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God to Godwin, musings to muses

Day 2 of Kolkata Literary Meet 2014, in association with The Telegraph, saw writers, journalists and a literary agent gather at the Victoria Memorial to discuss everything from Bengali literature to socio-political changes and nuances of the Constitution to the god particle.

Upekkhito Upanyas

The session saw Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, Anita Agnihotri and Tilottama Majumder in conversation with Aparajita Dasgupta on whether young Bengali novelists are avoiding the novel.

Asked if quality was being compromised in mass-producing novels, especially in Puja- special issues, Mukhopadhyay said Bengali writers these days are prepared for a race against the clock since Puja specials are unique to the Bengali community and this has in no way diminished the quality of writing. Originality is the only thing one needs to keep in mind while writing; rehashing old tales or writing in a style that has already been explored will simply not do, he insisted.

Majumder spoke about how experimenting with language, involving dialects and deliberately using “heavy” language create a new way of writing, while Agnihotri dwelt on accountability to oneself.

The three agreed that not making a mark in the commercial market in no way means that the novel remains unacknowledged. In fact, it might mean that it’s ahead of its time. And is poetry the highest form of literature? The verdict from the writers was that it is just as difficult to produce prose.

Chronicles from Danger Zones

Peter Godwin, journalist and author of The Fear: The Last Days of Robert Mugabe, spoke about the tragedies of Zimbabwe and what awaits a post-Mandela South Africa.

In conversation with journalist Sandip Roy, Godwin said: “I am hard-pressed to think of any other international figure (other than Mandela) who was also such a unifying figure.”

The affection and esteem that people felt for Mandela was based on his lack of anger, lack of rancour, revenge and his ability to forgive after spending 28 years in prison, said Godwin, adding that the upcoming general elections will be significant for South Africans because it will see the first generation born after apartheid voting.

Somoy Ashanto

Shamsul Haq, Sadaf Saaz Siddiqi and Nabamita Das engaged in a conversation with Semanti Ghosh on whether Bangladesh is really as turbulent as perceived.

Haq began by talking about the secession of Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971 and the turmoil the country went through in those years. He spoke about how religion in politics had been the main cause of strife and how youngsters these days still felt that nationalist pride in them. Haq went on to speak about how the young generation is at one with the Bengali identity, rather than religion, and how that has greatly improved the situation.

Siddiqi spoke about the heady, creative experience that was Shahbag for her, how it helped increase awareness and how social and economic changes have resulted in greater empowerment of women.

Das gave examples from her own life, about losing loved ones to the Bangladesh war and how turbulence is a continuous process.

Bittersweet Memoirs

Journalist Sayan Bhattacharya began the session with a chilling description of a four-month pregnant woman who was shipped to the Caribbean from India to work on plantations in 1903 before the “coolie woman’s great grand daughter”, author Gaiutra Bahadur, read out two passages from her book.

It was her grandmother ‘sloneliness that inspired Gaiutra Bahadur to recapture those memories in Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture. She took the help of several archives and followed Bhojpuri folk songs.

A Suitable Agent

So you are an author, perilously behind schedule, your plot going one way, your thoughts entirely another. But fret not, especially if your agent is the legendary David Godwin.

“My instinct is to go for the messy author rather than the professional ones. Messy authors are involved in a lot of other things and that I feel makes their books richer,” said Godwin, whose reputation to get his authors fat cheques from publishers is surpassed only by the fatness of the cheques he gets for them.

Godwin, who had famously got on the first plane to India after reading the manuscript of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and signed her on and also represents Vikram Seth, was in conversation with client and friend Ruchir Joshi.

“Publishing houses want books to be like other books. I don’t like that,” Godwin said, explaining why big publishing houses coming together to form large corporations was not all that good an idea. “They start insisting on when and how they want their books.”

Missed deadlines he may happily allow but Godwin drew the line when Joshi spoke about “Indian English” and the need sometimes, to describe something as “more bigger”. But not so fast, when you have Vikram Seth sitting quietly in the audience.

“On the question of ‘more bigger’ there’s this English writer, William something…. Well, he had written ‘This was the most unkindest cut of all’.” The text was called Julius Caesar. The author? Go figure.

What Young Indian Women Want

One of the evening sessions on Sunday tried to do something rather brave — define What Young Indian Women Want, though moderator Debnita Chakravarti quipped that “except Devapriya Roy, the rest of us are rather flattered to be called ‘young’”.

Speaking about what made her write, Devapriya, a novelist who described herself as a compulsive reader with a bit of a writing problem, said that while everyone has a book inside them, not being able to write it made her very anxious. And so she followed the advice of her mentor and started writing her first novel as part of her training for writing “the” book.

Bengali author Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay said sometimes she wondered, “how did I enter this circus of writing?” In her case, the training happened through the long, eloquent letters she wrote to her friends from a young age. “The letters I would send to my ex-lover had to be weighed at the post office before being sent! It’s only now that I realise that those were not love letters at all, they were my training ground,” Sangeeta smiled.

Jash Sen, an IIM Calcutta grad and mathematics teacher who has written two parts of a fantasy trilogy, said, “I don’t think of myself as a woman writer. In fact, when I started writing, I shortened my name to Jash from Jashodhara, consciously taking an androgynous name.”

Jahnavi Barua, who is a doctor by training but gave up her career in medicine to raise a family, said she wrote because writing made her happy. “That is very contradictory because it’s an unhappy profession, a depressive profession,” she laughed.

The Ideas of the Republic

What could be a more apt topic of discussion on Republic Day than the Constitution itself?

Ananya Vajpeyi, the author of Righteous Republic, urged the audience to re-read the Constitution. Her purpose behind writing the book, Vajpeyi said, was to explore and question ideas.

Professor Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, former chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research, spoke about an exchange of letters between Gandhi and Nehru in 1945 that not only highlighted the friendship between them but the differences in their approach. While Gandhi focused on the self (swa), Nehru was more concerned about sovereignty (raj).

The God Particle Decoded

Whenever physicist Bikash Sinha tries to give a talk on the Higgs boson or “god particle”, some elderly people come and try to hijack his talk into a spiritual direction, all thanks to American physicist Leon Lederman! For it was he who had called the yet-undiscovered Higgs boson a “goddamn particle” in a moment of frustration. The “damn” was done away with, the “god” stuck.

God or not, this particle made for a jolly good session on Sunday evening, even if Sinha had to squeeze 14 billion years of physics history into 15 minutes. Using visual aids, Sinha made a presentation that whooshed through time, right from The Big Bang to July 4, 2012, when the Higgs boson was finally discovered at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. In between, Sinha also busted some popular myths, like the quote “If I have seen farther it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” attributed to Sir Isaac Newton. “It was put in his mouth to make him sound pleasant,” said Sinha.

He described Jagadis Chandra Bose as one of the greatest experimental scientists and said that another Bengali physicist, Satyendra Nath Bose, after whom the boson is named, should have got two Nobel prizes, though the boson is no mean feat either.

An hour was clearly inadequate to even begin to discuss the wonders of this discovery or the contribution of a Calcutta team to CERN but Sinha at least managed to whet our “goddamn” appetite for quantum physics.

Muffled Muses

The session began with moderator Pritha Kejriwal posing a question on the role of culture in societies. Shyam Selvadurai said that, as a novelist, he felt culture provided pleasure and escapism. Each community in Sri Lanka has a different story to tell and literature provides a way to show how people meet each other, said the author of Funny Boy, Cinnamon Gardens, Swimming in the Monsoon Sea and The Hungry Ghosts.

Bangladeshi author Sadaf Saaz Siddiqi spoke about how people in her country are either pro-liberation or pro-Islamic and how the grey area is taken up by literature.

Then came the all-important question on the true character of literary festivals. While agreeing that reading was indeed a private act, Selvadurai said it also says gave many people an opportunity to hear authors speak, people who otherwise would not have had access. Sadaf compared literary meets with the Renaissance — a great platform for everyone.