There’s nothing literary about the Jaipur Literary Festival. It’s as political as political is. The list of who’s who that make up its firmament year after year reads like the Forbes List of Liberal Fundamentalists. Perhaps Dalrymple’s List of Liberal Fundamentalists is a more accurate phrase. What “literature” have Shobaa De, Manil Suri, Pankaj Mishra, Ashis Nandy, Sonia Falerio, Suketu Mehta, Annie Zaidi, Anurag Mathur, and Tarun Tejpal written? Here’s a sample of the kind of “literary” discussions you get at that “festival:” political trash, milking the victimhood mammary, non-existent identity issues, gender nonsense, and the rest.
And it isn’t surprising because what has been bandied about as literature starting roughly from a couple of decades after World War 2 is usually this: sob stories of oppressed/colonized people, shrill & vacuous feminism, and increasingly, micro-sub-specialization of the Oppression/Victimhood sob stories—here’s an idea for your next novel: The Utterly Agonizing (or Utterly Heroic) Story of a Black (oh wait, make that “African American”) Muslim American Woman, the child of a single dad, who struggles against all odds to become a pilot in an international airline. For added drama, have this pilot-chick go in search of her mother who had left the family when this pilot-chick was a kid. In the course of her flying to various international destinations, bring her to India where she finds that her mother was a Dalit nurse who had briefly stayed in the US, fell in love with this pilot-chick’s African American Muslim father and gave birth to her.
THIS is the specimen of “literature” served at vulgar political charades like the Jaipur Literary Festival. Hell, you don’t even need to read such books in full: just the title & a few words in the blurb is enough to give you a fair idea of the variety of the manure within.
If you look at it, the Jaipur Literary Festival is an evil food chain of sorts. It was founded by a person, who Harstosh Singh Bal describes best:
…what is of interest in this context is not Dalrymple the man, but Dalrymple the phenomenon. How did a White man, young, irreverent and likeable in his first and by far most readable India book, The City of Djinns, become the pompous arbiter of literary merit in India?
“Pompous arbiter of literary merit in India” pretty much sums up William Dalrymple who seems to have gamed the system quite well. He spouts exactly what the “native” secular-liberal fundamentalists want to hear—Google for “william dalrymple hindu fundamentalism.” And as Hartosh Bal’s essay says, Dalrymple has mastered the art of exploiting the Macaulayite Indians English writer’s insatiable drooling for the riches & recognition that getting published by the UK literary establishment bring. Earlier, a Genocide Suzie had to go through a pretty painstaking process to get the attention of the British literary world followed by the consequent goodies. Today, Dalrymple offers a shortcut: Home Delivery, year after year. Who knows, even a S Anand might win the Booker in 2014.
As a garnishing of sorts, they’ll invite a Kapil Sibal to ruminate meaningfully on The Truth of Poetry and the Truth of Politics despite the fact that Dalrymple & co know the exact nature of the “truth” of Sibal’s politics of Zero-loss. Sibal, the man who recently issued a fatwa against free speech, was invited to the same jamboree to which a writer, who continues to live under the sword of another fatwa by Islamic fanatics was also invited. The irony of this was perhaps lost on Dalrymple. Maybe not.
Enter Salman Rushdie.
Salman Rushdie’s prose is mellow and he crafts it with a finesse that’s hard to attain. And that’s pretty much all there is to his novels. Without exception—that includes Midnight’s Children—all his books are a bore to read. He is, in the memorable phrase of Richard Crasta, a “public school writer.” His writing is—no matter how exquisite the language is—fit for submittal for grading to a high school headmaster. But his short stories, like the Prophet’s Hair and the Shelter of the World are delightful to read. Yet they still do not fall in the realm of literature as understood as an art form. Yet Rushdie continues to remain a huge draw. The reason is the same: he was the first Indian writer in English to make it phenomenally big and thus set a template for other hopefuls to emulate. And the reason he became enormously successful was simply because of one word: politics. Midnight’s Children proved that Churchill was right when he said that Indians were fit to be governed by others: check out the elaborate passages in the novel that describe the Emergency among other bad stuff that happened post Independence. The chunk of the Brit society that wanted to feel good about having done a service to India by oppressing it was enthralled: nice brown boy writing in flawless English about what an awful place India has become! As were those Empire-nostalgic racists who wrote reviews like “The literary map of India has to be redrawn… Midnight’s Children sounds like a continent finding its voice.” In other words: we fucked them for 200 years and now they’re fucking themselves.
Look what happened ever since: every wannabe Rushdie began to ruthlessly mine the Indian society to unearth its “inherent” evils—which usually meant this or that variant of the “caste system”—and reinforced the Western stereotype about India as a backward, and primitive nation. Pick any random novel by the likes of say, Rohinton Mistry. You find stuff like “…and the Brahmin lifted his buttock and farted loudly in the face of the poor low-caste labourer working on the farm who hid his disgust and continued to stand there reverentially with folded hands,” fantasizing all the while, “One day, I will become Salman Rushdie!” There maybe a Vikram Seth and a Genocide Suzie but Rushdie still remains nulli secundus. Dalrymple isn’t unfamiliar with the slobbering of our own desi literary imitation-coolies. Here’s Hartosh Singh Bal again, telling us how this works:
Since the original article was published, the Dalrymple bio at the Jaipur Lit Fest website has been amended. The additions in the few days since I wrote my piece are telling. They include the Crossword Prize for Non-Fiction for The Last Mughal, the first Asia House Prize for Asian Literature for Nine Lives and the French Prix D’Astrolable for The Age of Kali. These additions only serve as a tacit admission of the truth of what I had written: ‘This director of an Indian literary festival does not consider it important to mention an Indian prize he may have received or an Indian publication he may have written for. His eyes are trained on the recognition that Britain’s literary world offers (even if there is the hint that commercial success in India has started mattering), and in that recognition lies his strength.’
Not bad. Dalrymple’s flexible spine makes the necessary twists to suit the occasion. However that maybe, he gives our wannabe Rushdies an opening of sorts right on home ground. In return, they mine deeper to extract newer and newer muck. The politics of the day actively encourages “social justice” of this sort. Sibal & co get invited. The Food Chain runs flawlessly with all the right ingredients.
Which makes us revert to the same question: what business does an Oprah Winfrey have in an ostentatious “festival” of literature? This news report explains:
…Oprah’s underprivileged beginnings and how she has focussed her energies on helping not just abused women (Oprah was abused growing up)…
So there: that again fits the template for who is an authority on literary matters: the right skin color, the right gender, the right kind and amount of beatings & abuse you’ve received…actually no. What really counts is that how effectively you encash your sob story. A person with dignity never recounts his or her painful past much less use it as an instrument for financial and/or career success. Oprah Winfrey has made Abuse Porn an insanely-successful multimillion dollar commercial venture. And that says a lot about the stalwarts and stars at the Jaipur Literary Festival who erupted in spasms of rapture at her mere presence there. Or for that matter a guy like Tarun Tejpal whose paper uses extortion-like methods to get what it wants, and whose qualifications as a literary luminary are at best alleged. Or a pretty face like Nidhi Razdan. It’s actually a tad uncharitable to blame Oprah: she came here because she was invited.
The fact that no serious regional writer was invited to this “festival” is very telling. The ones that do get invited—H.S. Shivaprakash, U R Ananthamurthy, and Girish Karnad for example—are invited purely for ideological reasons. The White Mughal and his Indian courtiers ensconced in the fancy enclaves of their own making rarely go beyond the outskirts of India’s big cities. Which is why they have zero knowledge of the vibrant regional literary scene in India. A regional literary festival is a festival in every sense and—I have been to several—is far richer and enriching. Literary discussions happen there with none of the politically correct nonsense spouted in the name of Writing and Resistance and The Good Muslim.
So let’s just call the Jaipur Literary Festival by its proper name: it is the Festival of the Politically Correct Sissies. Forget literature, most of the luminaires that dot this charade care nothing about free expression, and their support for Salman Rushdie is as fake as Rushdie’s fame as a literary genius. They’re self-aggrandizing, brazen careerists and will sway according to the changing wind. They hit you when they know you can’t or won’t retaliate. They make the right noises as long as it’s safe for them to do so. They abandon the very ideal they claim to hold dear at the first hint of danger and scoot like cowards. They are sissies. Part 2 of this post shows how.