William Dalrymple, dressed in his trademark blue crumpled shirt, bounded on to the stage and began with a gag that he appeared to have happily forgotten he had used before —and in front of the same audience, and at the same venue. Last time around, it had raised a polite laugh; this time, it predictably fell flat.
The venue was the British Library, London; the occasion: launch of the sixth UK edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF); and the gag was meant to illustrate its growth and popularity since its inception a decade ago with a tiny audience of 20-odd people out of whom 14 were “Japanese tourists” who had allegedly lost their way and come there by mistake.
The idea of “lost” Asian tourists has become such a Western cliche: Is it so hard to imagine that those Japanese tourists might have been genuinely interested in checking out an Indian literary event? Why is it that in the western imagination it’s always the Japanese or Chinese tourists who are getting “lost”—never an American, a Brit, or an Australian? A case of unintended racial stereotyping?
Coming back to the festival (June 14-16), it had a sharper focus this time and although there was no escape from many of the usual suspects there were fewer of them. Dalrymple, festival’s co-director without whom it might have struggled to gain the sort of international profile it has, claimed that it had grown into one of the world’s most popular literary events attracting “over a million footfalls” at its last outing.
Namita Gokhale, who started it all pioneering the idea of an international literary festival in India, described it as “something transformative” and “the place where India thinks aloud”. A touch of hyperbole perhaps, but why not?
With three sessions at three separate venues going on at the same time, it was not possible to attend all though some adventurous souls managed to hop-skip-and-jump picking up bits and pieces from everywhere. I tend to be more selective. And of the ones I attended the opening segment was arguably the most informative.
It included the keynote address, “Of Cities and Empire”, by Tristram Hunt, director of the V&A Museum and former Labour MP in which he discussed his book Ten Cities that Made an Empire.
In a discussion with the Congress Party MP and author of Inglorious Empire, Shashi Tharoor,
Hunt addressed the change in the recent discourse on colonialism with demands for apologies and reparations. He warned that the debate on colonialism had become too binary, polarised and shrill.
“The danger now is that as we step into the language of lawsuits and official apologies, the space for detached historical judgement has narrowed. We need to stop approaching Empire in terms of good or bad and think intelligently and enquiringly about its paradoxes, as many of them are still with us,” he said.
Tharoor, on his part, reminded him that too many historical items in the collections of British museums like V&A did not acknowledge the colonial context of how they were acquired. The coercive acquisition of Koh-i-Noor without so much as an apology was an enduring example of colonial cultural theft and vandalism, he suggested.
Elsewhere, India’s Ambassador to the UAE Navdeep Suri —wearing his writer’s hat this time —movingly spoke about his grandfather Nanak Singh’s poem on the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, Khooni Vaisakhi, which he has translated from Punjabi into English. The epic poem, a poignant piece of protest literature and a scathing critique of the Raj, was banned by colonial authorities soon after its publication.
Suri’s translation has put it on the world literary map, reliving scenes of resistance and protest against colonialism. He described it as much a historical artefact as an enduring “witness to how Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims came together to stand up to colonisation and oppression in one of India’s darkest moments”.
Other interesting sessions on India and the raj included a discussion on Kim Wagner’s book, Jallianwala Bagh: An Empire of Fear and the Making of the Amritsar Massacre; a debate exploring the role of cricket (a colonial legacy) in shaping South Asian identity; and a conversation with historian Yasmin Khan on India, Empire and the First World War.
For those who had had enough of the tales from the Raj, there was an excellent session on ‘The Islamic Enlightenment: Faith and Reason’. It featured a discussion between Christopher de Bellaigue, an author and journalist who has worked extensively across the Muslim world, and William Dalrymple, on tensions between faith and reason in the Muslim world.
From London, the festival moves to Belfast for a weekend of debates around Partition, identity and migration.