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DELICIOUS IRONIES
- Self-confident cosmopolitanism in a literature festival

When I first attended the Jaipur Literature Festival six years ago as a speaker for their concluding public debate, the event was held in the Durbar Hall of the Diggi Palace Hotel which could, at best, accommodate some 300 people. These days, the Durbar Hall counts as one among the smaller meeting rooms for the festival, an annual event which, this year, registered something like two lakh ‘footfalls’—up by an astounding 80,000 from 2012.

The complaint which I have often heard, that the literature festival has been transformed into a general tamasha where people turn up for no apparent reason, is probably legitimate. This year, I was astonished to see nearly 800 people crowd into the tent where the popular classicist, Tom Holland, delivered a fascinating lecture on how Persia emerged as the middle kingdom in the classical world. I am not sure how much of Holland’s erudition sank in but at least there was a sense of relief that no fringe group rushed to the dais to attack the author for his innovative interpretation of early Islam in his earlier work In The Shadow of the Sword.

Tom’s sibling James, nursing a black eye from a game of cricket the day before, may have had other fears. A military historian with nearly a dozen published works under his belt, he was understandably concerned whether anyone at all would show up for the session on his book Dam Busters, about the 1943 air raid that destroyed two iconic dams in western Germany. As the moderator for the session, I shared James Holland’s anxieties. There is, after all, nothing more dispiriting than addressing five drowsy individuals and 295 empty chairs.

We did succeed in attracting a modest gathering of some 60 people, including many whose initiation into World War II history was courtesy Combat comics that depicted all Germans as clumsy oafs whose vocabulary didn’t extend beyond “achtung” and, for some inexplicable reason, “donner und blitzen”. They appreciated James’s potted history of the making of the bouncing bombs, the skills and hazards of low-flying precision bombing, and his spirited debunking of the belief that Britain won the war by clinging to the coat-tails of the Americans. There was even an awkward smirk on the faces of the handful of Britons when I made a fleeting mention of Squadron Leader Guy Gibson’s black Labrador — immortalized by the legendary 1955 film starring Michael Redgrave. Overall, it was a lovely, quirky session that appealed to the handful that appreciated the difference between the Lancaster and the Mosquito.

It is this appeal to minority tastes that distinguishes the festival in Jaipur from other similar exercises in India. Yes, there is the ritual genuflection at the altar of ‘bhasha’ correctness, the mandatory sessions on Bollywood (where Javed Akhtar can hold any audience spellbound) and cricket (this year it was Rahul Dravid’s turn to be mobbed), and the invariable celebrations of spiritualism featuring the holiest of holies — the Dalai Lama, no less. But these, I would like to believe, are largely to attract the sponsors. If it wasn’t for the large numbers of youngsters who throng to Jaipur — “We never see young faces at similar events in Britain”, Howard Jacobson (author of The Finkler Question) told me happily — the likes of Coke, Google and Tata Steel wouldn’t have cared to sponsor a literature festival.

Two years ago, I even noticed the London Library on St James’s Square among the sponsors. It was a noble gesture based on hyperbolic assumptions. Amid all the hype and the needless controversies centred on Salman Rushdie’s threatened presence last year and Ashis Nandy’s off-the-cuff wisdom this year, there is a paradox that India needs to address. There has been an explosion of literary festivals that amount to a celebration of reading. At the same time, there has been no corresponding growth in either the sale of books or the reading habit.

Yes, there has been an exponential growth in the number of publishing houses setting up shop and the numbers of people convinced that they are the next best thing after Salman Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh — for some odd reason, no one talks of Sir Vidia Naipaul any longer. Indeed, the Eton-educated British MP of Ghanian origin, Kwasi Kwarteng, who possesses a wicked sense of humour, offended many literary groupies in Jaipur by suggesting that the Indian who parachuted into a god-forsaken African country in search of a disaster travelogue was guilty of the same presumptuousness that whites were once charged with by angry ‘post-colonial’ audiences. Fortunately, as I discovered in Jaipur with an enormous sense of relief and reassurance, earnest young women mouthing platitudes in a language that is both strident and incomprehensible may well be a thing of the past. Or, at least, the phenomenon hasn’t seriously infected the Pink City Circus.

In a land where, at least for a disproportionate number of English-reading people, the road to enlightenment runs through a Chetan Bhagat novel and an MBA degree, it is easy to intimidate people into looking for the Exit sign at the mention of literature. What used to be a pleasurable activity involving the human experience was successfully transformed by the high priests of ‘post-modernism’ and other lifestyle diseases into something utterly fearful or, worse still, boring. For me, a worrying feature of literary festivals in India was the nagging fear that the appreciation of books and writing would degenerate into a seminar on the inadequacies of the intellectual architecture of what we, bound up in reams of ‘false consciousness’, imagined was creative stuff.

In what I thought was a piece of delicious irony, the festival organizers scheduled a discussion on Rudyard Kipling involving three of his biographers — Charles Allen, David Gilmour and Andrew Lycett — on the morning of Republic Day. As the moderator for the session, I had gently told the three Britons that they should speak their mind and not be concerned with how Kipling is perceived in the corridors of political correctness. At the same time, I was a little concerned that some prickly soul in the audience wouldn’t find the ‘White Man’s Burden’ and the grudging tribute to the Fuzzy-Wuzzy in the Sudan terribly funny, and respond with the “unreasonable petulance of small children, always morbidly afraid that someone is laughing at them” — Kipling’s amusing caricature of the Bengali.

Belying expectations, I discovered something that restored my faith in Hindoostan: that decades of contrived anti-imperialist propaganda haven’t been able to kill India’s abiding love for Kipling. Gilmour explained the paternalist underpinnings of ‘White Man’s Burden’; Lycett read “We and They” which could well have been written by a professional multiculturalist; and Allen held forth on Kipling’s love affair with Buddhism in Kim. An intervention from the audience suggested that Stalky & Co hadn’t been bettered as boys’ boarding school tales; an IAS officer disputed that there were a few Bengalis in late-Victorian Lahore for Kipling’s Bengali allergy to have been born of ignorance; and a woman journalist reminded everyone that politics be damned, Kipling remained the master of children’s stories.

For me, this Republic Day was really an Empire Day as I shuttled between Kipling, Lord Cromer, Lord Lugard and the legacy question. I was struck that the full-throated demands for the de-colonization of the mind were swamped by the self-confident cosmopolitanism of a generation willing to discuss Empire, appreciate it and laugh at its many thousand absurdities. Jaipur facilitated that conversation because it was structured on the belief that Indians aren’t the narrow-minded, dreary, uptight bores the official custodians of taste make them out to be.