Freedom of expression is debated by members of the creative fraternity at the Jaipur Literature Festival
Australian writers Ali Cobby Eckermann and Christos Tsiolkas
In solidarity with Perumal
Questions like whether India has a culture of “absolute freedom of speech” or if is there a “thin line” that shouldn’t be crossed while writing, were debated and discussed on the first day of the Jaipur Literature Festival.
The panellists directly referred to Tamil writer Perumal Murugan’s decision to renounce writing following protests from various organisations.
The session “Is the Commerce of Literature Today Killing Good Writing” didn’t discuss the commercialisation of literature and its effect on the content. Instead panellist and author Nayantara Sahgal, Tamil writer C.S. Lakshmi, journalist and author Mark Tully and publisher Karthika V.K. chose to elaborate on the “curbing of freedom of expression in literature” and how “books are being banned and burnt quite often” – reflecting the intolerant attitude of various organisations.
The session was chaired by lyricist Prasoon Joshi who asked why issues like these are not debated by the mainstream media, and should contrarian voices be heard amid this din?
According to Sahgal, the time has come when one shouldn’t be bothered about “hurting sentiments” as freedom of speech is something that should not be compromised with.
“Commerce has not only taken a place in our lives, but it has taken over our lives. It has taken over politics, weddings and sports,” she said.
“Today you have to speak up without making any compromises. We are up against an ideology that is dedicated to outlawing dissent. But what we should not do is to cow down to these Hindu extremists who are emboldened by the fact that they are in power,” she added.
Tamil novelist Murugan had announced his decision to quit writing on his Facebook Page on 13 January after his novel Modhorubhagan, where the story revolves around the problems faced by a childless peasant couple and the woman’s attempt to get pregnant following a tradition of consensual sex with a stranger, was attacked by several organisations.
According to Lakshmi, it is this perilous environment that is making Tamil writers fear for their “right to write.”
“Right now what we are worried about is whether we will be able to write at all,” said Lakshmi.
“We have to worry about how commercial publications will continue to publish in an environment like this?” she added.
While it has gone much further in India where books are being increasingly banned or burnt, Tully, author of Amritsar: Mrs Gandhi’s Last Battle, feels these conflicts are a part of our lives.
“I don’t think there is anything called absolute freedom of free speech,” he said.
“There is an extremely difficult and narrow line to draw when it is what to write and what not to. But what is important is to have the state governments join hands against these hooligans who are destroying the meaning of freedom,” he added.
Every year, the annual literary pilgrimage at the Jaipur Literature Festival offers a fine balance among different writing genres that peacefully co-exist and gives the audience an opportunity to deliberate on issues that usually don’t find mention in everyday conversations.
Ever since its inception in 2006, when it began on a small scale as part of the Jaipur Heritage International Festival, the five-day festival has been holding the fort on the same address: 17th-century Diggi Palace, as the organisers feel the venue compliments the sensibilities of the world’s largest free literary festival.
But over these years, it has become challenging for the organisers to indulge the audience in sessions that don’t require them to be “passive” observers, but “active” participants.
“We have always believed that this literature festival is a place which makes people to think and respond to different views. Most of the time in our lives we act as passive listeners, but these five days should leave the people with some afterthought,” festival co-director Namita Gokhale told IANS.
“We like to keep our discussions open ended so that the audience can infer it as per their own thought process,” she added.
With these thoughts, this year’s festival chose 234 luminaries from the fields of art, literature and poetry to talk on various themes ranging from history, politics, cinema, art, travel and poetry.
This year’s literary heavyweights include names like Pulitzer Prize winning poet Vijay Seshadri, Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul, father of modern travel writing Paul Theroux, 2013 Man Booker Prize winner Eleanor Catton, Samuel Johnson Prize winner and author of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher Kate Summerscale, Pultizer Prize-winning historian and journalist Kai Bird, and the author of Family Life Akhil Sharma, among several others.
Apart from this, lyricist and poet Javed Akhtar, who skipped last year’s festival, attend this time, along with another regular attendees like lyricist Prasoon Joshi, author Chandrahas Choudhury and Suhel Seth.
Celebrated British poet Ruth Padel, Palestinian-American poet Fady Joudah and Sahitya Akademi Award winner Ashok Vajpeyi explored the poetic imagination with discussions cutting across forms and languages.
Dialogues on art history and art appreciation, and sessions focusing on different aspects of Indian art also played a major role at the festival.
There was a session on art as well as a look at the interplay between Buddhism and architecture. Acclaimed Pakistani painter, writer and academic Salima Hashmi threw light on the unknown masterpieces of Pakistani art.
Pakistani-British author Kamila Shamsie, Nigerian author Helon Habila and South African Mark Gevisser, known for his biography of South African politician Thabo Mbeki, also attended the five-day literary gala.
“This festival is a magical and transformative experience for the mind and soul. The infectious joy of collective energies and stimulation of books and reading, ideas and dialogue, pulls together visitors from all corners of the globe,” said Gokhale, co-director of the festival.
Celebrated author of The Slap fame, Christos Tsiolkas joined a compelling line-up of Australian writers taking part in the 2015 Jaipur Literature Festival. One of Australia’s leading contemporary writers, Tsiolkas has won several literary prizes, including the Commonwealth Writers Award and the New South Wales Premier’s Award. Award-winning poet Ali Cobby Eckermann, Melbourne illustrator Mandy Ord and indigenous writer Lionel Fogarty also took part in the festival.
Australia’s High Commissioner to India, Mr Patrick Suckling, welcomed the talented and exciting contingent of Australian writers at Jaipur in 2015. “Tsiolkas is a renowned author who paints a vivid portrait of contemporary Australia,” Mr Suckling said. “The Jaipur Literature Festival is recognised as one of the world’s leading festivals of books and ideas, and I’m very glad that Australian voices will have pride of place.”
“Literature is a wonderful medium for building understanding between two cultures, and helps audiences gain a deeper appreciation of Australia today – including our joys, our anxieties, and our ambitions for the future.” Tsiolkas will also travel to Bangalore, New Delhi and Mumbai.