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Literature is the key to foster understanding between cultures. ROANNA GONSALVES on AILIF
One passionate scholar. 12 Indian writers. 24 Australian writers. Innumerable stories. This was the Australia India Literatures International Forum (AILIF), held at our magnificent house of books, the State Library of New South Wales from September 4 to 6, 2012. The legendary writer and actor Girish Karnad led a stellar contingent of writers from India who shared the space with many Australian writers including award winning Indigenous writers Alexis Wright and Ali Cobby Eckermann.
A love affair and the birth of AILIF
Before we continue with the story of AILIF, we must first tell the story of how AILIF was born. It is in part, the story of a Delhi girl, Dr Mridula Nath Chakraborty from the Writing and Society Research Centre (WSRC) at the University of Western Sydney (UWS), the passion and brains behind AILIF. The story bears telling because it reaffirms the value of multilingualism and the value of a ground-breaking event such as AILIF. It began when Dr Chakraborty or Mridula as she is familiarly called, became fascinated by the work of the celebrated Hindi writer, Munshi Premchand when studying in an English medium school in Delhi . Upon the insistence of her mother, she then learnt to read and write in her mother tongue, Bengali. The story continued when Mridula began working with Katha, the acclaimed publishing house that specializes in translations, and she fell deeply in love with Indian literature in translation, finding a “renewed sense of the fantastically expressive intricacies and idioms of the vernacular tongues, the regional languages of India ”. However, it is upon her arrival in Australia that the plot thickens. Mridula’s eloquent words tell us of a journey of revelation, one that many of us have undertaken as Indian immigrants to Australia , finding that Australia is truly multilingual, with almost 400 languages spoken here by people of 270 ancestries. With the backing of the WSRC at UWS, and its very supportive director Prof Anthony Uhlmann, she was spurred onto action.
“I came to this country four years ago with the usual stereotype of it being a monolingual nation. But by simply taking a train, I would encounter the sounds and languages from all corners of the world in all their energy and urgency,” she revealed. “I was increasingly aware of the many indigenous languages that resound in this continent. Even as I enjoy the spectacular style and success of Indian writing in English, I knew that I wanted to showcase vernacular Indian literature in all its richness. Most of the world knows and celebrates Indian writing in English, but does not really have any sense of the breadth and depth of its 22 official regional languages and 300 dialects, or the literatures that flourish in them. This is what I wanted to bring to Australia . AILIF is a coming together of these soundscapes, these multifarious tongues of the world, from my home country to this one. The scale was large to begin with; but it was astonishing to discover the many Australian voices I found in the process of bringing my two worlds together. I knew that I would have to pick and choose between the Indian languages, but doing the same with Australian literature was even more difficult, given the range of established and equally talented emerging voices I kept finding”.
NS Madhavan, the much-admired Malayalam writer, in his presentation at AILIF, memorably spoke of the Malayalam language as being perforated. The image of a perforated language, bringing to mind the borders of the old dot matrix printer paper or a fishing net, is so potent that it immediately lays bare the primacy and inevitability of perforation in human existence, as is in the natural world around us. It reminds us that like Malayalam, our lives, stories, and indeed all our languages are perforated, full of necessary and welcoming holes, where currents of influence from the East, West, North, and South, from above, from below, from all around, may blow in and blow out, endlessly regenerating and reshaping the very holes themselves.
For those of us involved with creating new stories of Australia ’s multicultural reality, the idea of perforations also reminds us of the primacy of diversity, and we applaud the role played by AILIF in celebrating this.
“AILIF is a salutary reminder that like genetic diversity, we need linguistic diversity, or else the human tongue will wither away and perish like a single strand of DNA,” said Mridula. “At a time when Asia is becoming increasingly important to Australia , and Indian migration is on the rise here, it is important to remember that India exists in myriad tongues, religions, cultures and modalities. Indian writing in English usually offers a metropolitan view of the contrasts and contradictions of the vast subcontinent. Vernacular literature offers a valuable way of understanding these nuanced multiplicities of India and opens the window to a textured, layered world”.
She went on, “Outside of cricket, Australia occupies a limited space in the Indian imagination. As bilateral relations between the two nations increase in coming decades, it will be critical to understand what makes this island nation tick. What better way to enter this world than through its aboriginal, indigenous and multicultural literatures, which tell unique stories about the nation to itself and the world?”
The other thing about perforations is that they can erase boundaries and facilitate exchange. Mamang Dai from Arunachal Pradesh reminded us about the numinous exchange between the human and the non-human, of talking to the land and listening as the land talks back. Bem Le Hunt, the Indian-English-Australian writer of three acclaimed novels, reminded us of those primal perforations between fact and fiction itself.
“The minute you write about a place it becomes fictional,” she said.
Prabodh Parikh’s enchanting presentation on the art of Tagore pointed to exchanges within the self, to the overflow of self while erasing the self. Mahmood Farooqui’s enthralling lecture-demonstration of Dastangoi, an ancient form of epic storytelling in Urdu, pointed, among other things, to perforations of formal conventions to revive and reinvent fading performative forms. Sharon Rundle and Meenakshi Bharat have been creatively perforating literary borders between India and Australia with their much-commended edited anthologies of short stories by Indian and Australian writers, Alien Shores (2012) and Fear Factor: Terror Incognito (2010).
Dhoti borders and other challenges
AILIF was also a space where the dirt could be gathered from under the carpet and brought once more, into the light. CS Lakshmi (Ambai) recounted the times when she was used to being patronized and dismissed by male writers who would complement her on her looks or her clothes, rather than on her writing. So she decided to give them a taste of their own medicine, saying, “The border of your dhoti is really beautiful! Where did you buy it? I would also like to buy one for my husband.” The appreciative laughter from the audience did not mean that women writers scorn genuine and well-phrased compliments; instead that such compliments must not come at the expense of recognizing and valuing the actual writing itself.
When Gogu Shyamala spoke very movingly and with fierce intelligence about the struggles, triumphs, everyday joys and sorrows of the Dalit people of Telangana, there were few dry eyes in the audience. She spoke of language being highly politicized, and of how she writes in an indigenous, ‘authentic’ Telegu that is vastly different from the Sanskritised Telegu spoken by the powers that be. Our languages are perforated differently by the different politics of the places in which they are spoken. So while in India , Sanskrit may be the language of oppression and erasure for some; in Australia , it is a language that maybe used to resist oppression and erasure, deliberately marking diversity and claiming legitimacy within a multicultural society, as the Indian Australian poet Michelle Cahill told us through her precise and illuminating poetry. Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih from Meghalaya, in enlightening and entertaining the audience with his poem about a ‘cantankerous mother’, reminded us of the power of words and the responsibility with which they must be handled.
The politics of the publishing world did not go unremarked. Kabita Dhara, founder of Brass Monkey Books, an Australian publishing house that aims to publish writing from India in Australia , said she was “looking for stories that show how similar we are rather than how different we are”. Yet she and Mita Kapur from Siyahi Literary Agency – a writer herself, spoke of the challenges they faced with the dearth of literary sensitivity and professionalism of some publishers and booksellers in India and elsewhere. Sharan Kumar Limbale, the Dalit writer and activist writing in Marathi pointed to an economy of oppression within publishing. He spoke of the challenges faced by Dalit writers trying to get published and paid in an industry dominated by upper castes. “If anything is revolutionary (in a manuscript), they just delete it,” he said. Uday Prakash, the celebrated Hindi writer, spoke of the majority of writers who are very poorly paid by many roguish Indian publishers.
Storytellers of our culture
As a growing presence in Australia , we in the Indian Australian community want to see ourselves in the mirror of the Australian story. What does it mean to be an Australian? Does being Indian Australian fit into that story? Writers are the storytellers of our culture, be it Indian, Australian, or Indian-Australian. The AILIF panel chaired by Christopher Cyrill, comprising emerging Indian Australian writers such as Manisha Amin, Aashish Kaul, Chris Raja, Kunal Sharma, and this writer, try to tell the stories of Indian Australians. In doing so we are trying to write ourselves into the larger multicultural, multilingual Australian story, writing back but also writing forward, writing ourselves into this Australian landscape while being mindful of course, that it always was and always will be, Aboriginal land.
Finally, Mridula’s words amplify the whispers around the State Library during AILIF, where appreciative multilingual conversations repeatedly asked for more such encounters, more such opportunities for Indians and Australians to meet, to perforate borders both linguistic and cultural.
“I would like to see, coming out of AILIF, translations of Indian literature into English; the Indian community in Australia can make a significant contribution by sponsoring and funding the translation and publications of such books,” she said. “On the other side, I would like to see the stereotypes about Australia being broken in India through translations of aboriginal, indigenous and multicultural Australian literature into the various Indian languages. There has been a clamour to have this forum become an annual event in Australia : this is very much possible given the diversity of the languages and literatures in both countries. However, the big aid to make this vision happen will be financial support. There is enough goodwill and momentum at this moment to make AILIF go places: we should ride the wave and make this happen!”
There is a world out there, in here, waiting for our stories. All that is left is for us to create them.