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Let’s talk about ideas & identities

The firebrand

She is often described as Calcutta’s “Agnikanya”, a firebrand who constantly challenges conventions and boundaries. Columbia University professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak spoke about Sunil Gangopadhyay’s poetry, about her own upbringing in Calcutta, about colonial discourse studies and ethics in a freewheeling chat with academician Chinmoy Guha at the Sunil Gangopadhyay Memorial session on Day One of Kolkata Literary Meet.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

“I knew Sunil a long time back. I hadn’t met him in recent times. I have read his Prothom Alo, Sei Samay and other novels but it was his poetry that had touched my heart. There was a transparency in his work that also had profound depth,” said the Kyoto prize winner before borrowing a pair of reading glasses from the audience to read out Gangopadhyay’s Ami Kirokom Bhabe Benche Achi.

Spivak, born in 1942, was the first generation of Indian intellectuals after Independence. Speaking on ethics, another of her areas of study, she said: “Just reading is not an ethical act… that is ethical reflex. Ethical reading comes from reading in one’s mother tongue.” And yes, she spoke in Bengali throughout the session: “I am truly bilingual because I know my Bengali better than English. If I am asked to teach youngsters in southern Mississippi or Yorkshire, I won’t do a good job but in Birbhum I can.”

Rise of Banglish

Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay

Banglish, the language of text messages and slang, is bound to filter into the Bengali language if not alter it altogether, said Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay at Aa Mori Bangla Bhasha, the first session after the inauguration of the Kolkata Literary Meet in the Google Dome on the Book Fair grounds. The writer of Patal Ghor, Kaagojer Bou, Goynar Baksho, Banshiwala and much more did not frown upon this and said he was all for change in language and literature and enjoyed picking up new intonations and innovation from daily conversation.

Fellow-panellist Samaresh Majumdar, writer of some 60 novels, including Uttaradhikar, Kalbela, Kalpurush and numerous short stories, said that there were more book-lovers in Bangladesh than in Bengal because here people were more narrow-minded.

From across the border, Bangladeshi writer Nasreen Jahan revealed how as a budding writer she used a dictionary to find difficult words to express herself because she felt that complex themes and language defined good literature, and surprisingly enough that got accepted and became her style! Bangladeshi poet and scholar Belal Chowdhury felt that the future of Bengali literature on both sides of the border was still bright, but what was needed was more such interactions.

The discussion was moderated by critic Sankarlal Bhattacharya.

Sanjeev Sanyal

History is mystery

With professional historians failing to spice up history, others have had to step in. That, according to Michel Danino, a French scholar of Indian civilisation, at a session on history with economist, environmentalist and urban theorist Sanjeev Sanyal.

“We have a lot of mystery in history. There are so many unanswered questions,” said Danino. He went on to explain to a Google Dome full of students and teachers how 90 per cent of Harappan sites are not excavated and lost.

“History is a living, breathing subject. It should be made more contemporary,” said Sanyal, the author of The Indian Renaissance: India’s Rise After a Thousand Years of Decline. His suggestions? Include chapters on the rise and fall of cities, how the wildlife of an area changes and the study of genetics of Indians.

Marysia Juszczakiewicz

Chinese whisper

Chinese author Murong Xuecun was not able to make it to the Milan Mela grounds. Reason: The Indian embassy had not granted him a visa. But that did not stop him from being a part of KLM on Day Two.

The session Chinese Whispers saw Hong Kong-based British translator Harvey Thomlinson, Marysia Juszczakiewicz of Peony Literary Agency in Hong Kong and writer-journalist Chitralekha Basu using Skype to engage Murong on the new breed of Chinese writers who are often using the Net to voice their opinion on various contemporary issues in their country. Murong’s debut novel, Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu, was distributed online and was longlisted for the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize.

The lack of freedom of expression in China and the surveillance faced by writers at the hands of the state was discussed in some detail. “For Chinese writers the situation is very frustrating. They are often harassed by publishers who delete so-called sensitive lines or words from their manuscripts. Thus what finally comes out is a watered-down version of the original text,” Murong. Leave Me Alone, a dark, satirical and humourous take on university students, corruption and adultery had faced the editor’s axe because of its sex scenes. Its English version remains uncensored.

Talking about the axe, the conversation veered towards Salman Rushdie, allegedly denied entry into Calcutta by the Bengal government. “He is so full of new ideas. The world needs a lot of fearless writers like Rushdie,” said Murong, quite a braveheart himself.

Home alone

Home Thoughts From Abroad brought together writers Bharati Mukherjee and Mridula Koshy, in conversation with college teacher Debnita Chakravarti. Koshy and Mukherjee, both living in the US, shared with the audience how they have reacted to various changes: homes, situations and kind of readers.

“I want the audience to recognise my language,” said Koshi, who authored Not Only The Things That Have Happened and It is Sweet. “Living in India is crucial to my writing. To me it matters that people in Kerala will hear their Malayalam in my English.”

(From left) Mridula Koshy, Debnita Chakravarti and Bharati Mukherjee talk about returning to roots

Mukherjee, the author of Jasmine and Days and Nights in Kolkata, recounted tales from her childhood when they lived in a joint family on Rashbehari Avenue. “I grew up in a bilingual Bangla household, very conscious of the concept of insider and outsider.”

Both Mukherjee and Koshy agreed that while people leave home and move on, they often look forward to returning to the roots.

The black box

Both the micro and macro view of Pakistan from the US seems to be of a “black box where terrible things happen”.

So, when John R. Schmidt, a US foreign policy expert, and Deborah Baker, a biographer (and Amitav Ghosh’s wife), teamed up with Pakistani journalist-cum-author-cum-musician Ali Sethi for a KLM session titled A Passage to Pakistan, it soon turned into an America-bashing session.

((From left) Deborah Baker, Ali Sethi and John R. Schmidt at the Google Dome for KLM 2013

“I tried to explain through my book (The Unravelling: Pakistan in the Age of Jihad) to the English-speaking people the great conundrum in Pakistan, by narrating its history,” said Schmidt, a professor of Elliot School of International Affairs. “It is only when America’s interests are directly engaged for some reason or another that we tend to take any attention at all to what is going on in Pakistan,” he added.

Deborah, author of The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism, a biography of Mariam Jameelah, a Jewish New Yorker who converts to Islam, blamed both the insensitive rich elite of Pakistan and the political, security and intellectual establishment of America, along with its media, for the ignorance and cavalier attitude about the ground reality in Pakistan.

Anger management

“Everyone is angry. Never met anyone who isn’t. Anger is a way of surviving. Especially when you’re living in a country that is undergoing changes every five years. If the mood in the UK is boredom and loneliness, in India it’s anger. ”

Coming from the maker of Shanghai, that mirrored more than one form of anger, this packed in quite a punch.

Dibakar Banerjee was speaking out at a session titled Through a Lens Darkly, on Thursday evening, with Saeed Mirza, the maker of Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyoon Aaata Hai, and Q, the maker of Gandu, on stage along with Sangeeta Datta, the maker of Life Goes On.

“I was strongly political, still am, but not in the conventional sense. I don’t think any political party will tolerate my intellectual anarchism,” said Mirza, touching upon the “futility” of anger, having “actually walked away from it”.

For Q, “Cinema is dead.” Why, pray? “Filmmakers don’t argue, fight and abuse each other anymore. There’s no idealism that my father and his friends in their generation believed in.”