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India Dal-rumpled & loving it
Literary festivals now are more about exotic India, Sufi nights upon the golden sands, camels and folk dancers, and about memories of memsahibs and maharajas.
It's the kumbh mela of all literary festivals. If it's January, it's got to be Jaipur. The Pink City transforms into a vast concourse of tents and shamianas as the world's literati swoop down to peck and preen their feathers in the midst of the hungry local avians.
Once the hallowed haven of Oxbridge academics invited to graze respectfully at the high table of English learning at venues such as the Cambridge Seminar or Cheltenham, literary festivals offer a banquet of bewildering choices. The British Council provided the blueprint for such events, inviting a leading scholar-writer to mediate over a carefully chosen band of faithfuls while discretely promoting their publishers, poets and authors to illuminate what was clearly meant to be literature.
Participants actually dressed for dinner. Meeting a famous author, an Iris Murdoch perhaps, or even Doris Lessing, was the equivalent of an audience with the Queen at Buckingham Palace. Speeches were prepared and given over glasses of excellent wine under the gaze of ancient keepers of the English language who chuckled amongst themselves over the gaffes made by nonnative speakers stumbling over their Vs and Ws.
Now, of course, blue stockings have been chucked for wrap-around skirts and sequined salvar suits. As Bachi Karkaria, writer and progenitor of her own Lit Fest in Mumbai, famously remarked, the Grand Panjamdrum of the JLF, William, is most often seen wearing his kurtas Dal-rumpled. That of course is what gives the Jaipur jamboree its special flavour, it's not about literature but about exotic India. It's about Sufi nights upon the golden sands, about camels and folk dancers, about memories of memsahibs and maharajas suffused with the famous Indian rope trick of words shimmying up into the air for anyone to grab.
Talking about the tilt from West to East was David Milliband, the hot and handsome British MP from South Shields. As Foreign Minister for the previous Labour government, Milliband was invited to Chennai recently by the scions of the Apollo Hospitals Group, Preetha and Vijay Reddy, to speak about "The emerging new world order: economic and politics". Most people in the audience where puzzled about why he was there at all. It seemed to be a very far-off constituency for a politician plotting his comeback trail.
He was candid enough to admit that he had known nothing at all about his generous hosts until he "googled" them and discovered how big they were in the healthcare trade. During the course of his talk he underlined how Indians are not only amongst the worlds most vocal netizens, they have the advantage of being heirs to the global language of communication - English.
"Well," said Milliband in his most winsome manner, "India is the success story of South Asia - that is a fact. " Was there a sense of wistfulness, one wondered, when he also said: "There should be a greater strengthening of ties between India and the UK because of our shared history and values, " to which he might have added the English language?
Are literary festivals the latest way of asserting the primacy of English over the regional languages, as some writers allege? Will there ever be a festival of regional languages in India?
Mini Krishnan, publisher and editor at OUP (Oxford University Press) and midwife to dalit writers and translations, is cautiously optimistic about a spillover effect from the English to the regional. As she says, "Since it is all reported/analysed by the English media, the primary guns are blown for WiE (writers in English) but. . . Translations from Indian languages can no longer be ignored (having gained some momentum with at least a 100 really outstanding works over the past decade) so our regional language writers are also getting some air. The day our regional-language writing is recognised as the primary cultural products of the country they truly are (instead of its present marginalised status) we will see festivals for them.
"An accusation often chucked at WiE is that they are packaging the mystique of India for foreign readership. But I fear that a deeper betrayal might soon be revealed through translation: Indian language writers writing so they might be easily translocated in English!"
From a paperback to a camel's back, translocations in Googleland is what it's all about. May a thousand festivals bloom in the desert air.
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