The tragedy and farce of JLF, the greatest literary show
Jan 23, 2012
By S Anand
On the morning of 22 January at the ongoing Jaipur Literature
Festival, away from the Oprah Circus, I moderated a session called 'A
Second Sunrise: Literature of Protest'. It featured Gogu Shyamala,
dalit writer from Telangana; Cheran, Sri Lanka-born Tamil poet who
lives in exile in Canada; Charu Nivedita, Tamil writer; and K
Satchidanandan, Malayalam poet, editor and translator. I began with
the session with this: "What kind of idea are you? Are you the kind
that compromises, does deals, accommodates itself to society, aims to
find a niche, to survive; or are you the cussed, bloody-minded,
ramrod-backed type of damnfool notion that would rather break than
sway with the breeze? — The kind that will almost certainly,
ninety-nine times out of hundred, be smashed to bits; but, the
hundredth time, will change the world."
I had decided to read this passage from the book that cannot be
imported and owned in India. I did this especially because one of the
festival organisers had sent an email to participating writers and
speakers that the "festival continues to uphold the right to free
speech and expression and the right to dissent within a constitutional
framework". And added, lest one did not get the 'idea': "This is to
advise you that the Satanic Verses is banned in India and reading from
it may make you liable to prosecution and arrest." I had noticed that
in the first few days some activists were distributing copies of the
Quran at the gates of the festival venue, for free. They did it as
quietly as I read the passage. The real challenge is whether we stand
up to freedom of expression when it is under crisis; and the
organisers of JLF—in suggesting that Hari Kunzru, Amitava Kimar,
Ruchir Joshi and Jeet Thayil leave the venue and city for their own
good and to let the festival continue—did not stand up to this
Can free speech and free thought collude with the corporate sector?
Should we just be happy saying what we want from tainted podiums?
Cheran, in an earlier session has said that it was impossible for a
writer to function within a prescribed framework and expect him or her
to be 'free'. Writers and artists have to transgress. That is what
they do. And many times, this involves a brush with legality. Cheran
spoke passionately about the May 2009 'genocide' inSri Lanka, a word
he cannot use inSri Lanka and how it would be impossible for someone
like him to function within Sri Lanka's constitutional framework. To a
question, he said the Indian government was totally complicit in the
mass murder of over 70,000 Tamils in Sri Lanka's war. He said he was
well aware that saying this may not help him get a visa to India next
year, but writers have to say what had to be said.
The battle of, and for, words need not be with the state alone; so I
asked my panelists to reflect on the cooption of writers by corporate
sponsors against whom many of the artists/writers would be, or ought
to be, battling. Are we using their platforms or are they using us
writers/activists and publishers to legitimise their corporate crimes?
One of the organisers said the festival was like a Kumbh Mela; sure,
many come to wash their sins here. Each venue was prefixed with the
sponsor's name—Rio Tinto Samvad, Tata Steel Front Lawns—and this did
not seem to 'offend' most writers. In the last year's edition, Pauline
Melville, Guyana-born British writer-actor did say, "This festival is
for writers, people who are genuinely interested in the human
condition, but behind us are the logos—staring at everybody—of the
most pernicious organisations in contemporary finance… Even as I
speak, I'm half expecting to get a bullet in the back." Chimamanda
Adicie too had addressed this issue.
Perhaps Melville was referring to Rio Tinto—a mining corporation that
has colluded with dictators and fascists, and has infamously applauded
Franco's forces for assassinating strikers and a group of radical
miners who occupied their mines, and is today mining for diamonds in
Madhya Pradesh. They have of course won CSR awards, like Tata Steel,
another major sponsor whose banners with quotes from famous dead,
unbanned writers adorned Diggi Palace, the venue. But that's the way
it has been.
At the inaugural of the festival, Sanjoy Roy, one of the organisers,
openly praised the DSC group for the superb Delhi-Gurgaon-Jaipur road
they had built. 'Unlike all other roads in the country, this DSC road
does not crack.' Appearing to be embarrassed, even the chairman of
Darshan Singh Corp, HS Narula, responded: 'I don't know why you said
all this about the road.' A courtier was praising a king. So the
poet-as-fool had to have his word.
I was sitting next to poet Hoshang Merchant who, bored, had been
reading 'literature' others perhaps had not bothered to read. He drew
my attention to it—the fine print on the rear side of the bar-coded
speaker's pass that dangled around all participants' necks. One of dos
and don'ts said, 'The holder of the card shall not indulge in ambush
marketing.' Sanjoy Roy was wearing the same tag. What next? Rio Tinto
are such good miners? Tata's values are indeed stronger than steel?
How about Dow Jones/ Union Carbide next year?
The same set of issues cropped up during the recent Tehelka gig in
Goa, Think Fest. Can free speech and free thought collude with the
corporate sector? Should we just be happy saying what we want from
tainted podiums? Should we compromise, do deals, or be ramrod-backed
type of damnfools? A threat to freedom of expression for one person is
a threat to such freedom everywhere. Organiser Namita Gokhale's
defence that five writers cannot be allowed to derail the platform for
260 others at JLF does not wash.
The greatest literary show on earth is quite like the world's biggest
democracy—both a tragedy and a farce.
S Anand is the publisher of Navayana.
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