I ENJOYED watching Sir Vidia performing as Guest of Honour at the Indian Council for Cultural Relations' week-long get-together of writers in Delhi and Neemrana. He did everything not expected of him by Indian populism and elitism. First of all, he did not put on any gooey guru airs - the profound, philosophical, transcendental, navel-gazing hypocrisy that Indians love to soak in. (In fact, a Delhi newspaper carried this hilarious quote: "We should let him come to his own understanding about the greater and transcendental Indian consciousness that addresses the cosmic identity that Indians stand for.")
He was anything but 'sant'ly the way we like to imagine 'sant'liness. He was short-tempered, impatient, cussed, dictatorial. He blatantly enjoyed flattery, never wasted a moment to see another's point of view except when it suited him, and blissfully announced, at the media session in Neemrana, a list of the people he was pleased with at the get-together. He cut off Nayantara Sehgal right before the eyes of the press even as she was making a very interesting and valid point. He had a dinner-table spat with the U.S. Ambassador's wife, from which he did not come off with flying colours. He did not even pretend to be an inspiring leader of the conclave; he was in his own day-dreams behind dark glasses.
I liked him because he refused to be a role-model soliciting worship of the kind that Indians prone to hypocrisy specialise in. He did not bother to be anything other than himself. And what interested me was that, except when he switched on the writer's psyche, in being himself, he was, knowingly or unknowingly, just being the unashamedly self-centred and obstinate Indian patriarch we are all familiar with. The only missing ingredient was hypocrisy. For the rest he was but the quintessential writer making a tough living in a hard world and now having fun with his Nobel Prize. If he was pleased with himself and did not want a certificate from India, it was because he was confident about his work. I admired that confidence.
TRUE, the whole thing was a privileged affair. Maurya Sheraton in Delhi, Neemrana Fort Palace in Rajasthan and the India Habitat Centre, Delhi. It took some time to rationalise and get over the 'privilegedness'. It was a fascinatingly Indian catch-22 situation. When the mighty Government of India invites a Nobel laureate as guest of honour, he cannot be put up in the Yatri Nivas. (Or can we? It is worth trying.) And can you send away the non-Nobels, who included Jnanpith winners and international celebrities, to the Yatri Nivas while Sir Vidia gets the Maurya? There would have been hell to pay, especially with many 'bhasha' - a new and silly cultural coinage from Delhi to denote writing in Indian languages other than English - writers already up in arms about being neglected, ignored, or, to use the cliche so close to the bharatiya psyche, given step-motherly treatment. I had to create my own alibis, however, and all I could trot out was my belief that literature was a privileged affair anyway in a country where nearly 60 per cent of the citizenry cannot read and write or for that matter have good drinking water and sanitation and nourishing food. Perhaps ancient popular mythology came to be treated as religious texts because the poor and the illiterate majority got their free supply of imagination from them in the oral form and the priests found it convenient to paint religion on to literature.
What was perhaps unique about the conclave was the mix. There were well-known figures like Ashokamitran, U.R. Ananthamurthy, Chandrasekhara Kambar, M.T. Vasudevan Nair, Nirmal Verma, Ajeet Cour, Sunil Gangopadhyaya, Shrilal Shukla, Balachandra Nimade, Sitanshu Yashaschandra and Kiran Nagarkar from, shall we say, daughters-of-the-Indian-soil languages; celebrated expat Indians writing in English such as Ved Mehta, Vikram Seth, Amitava Ghosh, Farrukh Dhondy and Pico Iyer; the younger generation of the same group such as Anita Rau Badami and Imtiaz Dharker; Indians writing in English from India, starting with the evergreen Khushwant Singh, through Nayantara Seghal to Keki N. Daruwalla, Shashi Deshpande, Dom Moraes, Allan Sealy, Githa Hariharan and the youngest Indo-Anglian group represented by Mukul Kesavan, Amit Chaudhury, Amitava Kumar and Ruchir Joshi.
There were eminent translators like Lakshmi Holmstrom and Aruna Chakravarti. David Davidar featured in three roles: publisher, critic and writer, and then there were David Horspool of the Times Literary Supplement and Sandra Martin, critic from Canada. Nuruddin Farh, the Somali writer in exile in South Africa, Gillon Aitken, the well-known literary agent, Anil Ramdass from Surinam, living in Holland and writing in Dutch, and many other very interesting people participated. It was a bewildering mix but a wonderful one.
And what came out of it all? Nothing earth-shaking happened, but a lot of ice was broken and a new mutual awareness generated. I, for one, would never have got round ever to wondering about the Unmapped Spaces in Indian Writing together with someone like Pico Iyer, who is not only a world-wanderer but had once actually lived for a week in Los Angeles Airport to find out what it meant to be a hapless immigrant. Most of the writers spoke with transparency about their work against the background of the mind-boggling topics that were put up for discussion. There were more bright moments than dull ones.
There were unfortunate moments, as when moderator Farrukh Dhondy cut off Ajit Cour because in the discussion on exile she brought up the possibility that the adivasis of the Narmada valley or people like Professor Geelani of Delhi University, detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance or POTO, and his family also were exiles of another sort. Dhondy, who works in the British media's arguably liberal space, dismissed Cour, announcing that the subject of adivasis and political prisoners was "too serious" for writers to take up! But the next day it was good to hear Vikram Seth say that he was not an activist but still worried about Arundhati Roy and believed that as long as writers knew where their humanistic priorities lay, things would be all right. There were Sangh Parivar agents infiltrating the proceedings at various levels, whispering about The Golden Past and even appropriating Aurobindo, but they did not prove to be anything more than bores.
The question whether there was a single entity called Indian Literature came up repeatedly and the general consensus was that the many literatures of India together projected a subcontinental identity that can be called Indian. Jnanpith award-winner M.T. Vasudevan Nair was of the view that there was no need for writers in traditional Indian languages to panic about Indian writing in English because every writer had the freedom to use the language of his choice and often English was a historical choice. It is true that they got a lot of hype in the English language press, but so do writers in other Indian languages in their own media, he said. Allan Sealy said, "I had no other choice but to write in English - it was my mother-tongue and father-tongue. To ask whether English is an Indian language is like asking whether the potato is an Indian vegetable." Himachal Som, the Director-General of the ICCR, who made this 'Literary Zoo' happen will long be remembered as 'The Most Patient Man of Recent Times'.
Paul Zacharia is a short story writer and columnist in Malayalam. His recent works available in English translation are Reflections of a Hen in her Last Hour and Other Stories (Penguin, 1999) and Two Novellas (Katha, 2002).