Asia’s biggest five-day literary event of the year, the Jaipur Literature Festival 2012 was successfully held from January 20-24, 2012. As expected, it was an intellectual paradise, with writers swarming not only from India but abroad as well. Though the controversy surrounding Salman Rushdie attending the festival loomed the event, but the event was as successful as ever. The much-awaited Jaipur Literature Festival 2012 was held in the pink city of Jaipur from January 20-24, 2012 at the lush locales of Diggi Palace. The fair has grown significantly over the last five years. This year, the show attracted over 1.27 lakh visitors, almost 100 percent increase over that of the last year.
The inaugural session started with poetry readings from translations of Kabir and Tukaram. The keynote address was given by Purushottam Agarwal and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. There was a session on little magazines, whose editors talked about casting aside the commercial aspect in order to ensure more freedom of expression in the magazines. Ashok Chakradhar’s humorous and satirical Hindi poetry dazzled audiences and so did Gulzar’s rendition of his latest poems.
Pakistani writer Mohammed Hanif was an audience favourite with his witty one-liners, through all the five days, at various sessions. So was Girish Karnad, as he read some interesting passages from his autobiography. Michael Ondaatje read from his latest book and spoke on the importance of keeping the scene incomplete after a sentence.
There was a little commotion when Jeet Thayil, Hari Kunzru, Ruchir Joshi and Amitava Kumar, were asked to leave the festival after they read extracts from Salman Rushdie’s banned book, The Satanic Verses. But, the festival gained its normalcy soon after that.
Hindi literature was well represented with the likes of Ashok Vajpeyi, Ramkumar Singh, Yatindra Mishra and Chandrakanta, who regaled the audiences with their readings. Malayalam poet K Satchidanandan, Tamil writers Charu Nivedita and Bama Faustina, Cheran, were among those who represented southern literature.
Best-selling authors like Chetan Bhagat and Amish Tripathi attracted huge crowds. Writers like Kunal Basu, Rahul Bhattacharya, Lionel Shriver, Romesh Gunesekara added to the mix. So did social activists and conservationists like Valmik Thapar, Anuradha Roy and Aruna Roy.
If at one session there were readings of Mirabai, the other one had Richard Dawkins comparing religion to a computer virus. The gay writing community was represented by Hoshang Merchant and R Raja Rao.
Some of the interesting topics of discussion included Inglish, Amlish, Hinglish: the Chutneyfication of English; Creativity, Censorship and Dissent; Kavita Kosh: the Rhymopaedia; The Return of the Rishis; Thugs, Emperors and Convicts: the art of Historical Fiction; Journalism as Literature; Writing and Resistance; to name a few.
In all, the festival was a writers’ paradise, where they could meet and interact with the most important people in their life – their readers (though some people commented as where were they?).
So what was happening at the Jaipur Literature Festival before the gallant four distracted everybody with their readings from Rushdie’s Satanic Verses?
The festival really began with remarkable observations on shifting attitudes towards various genres today and, of course, discussions on the latest trends in writing and publishing (as usual) – one of them being perceptions and perspectives on writing gender (as usual), except that they weren’t talking feminism here (perhaps not so usual).
R Raj Rao (professor of English and Queer Theory at the University of Pune) and Hoshang Merchant (professor of Poetry and Surrealism at Hyderabad University), both recognised as leading writers of gay fiction in India, came together to discuss gay fiction, queer theory, and the business of being a writer.
Interestingly, some significant points were thrown up by both the speakers during the session: that what used to be gay writing earlier is now queer literature; that there is a difference between queer and queer theory (studies challenging social constructs regarding sexual identity); that gay writers do not find the same place in the writing circles or the society as other writers.
Essentially, the term ‘gay’ was changed to ‘queer’ since ‘gay’ was considered restrictive and left out the three significant others – LBT. According to the speakers, over time, there’s been a shift in Literature reflecting these changes in trends. There has also been a de-centring of normativity (largely heteronormativity or the belief that heterosexuality is ‘normal’ while homosexuality is not). Queer theorists the world over have challenged those assumptions.
Given the current trends, India’s own pride parade – and a rather vibrant one at that post Section 377 repeal, it was interesting that Raj Rao should say the gay movement and gay writing are moving in opposite directions – the former towards acceptance, the latter away from it.
Both the writers agreed that gay writers still do not find the same place in the society as other writers. Merchant said, ‘It’s difficult to be noticed when you’re on the margins. I’m a writer. Why am I a gay writer?’
Rao said, ‘The fact that you’re a writer is overlooked. We’re literary scholars.’ Yet, a dilemma does exist – to assert one’s identity while, at the same time, trying to meld into the conventional stream. It was obvious from his next sentence. ‘If I say that I aspire to be a mainstream writer, I’m denying I’m a gay writer, which is also not the case.’
Rao offered the example of Vikram Seth and said that, as a writer, one should try one’s hand at everything. His statement was immediately and vehemently opposed by Merchant who declared Seth as ‘an enemy in my camp’ because he believed/believes Seth shouldn’t be writing mainstream fiction. That was an interesting moment at the venue since a woman from the audience was up in arms immediately, and more comrade hydra heads would have popped up within seconds had the moderator not put an end to the ‘comments’ from the audience and diverted attention right away.
Regarding ‘self on the page versus self lived’, the authors confessed that it was difficult to say which was more authentic. ‘There’s no “authentic”. There’s been enough platinising. We’re also playing roles,’ said Merchant. ‘Genres are foisted upon the author.’
Addressing the same question, Rao brought back the issue of queer theory. He explained that is precisely what it is about – insincerity, projection, and skirting the core issues.
Both writers also admitted that there has been a constant element of fear in their writerly lives. It is unsurprising in those who have lived under the cloud of Section 377 for several years, first grappling with their own sexuality, and then grappling with talking about it through the medium of their script. Merchant described sitting and weaving together a coherent text as an act of heroism. ‘When I started, there were no gay presses, so mainstream publishers had to take up my writing,’ he said. ‘My autobiography was more open … I was afraid to write.’
"Whatever has to be said has to be said in the writing," said Rao. He mentioned that his first short story appeared in Debonair in 1986, when he was starting out his career, and the first question he faced from a friend was, ‘Aren’t you afraid?’
Merchant referred to himself a fascist homosexual and a high-class Parsi communist, with a laugh. He maintains that globalisation is blurring the lines between heterosexual and homosexual everywhere but in bed. He was categorical about the fact that he is what he is and will remain that way.
It is good to see more writers speaking up in the same vein that we witnessed as publishers of Mahesh Natarajan’s Pink Sheep, a collection of short stories (gay fiction) published sometime ago. One of the reviewers wrote, Pink Sheep may remind you a little of RK Narayan’s Malgudi, except that the protagonists are homosexual.’ It’s indeed not their extraordinariness but ordinariness that is striking in these works. Hopefully, these writers will not be left whistling in the dark in the times to come.
–Divya Dubey, publisher, Gyaana Books
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