brilliant The Age of Seth.

So, if literary festivals are so top heavy with political actors or those that hover around them, it becomes obvious that what they do have to sell is something political, and that thing is called a “narrative”. At the end of everything, humans are storytellers and listeners of stories. It is how we make sense of the world. There are good people and bad people, or sometimes good people in bad situations, or maybe something even more complicated, but to understand them, we need to understand their stories. And it is here that literary festivals are such an opportunity for the peddlers of propaganda, and hustlers and hucksters of all stripes.

An author is a peddler of lies, especially an author of fiction. We know that and expect it, but we listen to those lies in the hope of sussing out some truth hidden behind them. An interaction with authors – say at a literary festival – seems to offer a shortcut. We can go straight to the source, and ask, “What do you really think? What is the story behind the novel?” Often this is disappointing. Public speaking requires a different set of skills than writing. It is rare for a person to combine both. But where the writer may hesitate, the huckster will not. This is the opportunity that sponsors buy. They have the chance to insert their people into the conversation, to tell a prepared little tale of how they are good people and tie it off with a ribbon – and those people, those protestors who are loud, rude and aggressive (maybe because they have lost things dear to them – land, a house, the life of a relative), well they are outside the podium, and their voices will not be represented.

Controlling the narrative

The power of controlling the narrative is nothing new. All ruling powers in their time have tried to control what is being discussed in public. Whether it was Mahmud of Ghazni, and the writers he captured when he conquered cities – the most famous one being Al Beruni, the father of Indology – or the Iowa Writers Programme funded by the Central Intelligence Agency, or the ironically titled Pravda (Truth) newspaper of the Soviet Union, even the most ruthless, maybe especially the most ruthless, rulers have seen the use of writers. In China, of course, the brutal suppression of inconvenient stories – what is sometimes referred to as the truth – continues, as the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre is never to be discussed. China has recently bought Corbis, the agency that owns many of the pictures from the massacre, including the famous one of the unarmed man standing in front of tanks.

If countries are willing to go to such lengths to control the stories that are being told about them, isn’t it obvious that others – whether government actors or private companies – will go to lengths to do the same? This is what pays for the lunch – for the flights too, and the accommodation and everything else – the self-interest of rich and powerful people to control the stories that are being told.

What do we do with our free lunch?

Does this mean that all authors are either willing or unwitting accomplices to a great sham? Maybe some of them are, or maybe they have not thought through the “free lunch”, but here is the delightful thing about words. You can invite an author to a podium, but you cannot control what she or he says. In maybe the most evocative such gesture, Japanese writer Haruki Murakami accepted the Jerusalem Prize in 2009. He had been urged to reject the prize and boycott the ceremony, but he chose not to. Instead he gave a marvellous speech in which he stated, “Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg. Yes, no matter how right the wall may be and how wrong the egg, I will stand with the egg.” It remains one of the finest speeches about the responsibility of an author to speak up for the individual in the face of a mindless system.

Murakami’s gesture and his speech highlight one of the basic truths about literature: that it is a conversation and not merely a one-way track. Even while powerful actors may try to control the message, in fact what good writing allows is for us to discuss complex ideas with each other. It is hard to control that or stop it. Truthful speech is its own rebellion. This is the burden that authors bear. Life itself is unfair and the opportunities we receive are not equal, many of them made possible by the bloody handed power of states and empires, or even our own ancestors, what matters though, is how we use those opportunities, and if we are presented with a stage, if we speak the truth, or influenced by fear or hope of favour, we turn our words into lies.