Print edition : March 02, 2002

The country's first major international literary festival turns out to be more than an occasion for writers to exchange notes on the ingredients of their craft.

'AT Home in the World' - questions of identity and belonging, roots and exile, were inherent in the title that was devised for the country's first major international literary festival organised last fortnight. It was meant to be a celebration of the growing influence of the written word emanating from India and an occasion for writers to exchange impressions on the ingredients of their craft.

A day before the biggest literary event in years was to begin, a prominent critic based in New Delhi, who featured by virtue of alphabetical advantage at the top of the invitee list drawn up by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), called in to register his inability to participate. Privately, he admitted to those who inquired that he was not entirely convinced that the ICCR had gone by literary merit and not reputation and subjective preference. He was also unsure whether the prickly literary egos participating in the festival would survive the bruising close combat of a two-day retreat in the refurbished medieval splendour of a Rajasthan fort.

Vice-President Krishan Kant, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Nobel Laureate V.S. Naipaul at the inaugural ceremony.-S. ARNEJA

After a largely ceremonial opening attended by the Prime Minister and the Vice-President, the literary luminaries went to their two days of closeted intimacy at Neemrana, the fort. And contrary to the early sceptic's viewpoint, they arrived back in reasonably fine fettle, actually claiming to have gained from the experience. Then followed two days of events in Delhi, which drew a fairly enthusiastic public participation.

Much of the public interest was centred on V.S. Naipaul, the recently decorated literature laureate who was making his first visit to the country that has been basking in the belated recognition it has won from his acerbic pen. Part of the success of the Neemrana retreat, it emerged, was ascribable to Naipaul's uncharacteristically retiring presence. At the numerous sessions where writers discussed the tools and sensibilities of their craft, Naipaul made only brief and perfunctory appearances. At the only public occasion in Neemrana, he lived up to his reputation for crotchetiness by scolding the senior Indian writer Nayantara Sehgal for "banality". He did not seem overly bothered by his isolation in pronouncing this lofty judgment on Sehgal's reflections on the impact of colonialism. It is known though that he apologised in private and also made a point of having himself photographed in a display of conciliation later during the festival.

The event obviously had been salvaged from the clash of literary vanities that could have wrecked it, either by Naipaul's discrete absences or by the other participants' decision not to risk his ire. "The idea of the retreat is not bad since we do not get many such forums for discussion," said one of the participants, Githa Hariharan. "There was something to be learnt or discussed in every specific panel. While we were aware of certain issues, we were forced to discuss and clarify these. Except for Naipaul, there was absolutely no sense of any one writer being more important than any one else, no effort at one-upmanship."

Expectedly, the conference began against the backdrop of a question that has been a constant and nagging presence in recent debates: the relative merits of Indian writing in English (IWE) against the literary output in local languages (now given the semi-official appellation of 'bhasha' writing). Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee touched upon this issue in his inaugural address, lamenting the neglect of 'bhasha' writing and offering in time-honoured politico-bureaucratic style to set up a National Translation Board to make this family of literature accessible to a wider public.

In his remarks, Naipaul seemed implicitly to question this approach, suggesting that literary evolution was a spontaneous process that could not be forced. Societies in the process of dynamic growth produced the kind of literature appropriate to their situations. And in contrast to the mystical status it enjoys in certain types of imagination, the book, he argued, is very much an industrial product, dependent on a broader physical and social infrastructure for its sustenance. It needs the publisher who publishes, the critic who criticises, the newspaper that prints the critic, and above all the mass readership that sustains the literary craftsman in his calling. A central lacuna that Naipaul identified in the Indian literary scene was the absence of a tradition of criticism.

BY a curious coincidence, the day following the inauguration of the ICCR festival, the Sahitya Akademi's annual Festival of Letters got under way. And the showpiece item within this event was a four-day seminar on "The State of Literary Criticism: Trends, Texts and Issues". In his welcome address, Sahitya Akademi secretary K. Satchidanandan, the well-known Malayalam poet, spoke of the universally acknowledged requirement among the more enlightened critics, to "decolonise literary theory and critical practice". The seminar, he was confident, would take up "basic issues of literary theory in the Indian context", including the "points of dialogue with and departure from the West". It would also, he asserted, map possible future trajectories of the art of criticism.

Delivering a keynote address on the occasion, the Hindi essayist and critic Namwar Singh decried the heavy infusion of half-digested European jargon into the Indian critical enterprise. The principal aim of communicating to the reader had been forgotten in the process, he argued, and a part of this malaise arose from the institutional decay of the university as a focal point of criticism.

It is of course a curiosity that the ICCR was not more mindful of the Sahitya Akademi's calendar of events while scheduling its own literary festival. The spectacle of two parallel events drawing very different constituencies of litterateurs and critics provided added grist to proponents of a cultural divide between IWE and 'bhasha'.

Sources within acknowledge that the Akademi was part of the initial planning of the ICCR event. But the September 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. caused an alteration of the agreed programme of hosting it in December. However, in working out its new dates the ICCR, for reasons unclear, failed to consult the Akademi or even factor in the fact that the Festival of Letters is an event that occurs annually in the month of February. The virtually complete disengagement between the two forums was unfortunate, since many of the themes broached by the writers at the ICCR festival were dealt with in a mood of analytical sobriety by the participants at the Sahitya Akademi event.

Naipaul with wife Nadira.-V. SUDERSHAN

Naipaul expressed a certain disdain for politics early in the proceedings. Courses at British universities, he said, had been greatly devalued since the time he underwent their rigours. There was less interest in acquiring a discipline now, more emphasis on imparting a political orientation. To this theme that he addressed in his opening remarks, Naipaul returned in the course of a discussion with three highly deferential critics later in the ICCR festival. The writer's calling, he said, requires him to be true only to his own perceptions. Inauthenticity in literature starts the moment the writer begins to impart a political perspective to his work.

This rather quirky notion of the writer - as a social isolate who observes but does not imbibe social norms and prejudices, as a pristine individual unpolluted by the life and struggles of the community he lives in - was not seriously challenged. It held the field for the duration of the ICCR festival, though Naipaul himself later seemed to compromise severely his own viewpoint with a series of questionable utterances.

Just the day after debunking Nayantara Sehgal's reflections on colonialism on the ostensible grounds that India had been free for over 50 years, Naipaul returned to the theme that has become virtually his trademark in India over the last decade or so - the supposed injury caused to the Indian psyche by Islamic conquest and iconoclasm. And if Shashi Deshpande and Ruchir Joshi had mounted a spirited challenge to Naipaul on the earlier occasion, the second time around he had to contend with nothing more formidable than three doting critics.

Naipaul's credibility was not enhanced much by the fact that one of the critics in attendance was David Pryce-Jones, a frequent contributor to the National Review, a beacon of extreme right-wing political opinion in the U.S. Neither did he help his cause very much by quoting a number of tawdry travel books from his youth as the principal sources of his information on medieval iconoclasm. With seeming generosity he did concede that Muslims too could be invited to partake of a new national debate on religious conversions. And the need for such a debate was unequivocal in his mind: "If your past must begin only with your conversion, it must be awful. It is almost as bad as Indians not knowing their history."

Clearly this is a variety of politics that the reader has to be more wary of than usual, because of its exponent's claim of pristine isolation from all political commitments. It is not the kind of sensibility that could engender a healthy critical tradition, whose absence in India Naipaul so deeply regrets. By way of parallel and contrast, in his concluding remarks at the Sahitya Akademi seminar, Satchidanandan summed up the essence of criticism as a positive attitude towards democracy. "Just as democracy can be complete only when we have space in it for the minorities, the marginalised, women and others," he argued, "criticism as a cultural discourse will only be complete if it can accommodate the aspirations and viewpoints of these diverse sections."

Participants at the Neemrana event discussed the adequacy of the vocabulary of Indian languages in portraying the range of emotions and situations that literature is confronted with. Khushwant Singh triggered the discussion with the observation, drawn from the many frustrations of his engagement with the enterprise of translation from Indian languages, of the poverty of the 'bhasha' vocabulary. He was strongly challenged by Sunil Gangopadhyay and Balachandra Nimade, the latter quoting a Marathi poem to drive home the point that no English equivalents could be found for several Marathi locutions. More constructively, Paul Zacharia (see box for his impressions of the ICCR event) sought to move the discussion forward with an account of the difficulties of depicting sexuality in Malayalam fiction, while avoiding the twin pitfalls of appearing too coy or too lewd.

Some part of the over-sensitive reaction of the Bengali and Marathi masters can be understood. But it is undeniable that many of the vocabularies of the Indian languages are only now evolving in response to the stimuli and challenges offered by the growing complexity of life. And those with an ear for popular linguistic practices have often been alarmed at the tendency for usage to develop towards ever more florid and classically inspired terms, which are quite remote from a comprehensible idiom.

In this respect, the ICCR event could have, if it had been so inclined, drawn some inspiration from the parallel deliberations of the Sahitya Akademi. The seminar on literary criticism organised by the Akademi was rich with discussions on ordinary language usage. There was particular emphasis on the democratisation of the use of language, on evolving an idiom that would be comprehensible yet capable of giving expression to the multiplying complexities of the real world. The traditions of Gandhi and Tagore - who both had strong and definitive views on language and democracy - were invoked, as also those of Ambedkar and Lohia.

Regrettably, though, there was no element of cross-fertilisation between the two literary forums. The Sahitya Akademi event ended with a call for the democratisation of criticism and the expression of a few grouses at the privileged attention that the participants at the other event were drawing. And the ICCR event concluded with Khushwant Singh's taunt to the 'bhasha' writers that they would simply have to accept the pre-eminence of IWE as part of the order of things. Neither would their conceit that they represented a richer tradition stand, he said, since IWE could also lay claim to the same heritage and it was twice blessed by cultural contact with European languages and literary forms. 'At Home in the World' may have been conceived as an occasion to bridge differences. And even if many of the younger participants did actually believe that the purpose was served, Khushwant Singh perhaps had a different perspective.

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