March Issue 2008

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 16 years ago

For me, one of the great side benefits of the writer’s life is that, under the banner of ‘publicity,’ I’m sometimes asked to take part in a literature festival, which combines the pleasures of travel with that of interacting with an audience and meeting fellow-writers who often go on to become good friends. In January, I attended two festivals, back to back, both just a relatively short hop away from Karachi — the Galle Festival in Sri Lanka and the Jaipur Festival.

The Galle Festival is only in its second year, but has already attracted mass attention, with Harpers UK crowning it ‘The No.1 Literature Festival in the World.’ While it doesn’t boast the crowds of literary superstars who grace the Hay-on-Wye and Edinburgh festivals in the UK, it does have a location that’s hard to match. The Sri Lankan coastline is truly beautiful — the devastation caused by the tsunami is hard to spot, at least in terms of the physical terrain. And festival participants are put up at resorts of such luxury that one writer was heard to declare it ‘almost embarrassing.’

The festival venues were all located inside the Galle Fort, which overlooks the sea. Here, audiences gathered to hear such luminaries as Gore Vidal, Vikram Seth and Alexander McCall Smith. The downside of being a participant was that I was on so many panels myself (four in two days) that I missed many of the concurrent events. Still, the panels I was on were edifying enough that I really didn’t feel like complaining. In one session, entitled ‘The Edge of Prejudice,’ I joined the Sri Lankan writers Shyam Selvaduari and Channa Wickremasekera to discuss writing about matters such as religion, class and sexuality. But the most telling moment came when the excellent moderator, Rama Mani, said to Shyam Selvaduari — a gay Tamil writer — “Will you be discussing sexuality or ethnicity?” The response was quick: “Only sexuality.”

literary-festival-2-mar08The day before the festival started, the ceasefire between the government and the LTTE had ended — so as we spoke about the need to write about those things around which misunderstanding and bigotry gather, while never allowing polemic or rhetoric or the need for THE BIG MESSAGE to get in the way of plot, character or language. The elephant in the room was Sri Lanka’s ethnic strife — intense enough to make a Tamil writer nervous of even broaching the subject of ethnicity. The most heartening moment of the session came when, after all the writers had said, “We don’t want to make tall claims for the ability of our work to change people’s minds or erase bigotry,” one young woman in the audience took the mike and told Shyam that his books had changed her mind and made her reconsider her preconceptions about sexuality.

The next day I was on a panel discussing conflict — this time the elephant in the room was somewhat acknowledged: one of my co-panellists, the Sri Lankan writer Karen Roberts, had written a book called July about the events of 1983, which marked the start of Sri Lanka’s civil war and spoke movingly of her need to write that book as a way of apologising to the Tamil minority for the killings that took place that July. But, even then, there was little attempt by anyone — including the audience — to bring the conversation forward from 1983 to 2008. I couldn’t help thinking that in Pakistan, for all our ills, at least there isn’t this terrible blanket of silence around the problems of our nation. I also couldn’t help thinking how little we know about Sri Lankan politics and writing — the discussions and readings by Sri Lankan writers certainly made me want to try and plug that gap in my knowledge.

But I must confess that the Sri Lankan, who I was most looking forward to sitting on a panel with, was Kumar Sangakkara. The great wicket-keeper/batsman was slated to appear on a panel about cricket, along with me, the Indian poet/novelist Tishani Doshi, who is ghost-writing part of Muttiah Muralitharan’s memoirs, and the cricket writer Rahul Bhattacharya, whose book Pundits to Pakistan about India’s 2004 tour of Pakistan is one of the most entertaining and stylishly written pieces of non-fiction I’ve ever read. But Sangakkara had to pull out at the last minute, leaving Rahul, Tishani and me to face a packed audience who had come with the express purpose of seeing one of Sri Lanka’s cricketing heroes. That very few people left the hall when his absence was announced is probably a testimony to the kindness of the audience. Though one woman did look at me and Tishani as we walked on to the stage and say, “I thought this was a cricket panel. But you’re women!”

After two-and-a half frenzied days in Galle, I flew to Delhi where I had two days to recover from Festival Madness Part I before heading to Festival Madness Part II in Jaipur. Here, beaches and resorts were replaced by forts and heritage hotels. I ended up staying at one of the modern rather than the ‘heritage’ hotels (palaces and havelis converted into hotels), and any complaints about lack of ambience were quickly squashed when I started to hear tales of terrible heating at most of the heritage hotels, bang in the middle of a cold spell.

literary-festival-3-mar08Gore Vidal didn’t make it from Galle to Jaipur as he was supposed to — rumour had it he was disgusted both by journalists in Sri Lanka, who didn’t know who he was, and by the airline which lost his luggage for 12 hours. But there were plenty of other writers to choose from: Ian McEwan, Donna Tartt, William Dalrymple, Nayantara Sehgal and Indra Sinha. Aamir Khan and Dev Anand added some Bollywood glamour, which the three Pakistani novelists — Moni Mohsin, Shahbano Bilgrami and myself — got to witness up close when Aamir Khan invited us to have lunch with him. Moni suggested Aamir get involved in a joint Indo-Pak film, perhaps based on a Manto story — at which point he told her to let him know which Manto story might work. Moni, we’re waiting for you to get back to him on that.

I was told by the festival organisers that one of the most popular sessions — which received demands for an encore next year — was the ‘Imagining Pakistan’ session, involving Shahbano, Moni and myself. It’s always hard to know how to feel about such sessions — on the one hand, you want to be recognised as writers rather than representatives of a nation, on the other, it’s good to play a part in dismantling some of the stereotypes that exist across the border. Fortunately our moderator Urvashi Butalia was acutely sensitive to this, and engaged with us as writers from Pakistan rather than as a delegation serving a diplomatic purpose. And I have to say, after attending a number of festivals where I’ve found myself the only Pakistani in attendance and invariably asked to speak about the state of the nation even during a ‘book-based’ session — it was good to see our numbers swelling. (Next year’s Jaipur Festival will feature Mohsin Hamid, Nadeem Aslam and, perhaps, Mohammad Hanif — so it’ll be the boys’ turn). At one point during the festival, I entered a conversation taking place between two very high-powered editors — one Indian, one English. They were both agreeing that they see Pakistan as the country from where the most exciting English-language fiction will be coming out, now and in the next few years.

In addition to all the authors who spoke about, and read from, their writings, there were also a few ‘non-writerly’ discussions during the course of the session — an impassioned debate on whether globalisation is destroying India’s soul (yes, voted the audience), and one on the state of Indian publishing, which left me deeply envious at the sight of representatives from almost a dozen Indian publishing houses taking part in the conversation (the publishing houses ranged from the small but internationally renowned independent house, Tara Books, to the Indian branches of worldwide giants such as Penguin and Harper Collins). But the session about which I heard the most rhapsodic comments was a conversation between festival organiser Namita Gokhale and the Tamil Muslim activist and writer, Salma. I couldn’t attend because I had an ‘unplugged’ session at the same time, but everything I heard about it reaffirmed my sense that often the most rewarding sessions at literature festivals are not the ones with superstar writers but with relatively unknown authors who are ‘discovered’ by audience members.

The session I most enjoyed was a conversation between two writers I greatly admire — the novelist, Donna Tartt, and the poet, Jeet Thayil. With sharp intelligence, wit and a great respect for each other’s works, the two of them batted back and forth topics ranging from literary influences to the importance of pet dogs.

But the official sessions were only one part of the literature festival. In the gardens of Diggi Palace, there was much mingling and conversation between sessions — though I did hear that last year’s festival had a much more egalitarian feel about it, with a lot of participation from young bloggers rather than the most established members of the print media. In the evenings there were further festivities — most notably, a concert by Anoushka Shankar, though it had the misfortune of being scheduled outdoors on a bitterly cold night, with the audience and musicians running for warmth as soon as the set ended rather than staying for an encore.

Of course the trouble with Jaipur as a festival venue is that there’s so much to see outside the environs of the festival. Every morning I’d wake up on the horns of a dilemma: Ian McEwan or Amer Fort? Aamir Khan or Hawa Mahal? Every day would pose such conflicts…