Sunday, March 02, 2008

Kitab 2008 – What You All May Have Missed!

I have been terribly busy, what with the just concluded Kitab 2008 and those little little things in the workplace that upset one. So, dear readers I didn’t have time to blog about the wonderful speakers at Kitab 2008, the best in my opinion.

Those who stayed away missed meeting some of the best minds in the literary world, except me of course. Yes, true. Being a small audience there was much more interaction and the outcome was frank and noteworthy without the trappings of a big event. Sudeep Chakravarti could hold on for hours about his book, answering all questions about his book “Red Sun” with a coolness, which I dearly wish I had. As I had promised someone, I think Pablo, I am blogging about the festival in detail below.


Niall Griffiths: I missed the first day of the festival as I had some urgent work in the office. On the second day, at the high vaulted Durbar Hall of the Asiatic Library, the first author to speak was Niall Griffiths who spoke about darkness in contemporary fiction, interspersed with short readings from his own work. I missed most of Niall’s talk as I walked in when he was half way done with it.

Robert Irwin: Next came Robert Irwin’s interesting talk on orientalist paintings including Vereschchagin’s wonderful Indian canvases. What made the visuals so appealing was the ability of the artist to capture life in all its dreadfully dramatic detail, and convey the sense of ennui that must have prevailed even then. We think of the past in sepia tones, but do not realise that they also lived in the heat, the flies, the dust and the general din and clatter of Indian life. His paintings capture all that we miss in photographs.

Robert followed this by a talk on “The India of the Arabian Nights: The Arabian Nights of India” in which he hypothesised that the inspiration for the Arabian Nights indeed came from India and Indian stories like the Panchatantra. He went on to give some specific references, too. But as a member of the audience suggested, we pride in telling the world that everything originated in India, then travelled to the Arab world and thence to the Western world. Remember that character from The Kumars?

Christine Jordis: Christine’s talk was a curtain raiser, at least for me, about the workings of the French publishing industry. According to her the French love translations of Indian novels because Indian novels and stories have great narration, lots of details, and exotic locales. This is good news. I agree wholeheartedly with the French.

The French book publishing industry works without literary agents. The manuscripts are sourced directly by the publishers who travel to different countries scouting for talent. Which is what publishers do in India, too, i.e., dispense with the literary agents, except that they do not do the latter, i.e., scout for talent. Sorry, I am being bitter.

Sudeep Chakravarti: Now Sudeep’s talk according to none other than Indra Sinha (booker nominee author of “Animal’s People”) was the most important and noteworthy event in Kitab 2008. I tend to agree. Sudeep’s book “Red Sun – Travels in Naxalite India” is a study of the Maoist movement in India is seminal and authoritative, and would stand next to P. Sainath’s book “Everybody Loves a Drought” as an in-depth study on poverty and dispossession in India. It’s all about what we are conveniently ignoring in our pursuit of liberalisation and outsourced moolah, i.e., alienating the below-subsistence-level inhabitants of Indian villages.

The writing of the book took about one and a half years and during this time he travelled to various states in India troubled by the Maoist extremist movement that once took root in Naxalbari, West Bengal. According to him 176 districts in the country are affected by the problem of Naxalism, or one of the variations of the movement that took root in a nameless Bengali village. It is spreading like wildfire throughout India and is today infiltrating into the towns and villages. He read out the Maoist manifesto for the cities of India and remarked, “It reads much better than anything our babus could write.”

To a questions whether Naxalism is evil, he replied, “No.” An angry and persistent young man asked, “Would you like your book to be plagiarised by anyone who doesn’t believe in your right to private property?” He replied, “No.”
“Then how can you say Naxalism and what it is doing is not evil?”
Valid question. Sudeep only could say that he is not a Maoist though he has worked among them to gather information. At one point during the reading he really broke down as he recounted the plight of the poor in the villages in which he has worked.

Sudeep also mentioned another chilling fact. The movement has also infiltrated the bureaucracy. Some of our babus are also Maoists. (I am using Naxalism and Maoism as synonymous here though they may be hugely different in ideologies.) Also, some businessmen are supporting the movement with money and information. Another obvious fact is that most of the members of the movement are the traditionally oppressed lower caste members.

So what are the implications of the movement? Will it lead to a revolution in India like it did in Cuba? Will the poor and dispossessed overthrow the government. Will Maoism survive in India, while China is going the imperialist route to prosperity? A member of the audience remarked that during a visit to Shanghai, China, he asked around for Mao’s Red Book and instead he was shown books on Kamasutra.

To a question of mine about how successful would be the Maoist movement in India and how far the revolution, if at all, will progress in India he postulated that that may be the pockets of wealth and influence such as Bombay-Pune-Ahmedabad would turn into city states in future. Delhi-Jaipur-Gurgaon would become another city state in future and the rest would be controlled by the warlords of the various militant groups. So what could be the portents of a revolution inspired by the great leader, only time will tell.


Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan: Meanakshi, also a blogger, spoke about her blogging experience. My talk on “Why Writers Need to Blog” was scheduled next. Meenakshi was dressed in a party dress which she felt was inappropriate for the occasion. But the first exchange with Julian West (who interviewed her) brought out some bombshell facts that established her as a “bindas” girl in the mould of Kamala Das, who is now Shakira or Sameera or something such now. Her candid confessions have gained her a readership and I hope it gets her book enough visibility and exposure. Blogging is a sure way of getting popular and then “bang” when your book is out, you can cash in on your popularity.

Meenakshi has a blog which is a very popular and is visited by several lakhs of people. The blog is very candid about her private life and is in the mould of several confession blogs that have become hugely popular in the west. Do visit and encourage her.

John P Matthew: Next was my talk on “Why Writers Need to Blog.” I had prepared a PowerPoint presentation on why more and more writers are taking to blogging. (The final work on the presentation was done early in the morning at around 2 a.m. I make presentations for a living, so this wasn’t anything great.) I pointed out blogs of some famous writers (and not so famous writers, such as I) such as John Baker, Paulo Coelho, Indra Sinha and I. John Baker knows mobile blogging and had answered some queries I had put to him earlier. What he said was that bloggers should write only if they have something to write. He is an amazing blogger and the blog which I had on my slide was written when he was waiting for his breakfast in a London restaurant.

I summarised that writers can keep up with their craft, discover new story angles, and have a conversation with their readers through their blog. Indra Sinha uses his blog to provide links to reviews of his books, his itinerary, and general information about the causes he is championing. I could see some people in the audience taking notes when I spoke and, so, I presume my talk was, sort of, a success.

Just an aside: This blog has been erratic of late because of my preoccupation with several things and has therefore dropped in rankings. Hope to catch up with you soon, my readers.

Indra Sinha and Mahesh Mathai: I am turning into die-hard fan of both these people who used to be regulars in the advertising industry in Bombay. Indra was a copywriter in his earlier avatar and Mahesh was, and still is, a commercial film maker.

Indra spoke about the cause of the Bhopal Gas Leak victims whose cause he is championing. Right as he was speaking, a bunch of people affected by the gas leak from the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, were walking all the way to Delhi to impress upon the government that they have not been paid the compensations they were promised. Now why do politicians make promises they can’t keep. They have not received justice even after twenty-five years of buck passing. Governments after governments have sat on the files and never bothered to redress the problems of the victims who were affected. Thousands died and thousands still suffer ailments caused due to the leak of gas.

Indra says that still the vestiges of the chemicals that led to the leak remain in the factory and that the company is not cleaning up the mess it created. If it catches fire the chemicals and sludges could give rise to the same gases that killed thousands. There are incidents of poisons found in mothers’ milk and malformed children are still born because of the events that happened twenty-five years ago.

An excerpt from Mahesh Mathai’s film “Bhopal Express” was shown next and Mahesh said that the plight of the victims still remained sad though Bhopal has moved ahead. Poet David Raphael Israel who was present in the audience, and who is currently a resident of Bhopal, mentioned that he had tried to make enquiries about the incident, but nobody seems to recollect the incident. Indra mentioned that Bhopal has moved on and citizens do not like to mention the tragedy as they would rather forget what happened. But does that bring justice to the people who have been rendered sick and jobless because of the incident?

Indra also pointed out that what is documented in Sudeep Chakravarti’s book “Red Sun” is an indicator of how the urban India of malls and outsourcing units were drawing away from the poor villages and how the latter is turning to radicalism to address their problems. India has a problem in its hands, it seems. The talk was moderated by Nikki Bedi.

Julian West: Next on the dais was Julian West who spoke on “War and Sex,” also moderated by Nikki Bedi. Julian (Sorry, Julian, my laptop battery had run out of battery charge and couldn’t show a rather incendiary picture that would illustrate your talk.) through a photograph of two pin up girls taken inside the tent of some soldiers who were fighting the Iraq war, said that war generated a lot of sex because of the need for people to have “human contact” and “human comfort” during or after a traumatic event.

That is not surprising at all because rape and sex are parts of every war. Also in the days of yore soldiers were promised by their generals sex as one of the spoils of war. Julian (who is half Sri Lankan, and is based in Delhi, as I discovered later) has worked as a war correspondent in Iraq and Afganistan and surely knows her subject as she has been in the war fronts and has seen it all herself. I surely admire the guts of this soft-spoken and attractive half-Sri-Lankan woman.

Her novel “Serpents in Paradise” was on display at the Crossroads bookstore. But she didn’t plug her book much, and I wonder why. May be she was being modest about it. She also read an excerpt from her novel which also deals with the subject of war and sex.

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