Guest post by REVATI LAUL
“Excuse me, Mr. Farooqui, I just need a sound byte from you,” said a young reporter from the fairly young news channel News X. He was talking to my friend Mahmood Farooqui, author of Besieged: Voices From Delhi 1857, co-director of the Oscar nominated film Peepli Live and founder-revivalist of Dastangoi – the rich, medieval art of storytelling. Seeing that the setting was the beautiful and quaint Diggi Palace in Jaipur with a substantial gathering of the world’s literati for the Jaipur Literary Festival, Mahmood was preparing to hold forth on storytelling, culture, 1857…when this completely unexpected gem poured forth from the fearless reporter’s lips.
“Can you sum up what you think of literature in one word?”
I wouldn’t wager a guess on the tectonic shift in Mahmood’s mind at this point but simply tell you what he said.
“The literature must be sound.”
I’m not quite sure what Mr. News X made of that, but you may agree with me that this was a SOUND byte alright.
But let this not lead you to immediate despair…for there was plenty of room to stand and stare…for those with a discerning air…some great thoughts, spoken with care.
There were the big crowd pullers – Orhan Pamuk, J M Coetzee, Ahmed Rashid, Jon Lee Anderson. They were what made me and many like me abandon work and make sure we were there. At least fifty thousand other people felt this way. Even if we throw in a bit of the customary disdain we carry around for crowds – calling them ill informed, inferior, those who flock to festivals to be seen but who never read; there were still enough enthusiastic, curious and serious readers around to make for just the right cocktail of heady conversation and headless gossip in every moment.
A comic writer I watched and heard with great interest Marina Lewycka – a London based Ukrainian said something quite profound.
“We all pretend to be very serious minded and interested in what’s going on in the world, but secretly we all want to read the celebrity gossip. So we’re all full of contradictions and therefore I found it easier to tell the story of the Middle East conflict if I could add another layer…I mean if I told people this is the story of the Israel-Palestine conflict, I’d probably hear – `We’ve heard enough.’ But if I said this is a story about bondage, I know people would want to hear more.”
So this writer read an excerpt from her book set amongst Palestinian immigrants in London…where one of the main characters has a relationship with a seedy property agent whose fetish is bondage. And she read, to a packed hall, decorated with medieval floral patterns, photos of Jesus Christ and other Victorian images -including some faces in the crowd. These were passages where this woman is strapped for sex, to her bed, in her red panties, but the man in question leaves abruptly. Meanwhile, her son returns home. She is stuck; strapped to her bed in Velcro cuffs she can’t free herself from while her son is calling out `Mummy, you want some tea…?’
Much of these very engaging conversations and exchanges happened in the smaller tent events. The lay of the land at the Lit. fest was – four tents – the largest being the Vodafone front lawn – saved for a gathering of 5-10,000, giant speakers, the biggest draws. Like the session on Af-Pak where Barkha Dutt asked Ahmed Rashid, Jon Lee Anderson, Rory Stewart, Atiq Rahimi, Jayant Prasad and William Dalrymple what they thought the way forward was in Afghanistan was. Or the M J Akbar, Basharat Peer,Mirza Waheed, Nitasha Kaul and Swapan Dasgupta session on Kashmir. Or the Orhan Pamuk, Mohsin Hamid, Kiran Desai, Chimamanda Adichie, Leila Aboulela, Nam Le session on being `out of west.’ Which many – me included, found dissatisfying because the conversations were too general and ended up leading nowhere.
The smaller tents such as the `Merrill Lynch Mughal Tent’ and the `Economist Durbar Hall’ were smaller groups. If you were lucky, you could stand at the back and peer over the heads of everyone else and see your favourite authors speak. But these discussions were much more sharply focused and the scope for audience interaction was far greater. For instance if Rory Stewart and Jon Lee Anderson had not much to say on what the future holds for Afghanistan, because perhaps that was too general a question to be answered in fifty minutes and also because there perhaps isn’t an answer to this question; in the smaller tent, the same people were razor sharp. A gripping discussion with them and a few others unpeeled what it’s like to report from an occupied land. Is it okay to be embedded with an occupying force in Iraq or Afghanistan if you’re a writer or a journalist? How does this affect your writing? Is it okay to not take sides? Do you need to have empathy for all players – soldiers, the people of Iraq/Afghanistan and the US government all at once to tell your story? Has Wikileaks changed the landscape?
I shall move on, dropping these questions freely on your plate.
Another fantastic conversation on Memoirs or the dilemmas writers face in putting them down, inevitably veered around to the question – how much is too much. To which a very straight faced Martin Amis with fabulously, bone dry wit remarked, “Well obviously you can’t ever describe the sex properly. The only person who came even halfway close to that in my opinion was Nabokov. There’s a scene in one of his books where this man is ready to have sex with this woman. He’s already in bed and she’s in front of the mirror in the changing room. She looks at herself and decides – hmm, not bad. But then just as she’s about to leave the room, she steals another glance and suddenly an image flashes in her mind of a patient in a waiting room of a dental clinic and the announcement is made – you’re next. And that moment changes everything. There was no sex.”
Speaking of sex, it was certainly on the mind of many of us lesser mortals, who’d come to the fest with the twin objective of food for thought and some plain consumption of flesh. I had many absolutely fabulous conversations with a friend all of which went something like this.
“Seen anyone interesting?”
“Ya. Look there. That girl in the grey jacket.”
“Naaaah…she’s so insipid!”
“Okay, listen. I met someone who I chatted with for two hours. I was gonna ask for her number, but didn’t then and now I’ve completely forgotten what she looks like!”
“Well then she can’t have been that engaging.”
“She was. But there are so many women to look at, I’m inundated with images. All I know is she’s white!”
Plenty of eye candy for me as well. I spotted a younger version of Javier Bardem. But I probably stared at him from across the discussion room so hard that I must’ve made him disappear. He vanished literally into thin air.
I also made an ex-colleague vanish. Someone who fashions himself as the Czar of Jaipur – in media parlance at least. With the biggest, warmest smile, he came up to me with, “Revati, you’re in my city and you never even called!”
For absolutely no fathomable reason, my tongue turned instantly sardonic – “YOUR city! How pompous!”
I use this space to apologise to you Rajan. I meant nothing by it except wit. I didn’t want you to turn into the Cheshire cat from Alice in Wonderland and disappear, leaving only your grin in my head.
And then I met someone, completely unexpectedly and it was the most fantastic part of the entire experience. I had gone for my nth bottle of beer to the massively overpriced and overcrowded watering hole, and was looking around for a place to sit when a friendly, warm, soft face looked at me and said, “Come and sit here.”
She was possibly in her fifties and my guess was – Filipino, but I was wrong. Karen was from Honolulu in Hawaii. A theatre artist who said, “I run a theatre company that is so grassroot that we began with a two member production, from my garage. When a potential funder came along, I sat him down in the garage and said – `look, we’re so grassroot we have grass growing right here, where we practice!’ ”
She was funny and endearing and talked non-stop. She had a magical gift for stories. As she started to speak, I had this strange feeling, even before she said what she did, that this conversation was going to run deep. It was going to pierce through layers of cynicism and pretence, straight to the heart of all matter.
“We took our play to old age homes, to children, to community halls, to small villages. The idea of the play came to me when I went for a walk and kept passing by this one garage with two cars parked in it, with a line painted down the middle, as a partition. I thought – who could possibly do that and why? So I invented this story about a man in my area of Hawaii who has a problem with boundaries. He needs to draw boundaries between everything. One day his wife parks her car slightly crooked and he goes and paints a line down the middle of the garage to demarcate spaces. Then there’s a line down the middle of the dining table. And a line down the middle of their bed – with a plank of wood separating his side of the bed from his wife’s. An increasingly enraged wife wonders what’s going on screams and scolds her husband and demands to know what this is all about and orders him to do away with these lines. The man goes into his bedroom, looks at the piece of wood in-between the two sides of their bed, and starts talking to it. This is the climax of the play. As he’s talking, his wife eavesdrops from a chink in the door. And the truth about his need for the boundaries comes out. It goes back World War 2, times of great stress, when he was a child. His father had put a line down the middle of the bed between him and his brother, so they could sleep easy, without fear. Now, in his old age, he was speaking to the wood as a relic from his childhood. He said the smell of the wood made him feel safe. The partition in the middle of the bed helped him get better sleep at night. He wasn’t getting very good sleep.
Having said these lines, he picks up the wood with a huge sigh and puts is into his cupboard. His wife now enters the room and asks him to put the line back.”
By the time Karen had finished speaking, I was moved to tears. There had been so many discussions on what lines to draw or re-draw between two intractable sides like India and Pakistan or Israel and Palestine or even between memory, event and fiction, outsider and insider, westerner and easterner…but it was Karen, sitting beside me, outlined by a soft afternoon sun, who drove the point home.
And then she said something else that was perhaps what I was meant to come to the festival for.
“In my land, as in many parts of the world, parents always worry about whether they’ve left enough money or land for their children. And I tell them – please remember, there is one much more precious thing you must leave your children. Stories. That must be their inheritance. You must tell them stories. We did this play about boundaries in a small field in a village,” Karen continued to say.
“When we finished, and the actors exited frame, the sun exited with them. As if it was a spotlight on us and now that the act was over, the sun moved out and the lights in the sky dimmed to grey. It was in that moment that I knew what our theatre company would be called. It translates from our Pidgin English to mean – nourishment from the earth. I believe stories can be nourishment. Essential for all of us.”
To all the nay-sayers and skeptics, to those who thought the festival was about post colonial sahibs or pretenders, I’d say – remove the lines and set yourself free.
(Revati Laul is a journalist in Delhi.)