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Letter from Jaipur

February 7, 2013 | by

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Last year’s Jaipur Literature Festival was exciting and boring at the same time—a death threat is exciting, but thirty death threats are boring; as Dostoevsky wrote, “Man is a creature who can get used to anything.” Salman Rushdie was scheduled to attend: Islamic groups agitated to deny him a visa, which he does not need in order to enter India, but never mind. It was suggested that instead Rushdie might address the festival via video conference: the government itself advised against this. Hari Kunzru, Jeet Thayil, Amitava Kumar, and Ruchir Joshi read aloud in protest from The Satanic Verses, still banned in India, but, after the gravity of their collective transgression had been brought home to them, they left the festival.

We know what comedy is: life is increased. Think of Rodney Dangerfield addressing the crowd at the end of Caddyshack: “Hey, everybody, we’re all gonna get laid!” And we know what tragedy is: isolation increases. I used to think that life was about winning everything, Mike Tyson once said, but now I know that life is about losing everything.

But what is India, with its boundless affirmation of life in general that befouls so many lives in the particular, with its joyous proliferation unto overcrowding, need, and misery? I did my small part, during my brief month there, to maintain those inequalities: Give me your shoes, I know you have other pair, you not need these, give them me, said a man as he tried to pull my sneakers off while a second man tried to pin my arms; and what he said was true, somewhere on the other side of the world I did have another pair of shoes, four shoes and only two feet; all the same, unhand me, my little friend, before I pick you up and throw you like a javelin.

I attended the 2013 JLF. It began in the same way. Ugly cartoons of Rushdie appeared in the papers: “If I say I’ll go to it, the Jaipur Lit Fest is all about me. / If I say I shan’t go to it, the Jaipur Lit Fest is all about me. / If I didn’t exist, the Jaipur Lit Fest would have had to invent me.” Pakistani diplomats were barred from visiting Jaipur, presumably as symbolic retaliation for a Line of Control incident, including beheading and mutilation of Indian soldiers, that had taken place earlier in January; Pakistani writer Mohammed Hanif, scheduled to appear with Jamil Ahmad on January 24, was a no-show. Jaipur Police Commissioner B. L. Soni said the festival could go forward only on the condition that organizers promised no one’s feelings would be hurt; Timothy Garton Ash later said, “If no one’s feelings are going to be hurt, then we might as well all go home.” Muslim hard-liners forbade the participation of Kunzru, Thayil, Kumar, and Joshi, those who had read from The Satanic Verses the previous year; Thayil bravely attended, trailed by a personal security officer, and won the DSC South Asian Prize for his novel Narcopolis.

Let me tell you something about those “boring” threats of violence: they are much more exciting, in fact almost intolerably exciting, when you are not reading about them, safe at home, but instead are half a world away, being frisked and having your various metals detected. They are exciting enough to make you have to pee.

I can imagine one day moving to Jaipur; but I will not soon attend another literature festival in that city, or in any other. To be a writer off the page—to hold forth, to be a bore!

Tarun Tejpal said, “Be quiet, stop interrupting me, everyone is only here to hear what I am saying.” Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak began talking and I immediately fell asleep, as if by sudden enchantment; I woke and she was still talking, and I fell asleep again; I woke a second time, and Sir Christopher Ricks, onstage with her, was also asleep, with his head in his hands, and Spivak was still talking, by now laughing with delight about how boring she knows she is, which of course not only does not mitigate such an offense but compounds it.

“Isn’t she wonderful?” Probir Roy asked me, with fierce Bengali pride. No doubt a failure to appreciate Spivak’s vacuous profundity is evidence of my lack of sophistication. To my way of thinking, a university is like jail—sooner or later, you’re going to have to go, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of, but remember: your goal is to get out and never return.

Spivak had the peculiar good fortune of benefiting from the contrast with her still more egregious moderator Chandrahas Choudhury, who had opened their panel by asking Ricks if a good critic needs to be a good reader, or a good writer, or both, or neither. Your thoughts?

Wade Davis is a good writer, even if he himself would be the first to inform you of that fact. An unmatched monster of egotism, Davis, while ostensibly moderating an hour-long session on “The Art of Biography,” gave an interminable introductory speech about his own most recent book, hilariously titled Into the Silence. A woman seated behind me shouted, “Someone stop him! This is scandalous!” Scattered applause. Davis kept talking.

There were exceptions (the charming and patient Pico Iyer, the already-mentioned Ricks, the expert if suspiciously over-rehearsed Reza Aslan, the droll Tahar Ben Jelloun), but for the most part the festival was yet another in a series of reminders that people who are socially competent tend not to choose a career in which one sits for hours at a desk in solitude.

And then there was the Ashis Nandy scandal. I don’t think my opinion of a foreign country’s free-speech laws can be very interesting: India’s citizens face challenges I don’t begin to understand, and for all I know they have developed optimal policies for managing said problems. I do not presume to render a judgment, but I can offer evidence, for I was present in the audience at Nandy’s “Republic of Ideas” panel.

What Nandy said was essentially this: Corruption is the great hope for a more equal India. It is well known that our lower classes are the most corrupt—corruption among the upper classes, it should go without saying, is of a wholly other order of magnitude, and is destroying our country—but corruption among the lower classes is most widespread, because we, the elite, have crafted legislation such that the lower classes may not enjoy our rights and privileges. If they want to enjoy them, as well they should, then they must break the laws we have used to shut them out: they must become corrupt. Good for them. Only in this way will equality increase in India. This kind of corruption is the way to a better, more just future.

 This is what the Times of India printed:

A day after author Ashis Nandy said people from OBC, SC and ST [other backward classes, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes] communities were the “most corrupt”, its fallout was resonant at the Jaipur Literature Festival on Sunday ... Police had on Saturday registered a case against Nandy and festival producer Sanjoy Roy under SC/ST act [prevention of atrocities] and also under Section 506 [criminal intimidation] of the IPC [Indian penal code] ... protesters continued pouring in at Diggi Palace seeking immediate arrest of Nandy and Roy... “We shall continue with the protest until Nandy is arrested,” said Roopchand Rehdia, district president, Jaipur unit of the BSP.

From another newspaper:

Sociologist and political commentator Ashis Nandy ignited the festival with what he said...Nandy tried to douse the flames with a clarification. But his comments, played in a spool on TV channels, spread like wildfire to far away Uttar Pradesh as well, where chief minister Mayawati exhorted organizers to throw Nandi out of Jaipur.

But that is not at all what Nandy said, except in the strict sense that the words “most" and "corrupt” are two of the many words he said: “It will be an undignified and vulgar statement but the fact is that most of the corrupt come from the OBC, the SCs and now increasingly the STs. As long as this is the case, the Indian republic will survive.” One thinks of Wesley Addy lecturing Ralph Meeker in Kiss Me Deadly: “Listen, Mike. Listen carefully. I’m going to pronounce a few words. They’re harmless words. Just a bunch of letters scrambled together. But their meaning is very important. Try to understand what they mean.”

Nandy soon apologized, and you might think that would have been the end of it. But no: yet again his apology had contained the magic words, which yet again scandalmongers could reprint shorn of context, and so off with his head.

“The case is open and shut one. Nandy was heard and seen by millions talking about SC, ST and OBC communities in bad light. Government should have arrested him before doing any investigation. I fail to understand what actually government intends to find out,” chairman of the SC/ST Commission, P L Punia, told TOI [Times of India] on Monday.

It seemed everyone had an opinion—an irresponsible, hysterical, uninformed “opinion”:

Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot said no one has the right to make accusation against a particular caste. He said the statement showed mental bankruptcy and only a person who has lost mental balance can say such things. “We will see what he has said and in what context. If he has said anything which is against the law, action will be taken against him,” Gehlot said.

 State BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] President Arun Chatruvedi [sic] also condemned the comment. “The statement is objectionable. Someone comes in a literary programme and then makes false allegations against a community cannot be accepted,” Chaturvedi said.

As the days passed and lies ceased to sell copies of newspapers, the editors began to experiment with partial truth: it had a certain attractive novelty value; perhaps someone, somewhere, might pay to read it. “That Nandy was actually making a point about upper caste corruption and the inequality that crushes the dispossessed was entirely lost on the outragers,” wrote the Hindustan Times—using valuable column inches that could instead have been devoted to reprinting Nandy’s complete remarks for all to see.

“Rich people,” Shyam told me as he drove to the next hotel, my thirteenth and final hotel of the month. “They are saying illegal to get into paper and on TV. He is knowing all the time is illegal. He is saying to get into paper. Publicity. And now being in paper every day. You are seeing paper?”

“You don’t think Nandy will go to jail.”

“No. No. Not go to jail.”

“You think he did it on purpose.”

“Every year. Every week! All the time!”

I did not attend the famous parties of the Jaipur Literature Festival. Instead I took an autorickshaw into town, looking for trouble. I made some friends, one thing led to another, and two days after the festival was over I was drinking lime soda at a wedding reception in Delhi next door to prime minister Manmohan Singh’s residence. The trip ended with a wedding: it turned out India was a comedy after all.

“Tell me,” said the editor-in-chief of Indo-European Affairs, “what do you think of Indian journalism?”

“Perhaps we might discuss some other topic,” I said.

“Give me your honest opinion.”

“Since you have pressed me on the subject,” I said, “for the most part it seems to me to be an easy way to make a living. A man just makes up anything he wants and they print it. The United States operates more or less along the same lines.”

“Really.”

“These papers are full of lies. It’s a disgrace.”

“Watch your words.”

“Next time don’t ask me what I think.”

“Give an example.”

“This Ashis Nandy scandal. I was there. He did not say it.”

“He did say it.”

“No,” I said.

“I tell you he said it.”

“I’m not an expert,” I said. “Far from it. I’m just a fool with a pencil. But I was there. Were you there?”

“I saw Nandy today,” he said. “Getting into a taxi.”

“Is he all right?”

“I told him I was with him,” he said, not answering my question. “I will not go to jail with him, of course. But I am with him in spirit.”

“Do you think he will go to jail?”

He shrugged. “The Jaipur Literature Festival,” he said, and he snorted. “Run by a Frenchman!”

“What Frenchman is that?”

“This William Dalrymple person.”

“Scottish,” I said.

“Not French?”

“Trinity College, Cambridge,” I said, “if I am not mistaken.”

“French!” he said.

“No,” I said, and he frowned. I had the sense he had not heard the word no often.

“Do you ever write about anything serious,” he said, “or only about literature?”

 

J. D. Daniels lives in Massachusetts.

 

16 COMMENTS

16 Comments

  1. parwatisingari | February 7, 2013 at 6:49 pm

    after all this bashing next year you will shamelessly be there.

  2. Abhishek | February 7, 2013 at 10:05 pm

    Loved it… Visit every year… your reward and punishment

  3. Akshay | February 8, 2013 at 12:12 am

    This is the most brilliant way to write a review. Hilarious. India’s free speech laws are terrible, but the crisis in our journalism is the real problem.

  4. Rafi Zabor | February 8, 2013 at 3:53 am

    Such a wonderful piece. That’s all.

  5. Vikram Singh Shekhawat, Prince | February 8, 2013 at 6:11 am

    All countries and people have some shortcomings. Earlier when foreigners came to India, they called it heaven in their travelogues. It was a centre of excellence in all fields – governance, spirituality, art, craft, education, dance, music, and what not? Definitely we have lagged behind in most fields due to British invasion, but then, it is the law of nature that even the tallest trees turn dry, bald and sere, and had Indians not been intelligent, they wouldn’t have been hired in large numbers by all developed countries.

    Agreed, that some are motivated by monetary gains, but that is due to westernization. You even sell water, there can be nothing shameful than that, and now, I see that in India too.

    Yes, we Indians have our opinions, but so do you.

    Conclusion: Change your vision, views will change too.

  6. kt singh | February 8, 2013 at 6:25 am

    JD Daniels has nailed it down. Jaipur lit fest is a place where writers and journalists praise each other, scratch each others backs. Most of these panelists belong to that tiny literary circle of Delhi where they again praise each other, love each other and form unified opinions. If you counter those opinions, you will be ignored and named as an ‘un-cool writer.’ There is also a great admiration for those writers who write flowery prose. If your prose is good, you can say any stupid thing and you will be appreciated for that, because a few adjectives does the trick. If you can’t say something stylistically, you are seen as an outcast, someone who can’t write or speak well, who can’t impress them by adjectives and adjectives. It’s a pompous show. Ones intellect is defined how good a prose he or she can deliver.

  7. esalian | February 8, 2013 at 8:44 am

    Ashish Nandy: “Monkey eats Bananas”
    Media: “Monkey is Bananas”
    Politicain: “No one has a right to call a monkey ‘bananas’”
    People: “We are not monkeys and we do not eat bananas”
    Rushdie: “We invent monkeys as there is bananas”
    Media: “May be the monkey eats oranges”
    Politician: “We must see if the monkey has eaten bananas”
    People: “We must imprison all bananas”
    Writers: “If there are no Monekys we shall not go bananas”
    Robert Benchly: “The surest way to make a monkey of a man is to quote him”
    H. L. Mencken: “Democracy is the art and science of running the circus from the monkey cage”
    Ben Bradlee: “You never monkey with the truth”

  8. Jenny McSheffield | February 8, 2013 at 2:43 pm

    Why is this “paris review” when its an american magazine?

  9. Electra Morgan | February 11, 2013 at 4:00 am

    Literary festivals are boring, as everyone knows. But it gives writers a chance to get out into the fresh air. You listen to them because you yourself want to be listened to, perhaps, at some point. There’s no reason for non-writers to attend. It’s boring. But what is even more boring is reading anything about said festivals, even ones with death threats. I could barely get through this, actually I didn’t.

    Now that I think of it, I’m bored with you, the Paris Review.

  10. bob | February 11, 2013 at 9:22 am

    @ Shekhawat “due to British invasion” Bollocks – if we hadn’t given you someone to hate you’d still be hating one another.

    Britain’s great gift to the world: a common enemy. And railways.

  11. Ayelet | February 12, 2013 at 2:23 am

    The bored man’s burden.

  12. bob | February 13, 2013 at 9:14 am

    Ayelet, “White Mans Burden” = cure uncivilized world by large-scale missionary. we dont DIVIDE & RULE. http://www.bl.uk/mughalindia/

    So what, if WE DONT KNOW our ancient history or civilizations, we were not “Monkeys” ok? So what india is 14 times larger than UK, Sanskrit is derived from Latin. Bollocks to all of you!

    Electra, You are right, long article but whites are never boring and that makes interest.

    Shekhawat, I am Her Most Gracious Majesty The Queens’ slave so just bear me. sorry dude, i’m helpless. But please agree that whites are great. else i will cry :( We use Great even before ‘Britain’. We will not change unless someone like Ugandan President IDI AMIN declares he is our KING and keeps white servants. We never used railways to transport WEALTH we looted. It was a public transport. Gandhi was never thrown from a RAIL, you know? We are most sensitive and kind humans. Our gift to GERMANS was treaty of Versailles; to Middle East – Afghanistan, IRAQ, Petrol, to Golden Bird (India) – poverty. We killed aboriginals of AUSTRALIA, USA, etc and settled there. But you Indians multiply so fast that we could not control you.

    @Jenny, the office is in USA but inaugurated in Paris (not Great as Britain).

  13. Gabriella | February 13, 2013 at 10:01 am

    J. D. Daniels Rocks! Wonderful writer, wrote what no one writes.

    We should not hurt sentiments of one another. Those few who are good, mind it. The bad or corrupt never give a shit to anything. But read, think and discuss.

    Yes, British Policies ensured division of Golden India (which had 45% of world share in international trade) to rule on basis of tools like caste, creed, religion, class, etc. But lets end it, Now. I’m a British and would love to marry an Indian. Can your Indian Politicians marry someone of another caste or religion? No, they can’t. You conduct census to know castes and vote bank. You are the only country giving 50% +ve (what a joke! is discrimination ever +ve??) discrimination reservation quotas for jobs and promotion on Caste Basis. Agreed, we managed to loot you, but now it’s “black british” (nepotism following dynasties). British system is far fairer and corruption free. To settle down in India would be a nightmare.

    I wonder how can one write we came to PLUNDER fabulous wealth and resources of INDIA? http://www.indianscience.org/essays/22-%20E–Gems%20&%20Minerals%20F.pdf The sun never sets in Great Britain.

    Daniels, only fearless people like you can write more to control corrupt politicians and media. Great Job daniels. You are great!

  14. Aditi C. Buyers | February 14, 2013 at 1:36 am

    The author is validly trying to point out how Indian media and government have failed to provide right environment for an event like this.
    The public or country is not to be blamed for this, but those who hold the helm of the affairs.

    India is changing for the good by efforts of people like Swami Ramdevji Maharaj, Anna Hazare, Vishwabandhu Guptaji, Subramanian Swamyji, Ramjeth Malani, Maulana Kalbe, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, Narendra Modi, etc. It will soon emerge as the Supreme Power and it’s ruler would be again addressed as “Shah Jehan” – The Emperor of World.

    This period is Kalyug (Indian Dark Age) and was mentioned to occur even in Vedas written 2500 years ago. Mayan Civilization marked end of it.

    NASA has confirmed that a bridge was made between India and Srilanka in that period which still exists and the gods of India are not mythological unlike those of other countries. They had planes (pushpak viman) and universities like Taxila. The great library of Nalanda University was so vast that it is reported to have burned for three months after the invaders set fire to it, ransacked and destroyed the monasteries, and drove the monks from the site. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nalanda

  15. I.P. Freely | February 16, 2013 at 7:49 pm

    ^ I guess this is what happens when you “write about anything serious.”

  16. Divya | August 21, 2013 at 5:55 pm

    Have mentioned your article as a “should read” since the topic was common. I have written on the Jaipur Litt fest 2012 in my blog.
    Please let me know if its a problem and you want it to be removed.
    thanks.

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