Q 1.The blue-skinned Dongria Kondh boy, Oonga, resembles the Na’vi of James Cameron’s Avatar. What is the back story?
Devashish Makhija (DM): The story of Oonga finds its seed in a small anecdote I heard while in Koraput, Orissa. Sharanya Nayak, the local head of Action Aid, told me how she had taken a group of Adivasis to watch a dubbed version of Avatar. They hollered and cheered the Na’vi right through the film as if they were their own fellow tribals fighting the same battles they were. They felt like it was their own story being shown on that screen. But they were shocked when the film ended. It ended ‘happily’! Though many years later, the group of Adivasis were still fighting the same battles and losing. Something about that not being reflected in Avatar distressed them. When we conceived the story of Oonga, he was to run off to watch Avatar in the nearby town, and return convinced that he was a ‘Na’vi’ and could save his village from pillaging the way the Na’vi did. But, of course, things don’t play out in the real world like they do in the movies. We replaced Avatar with its source material, the Ramayana, as we developed the story further.
Q 2.What was your most crucial literary tool for reaching out to young readers?
DM: Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s idea of the ‘collective unconscious’ has perhaps shaped me as a storyteller. As Jung’s words suggest, there is so much shared information in all our unconscious minds that we – as creators and consumers of stories – find resonance in one another’s mythologies and experiences. This shared understanding gives rise to archetypes. Like most storytellers, I’m very interested in these archetypes, in what makes a story about a little corner of Orissa resonate with a Dutch musician in New York. What emotional experiences do these two share? Hence, what elements can make a story culturally specific in its details yet emotionally universal in its appeal?
Q 3.How was it documenting the Adivasi crisis and their conflict with the corporates, juxtaposing it with mythology, and presenting it for young adults?
DM: Stories are the ‘people’s perspective’. The people cannot write history books. Those in power do. And history books end up being the primary source of information of our times for future generations. It is dangerous that any other perspective but the ruling regime’s is always missing from the history books – since time immemorial. In storytelling, we can document the flip perspective of the people… of those being marginalised. I see myself as a chronicler of this counter-perspective before I see myself as a storyteller even. Young adults will be the decision-makers of tomorrow. And I need them to travel into tomorrow armed with both sides of the argument – the side they will receive with almost a military lack of choice from their curriculum; and the side they will actively choose to receive from stories like Oonga, outside their curriculum.
Q 4.Using a 10-11-year-old tribal boy as the medium to convey the more prominent and more pertinent message to young adults. Why is he not an adult?
DM: Children are naïve hence fearless. If you don’t know, something can hurt you that something won’t scare you. And the absence of fear is a very attractive quality that draws young audiences into stories like nothing else can. Youngsters are constantly being told what NOT to do. If, suddenly, they are shown this little boy or little girl who, despite being told NOT to undertake certain journeys, proceed to undertake them, the youngsters reading the story love to live their own fantasy of rebellion out vicariously through such characters. Once that is achieved, once I have reeled them in, I can then slowly immerse them in the deeper questions I seek to raise through the story.
The Iranian cinema of the 1980s and 1990s did this successfully. Oonga is me trying to attempt that.
Q 5.What are the similarities and differences in your writing process when you chose to pen a novel for young adults (vis-à-vis children’s books and short and feature films)?
DM: A novel is a gargantuan beast.
In a short story, a children’s picture book or a short film, I don’t have the liberty of character establishment. I often need to get into the thick of the action almost as soon as the story begins. Also, a short story cannot ‘end’ in a conventional way. Closing the loop neatly in a short story is almost impossible given how little time we’ve spent with the characters. It becomes very important there to choose very carefully the ‘portion’ of the characters’ journey I want to make the story about.
The other thing this allows for then in the shorter mediums – short story, children’s book, short film – is multiple revisits by the reader/viewer. A short story or children’s book could be like a favourite song that you can play again and again. A novel demands much more time and attention and investment to provide this kind of a relationship with the reader.
I consciously approach a shorter format story in a way that the narrative doesn’t close its loop by the end. Questions stay unanswered. Characters stay partially undiscovered. The story feels like it could go on.
But with a novel like Oonga each character has his/her own complete arc, even as the story has one of its own. I map each arc beforehand, so I know their intersectionalities, convergences, and divergences before starting the physical writing process. The abruptness of a wildly open-end can leave the reader very dissatisfied in a novel because I have drawn them into a ‘world’ that they inhabit with the characters for over 300 pages.
Whereas the shorter storytelling forms allow me to undertake more of an exploratory creative process, a novel needs all the engineering, cartography, universe-building skills I can muster. Whereas the shorter forms end up mostly being about the character(s), a novel like Oonga needs to be about a well-charted story, an amply-detailed universe, as well as deeply-plumbed characters.
The mind, the heart and the eye need to be prepared differently for both.
Q 6.Dialogue is one of the most important themes that you have touched upon in this book. How do you think this novel can help start a conversation around the issues that you have spoken about in Oonga? What are your expectations from this novel?
DM: There are some things in life we don’t think about often and deeply enough. Our daily lives always get in the way. Death, Injustice, our Anthropocentrism, our capacity for Hate, our very imbalanced view of Development… I like raising questions about these through my stories. Generally, I never have a solution or an answer. I simply share with the viewer my own heartburn, hoping that these questions will haunt them once they emerge from my stories, and keep asking them too.
Q 7.Do you think a socio-political writer or artist can bring about a real tangible change in society?
DM: No idea. Of course, all of us harbour delusions of grandeur, hoping to affect people enough to get them to question the status quo in more significant numbers to effect social, political, anthropological change. We see dreams of this happening when we write our stories and create our art. But can an artist or a storyteller achieve that? Like a policymaker or political leader can? Who knows. I’m not holding my breath for it.
All I can say for sure is that I create my work this way because if I didn’t put my unrest and heartache and rage and questions and protest into my stories, I’d self-destruct. I do this so I can get some sleep at night, however, disturbed.
Sanjoy Roy: Welcome back to the 14th Jaipur Literature Festival protected by Dettol. We are delighted to bring it to you from here at the Diggi Palace front lawn live. It’s a pleasure to present today, Oonga by Devashish Makhija. He’s in conversation with Kaveree Bamzai and introduced by Nandita Das. Director and writer Devashish Makhija’s latest book Oonga is a powerful novel based on his first feature film of the same name. Capturing the inherent paradox between dystopian development and utopian ideologies, the book narrates the journey of a little boy in the midst of a clash between the Adivasis, the Naxalites, the CRPF and the mining company. Makhija’s other books include When Ali Became Bajrang Bali, Why Paploo Was Perplexed, Forgetting and Occupying Silence. He’s also the director of the feature films – Ajji and Bhonsle – and the short film Taandav. Among others, in his conversation with Kaveree Bamzai, Makhija dives into this evocative tale of identity and the tragedy of victims of violence forced into battles, they don’t wish to fight. The book is being launched here at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2021. Nandita Das has acted in more than 40 feature films in 10 different languages. Manto, Nandita’s second directorial film, premiered in 2018 at the Cannes Film Festival. Her first book, Manto and I, chronicles her six-year-long journey of making the film. Nandita, we’re delighted to have you here to make an introductory comment on Oonga, a film that you acted in. Nandita Das, over to you.
Nandita Das:Oonga is a film that I did almost nine years ago. When Dev came to me, it was his first film but I could see he was very passionate about the story and it’s a story that you know is really exploring the difficulties that Adivasis feel, especially as this is set in Odisha, a state that I come from, because they are caught between the Maoists, Naxal movements and outfits that are really fighting for their rights but can also get violent and at the same time those were trying to mainstream them in the name of development and how the common Adivasis just get completely caught between fighting for their rights and really not knowing how they should be dealing with their lives. You know, it’s a very complex issue and seldom do we see such complexities being told simply and powerfully. In fact, increasingly such films that are really representing stories of the people at large are vanishing from our collective consciousness. So it was definitely a film that I felt, I wanted to be part of. Hemla’s character was also really nice. It was very interesting because she’s kind of a conduit. She’s neither part of the Naxalite movement nor is she part of obviously the government or the mining corporation and all those people who are trying to mainstream them. She is really wanting to educate the children. She feels that’s where the power is and ideologically she’s very strong and it was lovely to be in Odisha and to be playing a character there. So yes, I mean it was a film that was close to my heart and I was really disappointed that it didn’t get released properly. Many independent films, unfortunately, bear with that fate.
I’m so happy that Dev decided to give it another form because the story had to be told and it’s really wonderful that now it’s in a book and we can all read it. And I think, you know, a story has its own soul and it must continue whether it’s through a film or through a book and maybe they’ll feed into each other. Maybe once you read the book, you’d want to see the film and those who have seen the film would want to read the book.
I just want to wish Dev and the publishers and everyone who’s been involved with the project good luck, and I’m sorry that I couldn’t be at Diggi Palace, quite a favorite place to come to JLF, but here is wishing the book and the people who have been with that journey for this long. Twelve years is not a short journey. So glad Dev, that you stuck with it and that you’re bringing this story to us. Thank you!
Sanjoy Roy: Thank you, Nandita Das for setting the context for Oonga, the film and Oonga, the book.
Devashish Makhija has researched and assisted on the movies Black Friday and Bunty Aur Babli. He has written numerous screenplays, notably Anurag Kashyap’s yet-to-be-made superhero saga Doga, has had a solo art show Occupying Silence, written a collection of short stories Forgetting, the forthcoming book of poems Disengaged, the bestselling children’s books When Ali Became Bajrangbali and Why Paploo Was Perplexed and been featured in numerous anthologies including Mumbai Noir, Penguin First Proof and the Sahitya Akademi’s Modern English Poetry.
He has also written and directed the multiple award-winning short films Taandav, El’ayichi, Agli Baar, Rahim Murge Pe Mat Ro (Don’t Cry for Rahim LeCock), Absent, Happy, and the critically acclaimed full-length feature films Ajji (Granny) and Bhonsle. His films have competed and won awards at the international film festivals of Rotterdam, Gothenberg, Beaune, Black Nights, Busan, Glasgow, Tampere, MOMA, APSA, Barcelona, Singapore, amongst many others. Oonga, a feature film he wrote and directed in 2013 never released in Indian theatres despite a critically acclaimed film festival run so he reverse-adapted it into a gripping novel.
Kaveree Bamzai is an independent journalist. She was the first, and so far, only woman editor of India Today. A recipient of the Chevening Scholarship, she worked for the Times of India and Indian Express before this. She is the author of No Regrets: The Guilt-Free Woman’s Guide to a Good Life, Bollywood Today and two monographs in the series Women in Indian Film. She sits on several committees, including the Women Examplar Committee of CII and is recognised as a changemaker by Save The Children charity.
Kaveree: Devashish, it’s such a pleasure to see you and it’s been an absolute joy to read the book. I’ve spent the last two days doing that and it is truly gripping. It’s very powerful. I want to start with the line that you have there… “We, who take from the Earth and give back, will be replaced by those who take and never give back.” This really is who we are right now and I think the pandemic has taught us more than ever that this cannot go on. How amazing is it that the movie that you made, well, quite a few years ago, 2013, when it was released, is still so relevant? How amazing is that and how much more relevant is it? So, talk a little about that journey about making that movie, making this book and, at this moment in time.
Devashish: The sad thing is I don’t think it’s amazing as much as it’s hugely tragic. Yes, it’s hugely tragic that we can just never learn from our mistakes and I have travelled the areas, the Adivasi areas of Chhattisgarh and south Odisha about 11 years ago and for about five or six years before that, I was curious and dissatisfied with the narrative that I was reading in the mainstream media about what the Naxalites wanted; how they were being called to be the greatest internal security threat to this country by the Manmohan Singh Government and I felt that I wasn’t getting the complete picture. So when I travelled to those areas and the things that I saw, they sort of reeked of what the British had done to the Indians in all those years and now we were doing to our own countrymen. So, somewhere you know, that, that wheel was turning over and over again and we were not learning from our mistakes. What was relevant 200 years ago, was relevant 10 years ago. What was relevant 10 years ago, continues to be relevant today. I don’t know if it’s going to change. That’s the biggest heartbreaker.
So all the things that I wrote in Oonga in 2012 when I wrote the script and eight years hence when we were doing the final edits of the book, Tulika and I and I were re-reading material, re-reading my research (I had several exercise books where I had made notes as I was travelling through those areas), nothing had changed. Not one shred of research material or statistic or you know things that broke my heart in 2010. Nothing had changed. So somewhere, a book like this, sadly, would probably be relevant till we die.
I don’t know what our next generation will see but the pandemic also hasn’t changed anything. We are back to being monsters. I thought we would, you know, re-evaluate our decisions, but no, we’re not.
Kaveree: Absolutely! And, in fact, Devashish, you also call it the company and company could be, you know, the company that you mentioned in the book. It could be the East India Company; really nothing changes; that’s really as you said is quite tragic.
The other point is the relationship between the Adivasis and their land and you know, we see it again and again and all the protests that we see — the farmers’ protests as well, their relationship with the land is so deep. And in fact, the land, and as you say in your book also reacts to their moods, you know, the trees cry, you know, the Earth cries; talk a little about that relationship. It’s so deep and so moving.
Devashish: Yeah. So in fact, it’s not just the Adivasis. If I say, any of us say that the Adivasis have this deep connection with nature and you know, we shouldn’t deprive them of that connection with nature. I think it will smack of an over-simplification. It will smack of talking about them as the other. I think we all have that connection; it’s just that with urban life, the kind of life that we live, we’re getting increasingly disconnected. So for me talking about these things using the Adivasi as a medium, was trying to tell urban youngsters, you know because it is young adult fiction; it’s for age group 16 and plus; I am hoping kids just out of school or in the last years of school will read this and wonder if they lost something by being born into these urbane, consumerist technologically, dependent lifestyles. So it’s all of us, who can, you know, pick cues from nature, live in harmony with nature and gain a lot, but we’ve just, we have lost that ability. So the Adivasis are a reminder that we have that ability and if we don’t live that codependent lives we are going to self-destruct faster and faster.
Kaveree: Yeah, another remarkable thing about the book is the women and I think that is the key here. The women are the ones who’re holding this community. They’re holding really a whole world aloft on their shoulders, you know, whether it’s Hemla or Oonga’s mother, they really are the spine, the backbone of the community.
Devashish: Women as characters and again I might smack of over-simplification here, but being a man when I made this film, Ajji, about five years ago, it was me trying to understand, what is the female energy and what is my relationship as a man being born into a world that is increasingly patriarchal. Even the MeToo movement really didn’t find success because we are so deep-rootedly patriarchal people; we need something stronger than that. So, from Ajji onwards, I’ve been questioning my role in the scheme of things that how can I raise questions that can hopefully someday 10 years or 100 years later lead to an answer.
The women that you speak of in Oonga, were there in the film as well. But I think I was not equipped to explore them to a certain depth like I could in the novel. For me Lakshmi, the Naxalite leader, Hemla and Oongamma are the beating heart of the story; Oonga is literally just the face. He’s not the beating heart of the story.
So for me, it was important to explore those themes that I have now, you know been exploring the last four to five years. They were not in the film when we did that all those years back.
Kaveree: Devashish, the other thing is that it’s in Odisha, but it could be anywhere; it could be Kashmir, it could be the Northeast, that is the tragedy of India. It could be in any part of the country and it would be the same issue and I really admire the way you’ve been able to capture the CRPF sort of mindset, you know, it’s a very peculiar mindset, but we often don’t see them as victims and here you’ve been very non-judgmental and you have shown, they’ve suffered too. You have Pradip’s character, who realizes that the only way to have powers is to be in uniform; his father ended up in uniform guarding the very land that he sold them and it’s all such a terribly vicious cycle, but they are as well as victims.
Devashish: You know, as you were saying, it was a faceless company. It could be the East India Company. It could be a private company. It could be a public sector company. It was irrelevant to me what the company was. What was relevant to me was the thought process behind something as hegemonious and huge as a company that will only see its profit and when something that huge, you collectively are up against something, everybody ends up being a victim.
Sometimes even you don’t realize you’re a victim like Manoranjan, the CRPF commander. He doesn’t realize he’s a victim of a larger thought process, of a larger machine that is only using him for a certain end goal; and when you’re collectively up against that what can you be but a victim because you can’t use your mind and your consciousness to take decisions against that larger vicious thing; so for me, it was important to see that the CRPF are not in control. The Naxalites are reacting; they might have sometimes very very valid agenda, but they are not in control either.
Everybody is merely reactive and somewhere, the atmosphere that we live in today in this country, anyone who wants to question anything that the establishment does, we are all just reacting and that’s exhausting. I wish people act upon something sometimes because we spend all our lives we have reacting and we have no energy left to really act upon you know, our true impulses; somewhere that helplessness that I was feeling, I wanted to explore through this idea of everyone being a victim; a helpless victim.
Kaveree: Absolutely. I think, the other point that every form of protest that we see, every form of dissent that we see, you see echoes of it in your book. The idea of asking for papers. The idea of asking for identity. I mean the whole agitation against CAA was all about that. The whole question is being explored here. It is quite contemporary in that sense. Talk a little about that sense of identity as well. The Adivasi sense of identity versus the Company, which could be anything. How does it play out?
Devashish: You have to look at the farmers’ protest today. When I speak to my peers, my contemporaries in the city, everyone looks at the farmers of India as one big mass. A faceless mass. And when they talk about what they’re up against, the government policies which are pro-corporate, you have an Adani or Ambani which has a face. They are not faceless.
Somewhere those who don’t understand what the farmers are protesting for and if they don’t try to understand how that’s important to the rest of us. We will always see that protesters faceless and they will always see what they’re protesting against as having a face and that’s what makes it easier for them to relate to you know the system because the system always comes with some sort of a face, be it the government or a corporate. So here also in my story, I was trying to flip it. I was trying to make the company faceless. I was trying to give a sense of identity to those who are paying that price, whether it was the CRPF or the Adivasi. It could be the farmers today in India or it could be the Dalit.
It could be you know for lack of a better metaphor here, I myself feel rather displaced because I’m a Sindhi. My parents both of them came from Pakistan, which is now Pakistan during the partition. I was born and I grew up in Calcutta where I wasn’t a Bengali, but I was around Bengali culture a lot. I’ve been working in Bombay for 18 years, but I’m not Marathi, but I’m around Marathi culture a lot. My two films are Ajji and Bhonsle and, if you don’t know better, sound like Marathi films so I have been struggling with identity. I don’t know where my roots are. Yeah, so when I am trying to question the system as to my place in the scheme of things, I don’t know where to begin because I have nothing to prove that I have an identity that allows me to question this system.
If I multiply my helplessness by 5,000, I get the helplessness of an Adivasi or a Dalit or a farmer and for me, that breaks my heart, so I needed to give them faces and explore their identity.
Kaveree: The other interesting thing in the story is the importance of the eye. You see it everywhere in the novel. Everyone has to keep an eye out, ahead, behind. There is a symbol of the eye that represents the company. I found that again a very very powerful metaphor. Talk about that.
Devashish: Again you have beautifully caught it because somewhere I was trying to simplify and allegorise the idea of surveillance and today with modern technology, the system can observe you, surveil you a lot more but it’s always been the case. Even when we had landline phones, if the government wanted, they could tap your line. This goes back to my research for Black Friday. I spent six months researching material that S. Hussain Zaidi had already put in the book, but when you try to give faces for cinema, you need to research the people a little more deeply. So around that time, I spoke to people whom I can’t name. I spoke to the CBI. I spoke to people in the IB. I spoke to the police, the crime branch and there were thousands of hours of phone recordings that they had of people that I can’t name, but they’re like all the phones were tapped and they were just surveilling, surveilling, surveilling, all the time. I asked them that you know, you’ve got all this material, what is that you want to do with it. They said, if we release or leak it, we will not be able to hold on to the government for more than five minutes. So they sit on all this material.
I knew that back to the 1960s, when we could tap anything anywhere at will; today it has just become easier. So how do you then live a life of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity and all the things that the Constitution enshrines? How do you live that life? If you are being watched all the time? If you are supposed to toe the line. Do you walk the talk that the system wants you to? How do you manifest those ideas in the Constitution? So that idea of the eye for me was to create that sense of dread that you know, you’re being watched and you don’t have freedom even though you think that you do. It is a delusion.
Kaveree: Yeah, absolutely, but I found in Hemla’s character so much purity, so much courage and so much fearlessness and I think that is the fearlessness that we have lost as a society. We’re also afraid. Aren’t we? I think that’s the biggest threat to us. It’s not what the state is doing to us. It’s not what the environment is doing to us and it’s our own fear and I think Hemla is such a hero to me because she has so much courage.
Devashish: One of my biggest inspirations for Hemla was Soni Sori and when I sort of knew more about her or watched her at work. There’s a line that I use often that a woman without hope is a woman without fear. So when you take away hope and I saw it in Soni Sori’s eye. If you look into her eyes, I see an absence of Hope, but that doesn’t mean that it manifests as utter Hopelessness. The absence of Hope is not Hopelessness but that absence of hope because she seemed so much taken away brings her certain courage. She has nothing left to lose. What do you take away from her anymore? So somewhere for Hemla, I wanted to manifest that she might have seen so much that we are not privy to that she cannot fear anymore. What is the worst that can happen that she will be physically assaulted, that someone will chop her hands off? She has seen that too. She has seen that happen. And something a friend of mine said to me during those journeys through the Adivasi area. He said that you know, we have to lose our fear of being thrown in jail.
Most of the time people don’t act upon a certain thing that they want to question the government about because they are afraid that they will get thrown in jail. He said you have to obliterate that fear. Forget that you will die in jail. You will get food. You will be able to take a piss when you want. You will get to dump once a day. You will get to sleep. Maybe the mosquitoes would bother you, but you will not die in jail. So if you take away that fear, it takes away your fear to question the system because the system has only one way to bring you down. By disciplining you. By throwing you in jail. By threatening you with a warrant. So I want to take talk about those things through Hemla.
Kaveree: And you have done that really well. The other point I think comes through so powerfully is that question that we saw of the huge exodus during the pandemic when people went home and they were walking the streets with all their belongings on them. It’s not just about poverty. I think at the end of the day, it is about dignity. They want respect and if you don’t give it to them then, you know, at some point they will break.
Devashish: Dignity is everything and that’s one of the saddest things when you go to an Adivasi village where maybe five or six men have been missing for years because they were thrown in jail for merely asking for their rights. The first thing you see is that crushed soul because amongst themselves there’s a lot of dignity, but when they have to face the system like we went on to help one of the Praja lawyers there with a particular bunch of cases. So because we could read and write in English, so it was easier to read documents for them. These documents come by the fucking kilogram, so they always need help to read documents and respond to them. So we went to jail and we tried talking to the Jailor. We tried talking to their lawyer the first thing that the Jailor or the lawyer did was to get up and look through us and walk away. We felt insulted. Now imagine, we were there for a month and a half. Now imagine having to put up with that every day where you’re not acknowledged. When nobody looks you in the eye. Nobody talks to you. They just get up and walk away. That can make you think of doing very extreme things.
Kaveree: And yet you have Hemla trying her best to initiate dialogue, trying the best to teach Hindi to children so that they can grow up and speak to the company or the CRPF or whoever in their own language. So there is some amount of hope but it gets crushed so easily. Yet that plea for peaceful dialogue is still a very powerful hope that you end with even in your book, although it is dystopian. It is still there. The plea for hope. The plea for dialogue. To understand each other and to listen to each other. Let’s talk a little about how that is so much an absence, not just in that community, but everywhere, currently.
Devashish: You know that the dystopia that you speak of I think manifests in that one line wherein the end Hemla has run back to the Village. She still trying to talk to Manoranjan, but suddenly she has this gun pointed in her face and she suddenly realizes that I’ve been talking to the barrel of this gun all the time. I’ve not been talking to the people behind it because this is what they thrust in my face when I’m actually pleading. Somewhere that absence of communication that everyone is talking different languages.
When I say different languages, I don’t mean literally someone speaking Kovi or someone speaking Hindi but someone speaking the language of the gun when someone’s trying to speak the language of the heart. There cannot be a dialogue in such a situation. The gun has to be put down if there has to be a dialogue. When you see the farmers’ protests, there are water cannons or tear gas, metal rods. When you walk in with that you can’t have a dialogue with farmers who actually didn’t want to attack you in the first place and they still haven’t. But the face of the system is always, almost always, that of, you know of a violent weapon and you cannot talk to that beyond a point. The weapon has to be shed. Faces have to emerge for that dialogue to happen and somewhere the book is trying to entreaties. It is trying to make a case for that. But how possible is it until that effort is taken from both sides, not just one side?
Kaveree: What does it do to you personally? You see all these beautiful, proud people, as you said earlier, you see their souls being crushed and you see so much oppression. I mean we see it too, but you’ve undertaken this journey and you have chronicled it. What does it do to you as a person?
Devashish: I had behavioural issues around the time I was working on this material. I’ve had physiological issues. Around the time I was making Ajji, I contracted prostate cancer and I didn’t realize then why these things were happening. But when you’re experiencing this and I’m not as strong as Medha Patkar. I don’t have those qualities to shield myself, to keep myself disaffected to carry on the fight because I’m always trying to take that emotion and create something of it. When I’m channelling that emotion through me, it is leaving something in me. So I had to grapple with my own demons that sort of got created when I see what I see or when I interact with the people I do and hopefully I try and manifest all of that into my story so that they don’t stay within me entirely, but of course, they don’t entirely go away either. So I have a life of stories inside me that have to do with all of this material. So a lot of my peers ask me, “Don’t you want to make a happy story? Don’t you want to tell a love story? The biggest tragedy is that I have love stories inside me. I have mainstream ideas. I have happy stories. I don’t have the opportunity to say them because there’s so much else. I finish with the Adivasi struggle and there’s the Dalit who needs representation. You finish with that and then there is patriarchy. You finish with that and then there is something else. The country is tearing at its seams with how horrific we are in the way we treat our own countrymen.
Kaveree: I mean I come from a state which has become a complete mental asylum. It’s an open mental asylum. Kashmir, I think is the most paranoid state in this country because it’s been like this now for over 25 years. They’ve lived with this surveillance thing. But the whole idea of nature feeling us. When you talk about the trees and the grass, they feel for us. They soak it all in, you know, when the Adivasis talk about the strange view that has come and they talk about nature feeling their pain. How much of that do you think is happening around us. You know, when we look at the raging environmental crisis. Is that nature’s way of feeding off some toxicity in a way?
Devashish: How can nature escape that if we are such an intrinsic part of nature. Say about a thousand years or 2,000 years back, we were not the most proliferating species on this planet. So there were other species maybe. Maybe they were more rats than human beings 2,000 years ago. So nature still has some chance of staying balanced, but now there are so many of us and we also emerged from nature. So when we are going to go around destroying what we ourselves a part of, will there not be a backlash? And I think, it is getting exponentially exacerbated. I think what we are thinking global warming might destroy us by 2055. It might happen by 2028 because it’s just exponentially getting worse. We are and we have been proliferating like a virus. Maybe COVID is one way of nature trying to find the little balance. I’m surprised that we had COVID so light. Like I thought we’d have it much worse.
Kaveree: Yeah, and I don’t think it’s changed us too much fundamentally. The other opposition I see so starkly in the novel is between Lakshmi and Hemla. It’s not just the ideology of the gun versus education, but it’s also the idea of giving in to your anger and I think that again is one of the greatest tragedies of our time. We have given in to our anger; we’ve given in it to our rage. Hemla is still someone who tries not to do that, but Lakshmi is too far gone on that path again. This is such a fundamental contrast.
Devashish: Oh, yes. So unfortunately when I started writing Oonga many years ago, I wanted to give Hemla some sort of a culmination in hope because I believe in her stance but as the story progressed, more and more, it felt too me that Laksmi is right and Hemla is being foolish and somewhere by the end, I couldn’t control it. It just went out of control and Laxmi survives and Hemla pays the price for believing.
Kaveree: That’s really tragic. But unfortunately, it’s the truth.
Devashish: Yes, I don’t know. Given the current climate.
Kaveree: More than ever.
Devashish: Punning on the word climate, I think across the world. I don’t know how we can escape this tragedy unless we all start thinking, you know, positively all at once, and believe in the right things, all at once. It can’t happen piecemeal anymore.
Kaveree: Another interesting thing that I found in your book is reclaiming of Ram by Oonga. I found that lovely because here you have Ram who’s been appropriated as a symbol by a very toxic movement and here you have this little boy, sort of appropriating Ram in the purest way possible, and in the sweetest way possible. This is something quite remarkable. And I think this is something again that you must talk a bit about this little boy believing in Ram and believing that he can vanquish Ravan.
Devashish: So now at the expense of probably calling a fatwa on my head by the very frightening right-wing. So on 6 December 1992. I’ll just take a minute to trace this back to an experience, a very personal experience. On 6 December 1992, in a little mohalla in Calcutta, I was 12-13 and we were one of three Hindu families in a predominantly Bangladeshi Muslim slum. The news of the masjid being demolished reaches this mohalla and we were attacked that night. My mother was almost raped. And that never left me. I didn’t feel anger for whoever was attacking us as more as much as I felt confusion. I didn’t know why that happened. The next morning. We were almost back to normal because I had to go buy eggs from a shop in the slum. I had to you know, navigate those same gullies that I was navigating every day growing up in that Mohalla so that stayed with me and somewhere every time someone says that there is a bhoomi where Ram was born, I have a physical response to that because you can’t literalise a metaphor. Ram is a metaphor for you know, certain values. All the characters of the Ramayana or the Mahabharata stand for certain values. Storytelling back then and even today is literally about dispensing values to the people you are telling those stories to through the characters that you populate those stories with.
So Oonga is my Ramayana, my Mahabharata, my modern mythology through which I’m trying to impart certain values. So for me to put forth that idea that Ram was, stood or represented certain ideas and was not real, was the most important thing for me in this story because it sort of achieves many things at many levels. It achieves that the idea that he goes beyond religion. So Ram is not just a Hindu metaphor anymore. Ram could be an Adivasi. He could be that Adivasi who stood up for his jungle and didn’t want his jungle destroyed by the industry and when little Oonga, a 10-11-year-old boy will actually arrive at the heart of that metaphor much quicker than an adult because he doesn’t have those trappings and those conditionings that adults do. So he finds the heart of Rama being an Adivasi and much quicker.
He arrives at the metaphor and therefore when he understands at a very subconscious level that this is a metaphor so if Ram is a metaphor then what’s stopping me from being Ram and I can replicate those values and those ideas where I come from. So I want to send out this messaging because the right-wing has appropriated from me the things that I took away from the Ramayana, so this is me trying to take it back.
Kaveree: You do it really well, Devashish. I wanted to know what makes you? What keeps you going?
Devashish: One thing that also breaks me is the one thing that keeps me going. There is an unending abyss of rage. I try not showing it half the time when I’m constantly grappling with it, trying to subdue it, trying to therapeutise it, but when I sit down and tell a story, I dip into that rage. Without that rage, I don’t know how to tell stories. So it’s rage all the way. I would rather it come into my stories then manifest in me picking up the gun.
Kaveree: I really want to ask what’s next for you?
Devashish: Like I was telling Sanjoy earlier, all my stories are really hard to find backing for so I am trying. I’ve got like 15-16 stories that I’m trying to turn into films, but I’m hoping that this novel does well. The films I make get watched by a very niche audience. They almost never make their money back. So it takes me three-four years to set up a film so somewhere, you know, a storyteller like me is not getting the energy back that I’m putting into the world. So I’m hoping this book finds readers so that I feel like I’ve been energized enough. I would actually drop everything and write my next novel which is ready. And it has all the same motifs that Oonga did, only that they are a lot more personal. It’s about that night on the 6th of December 1992 in that mohalla in Kolkata.
(The above text – transcription and editing – is a handiwork of Suman Bhattacharya and Shillpi A Singh)
New Delhi, February 21, 2021: The third day of the Kumbh of literature was filled with a dance of history, memoir, pandemic, technology, the Booker 2020 winner and much more. There were sessions exploring conversations on Vincent Brown’s groundbreaking geopolitical thriller Tacky′s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War, Phoolsunghi – the first Bhojpurinovel to be translated into English, India’s fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, an acute insight into the professional and personal relationship between the first Chief Information Commissioner of India, Wajahat Habibullah and former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the impact of liberalism and its place in an age of resurging autocracy, the concept of Dharma and many other sessions.
In conversation with journalist Sreenivasan Jain, celebrated American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, historian, social critic and political activist Professor Noam Chomsky discussed the global “drift into authoritarianism”, post-Trump America, and the factors that made social reform possible. He spoke of the recent storming of the United States Capitol, and how it was a turning point for the country, sharing what it was like to wake up in America in the “aftermath” of Donald Trump. Professor Chomsky insisted that the American democracy had “serious problems” even before his presidency. Speaking about the rise of authoritarianism, Professor Chomsky delved into the “neoliberal assault”of the last few decades, explaining how inequality and authoritarianism appeared to be inextricably linked. Responding to Jain’s question on what can be done to resist the threats to democracy, Professor Chomsky said, “There’s no magic key! “You fight it the way you’ve always fought it, with educational programmes, with organisation, with activism.”
“Over time any political or social movement can work,” he said, pointing to the Independence Movement in India. Reflecting on some of the critical progressive movements like the labour movement, the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement among others, he talked about the significance of coming together in solidarity and with constant dedicated struggle. “There is no point being optimistic or pessimistic. The point is to face the challenges, take the opportunities, get to work and overcome the problems. It can be done – and optimism says yes, let’s do it,”he said.
The “queer son of a single mother”. This is how Douglas Stuart, Scottish-American writer, who recently won the Booker Prize for his debut novel, Shuggie Bain, introduced himself in his session with writer and playwright Paul McVeigh on day 3 of the Festival. Stuart spoke about his mother, on whom the book’s central character Agnes was based. He delved deep into the character, drawing similarities with his mother – she too, like Agnes, had been an alcoholic and had eventually succumbed to her addiction when Stuart had been 16. He said that in her little working class Glasgow milieu, she had perhaps been ‘insignificant’ but she had been ‘very significant’ to him, and like the children of all addicts, he was always on the lookout for strategies to keep her safe.
Irish author Colum McCann, in conversation with Sri Lankan-born writer and activist Ru Freeman, discussed the inspirations behind his book Apeirogon, and the undying quality of hope. When asked about the research he had to do to capture the essence of Beit Jala, where the novel has been based, the first thing McCann was reminded of was the ‘Bird Ringing Centre’ there. He said he was quite fascinated about how the migrating birds were captured, tagged and freed and even compared them to readers who came to this place and went back with a part of it in them. In the five years that he wrote this book, McCann met Rami and Bassam, the protagonists of Apeirogon, and spent time with them and their families. A novelist’s job, as McCann candidly put it, was to ‘put us in the pulse of the moment’—to turn the book into a living, breathing medium, which was why he attempted and left most of the politics up to the reader’s imagination. The heart-rending stories of Rami and Bassam’s loss were painful for McCann to even contemplate but what kept him going was their own hurt and sorrow. The process, he said, was “difficult, but necessary” and an “extraordinary journey”.
In a captivating conversation, Professor Vincent Brown discussed his book ‘Tacky’s Revolt’, with Professor Maya Jasanoff. The focus of the book resides on a slave revolt which occurred in the middle of the 18th century in Jamaica, in the midst of the Seven Years War between Britain and its imperial enemies. Professor Brown said that this event had often been ignored and not considered as a battle that occurred during the Seven Years War; nor had it been wrestled with as a major event in the history of the empire. To shed light on this moment of history, Professor Brown wrote this book and it became the first long account of the revolt since Edward Long, the polemic defender of slavery who wrote his contemporary account of the events in 1774.
Liberalism has always been at the core of western culture as it puts individual freedom at the forefront. Journalist and author John Micklethwait summarised this succinctly by saying that “the starting point of liberals is a distrust of authority or power”, at a session titled “The Death of Liberalism”. During the conversation Micklethwait and co-panelist, American author Adam Gopnik, agreed that liberal democracy needed to take a hard look and reinvent itself to avoid authoritarianism. Micklethwait stressed the need for “social trust and social capital” before having free markets. Gopnik spoke of the degradation of public education in the last thirty years in the US, underscoring the need for liberals “to re-endow these problem areas with a lot more dignity and monetary support”. He also highlighted that a powerful social and democratic government can pose no danger to social or liberal freedom, strongly emphasising that “a high degree of statism, social intervention, and national health above all can co-exist with classic liberal freedoms – that is an empirical truth”.
The concept of Dharma is unique to Indian philosophy and difficult to translate as it implies different things in different contexts. Hindu narratives are ambiguous and avoid prescriptive moralities. The Dharma and duties of different individuals face conflicts of ethical and human dimensions. Distinguished economist, writer, scholar and translator Bibek Debroy spoke of these dilemmas and the ethical and karmic choices inherent in them. In a deep and engrossing session, he talked with Keerthik Sasidharan, author of the recently published novel The Dharma Foresto.
Protected by Reckitt Benckiser, the session titled “Till we win: India’s Fight Against the Covid-19 Pandemic”, with doctors Randeep Guleria, Chandrakant Lahariya and Gagandeep Kang, in conversation with journalist Maya Mirchandani, discussed the book of the same name, that these three medical virtuosos at the forefront of India’s fight against the global pandemic, have written on their experiences and lessons learnt so far.
Concluding the first weekend of the Festival was a debate on “All Power Corrupts” featuring authors Amish Tripathi and Pavan K. Varma, Dutch journalist Kim Ghattas, Indian politician Pinaki Misra, well-known lawyer Pinky Anand and columnist Suhel Seth. The speakers examined the different dimensions of the truth that power corrupts. Is there something inherent in power itself that makes all power corrupt, or is there something else that has to be looked at? Does power corrupt by itself or does power only corrupt when there are no checks and balances?
Speaking against the proposition, journalist, author and analyst Kim Ghattas shared, “I’ve lived through and covered some of the worst abuses of power. Power is wielded at all levels, by the bureaucrat, by the prison guard, by the dictator, but I have also seen power used for good – to help, to save. So, I want to believe that power can do good, and that good people can become powerful and remain true to their moral compass.”
Kim Ghattas, Journalist, author and analyst | Against the motion | All Power Corrupts
“The key is to try and understand human nature in a competing world, especially illustrated by politics. If you acquire power, there is a tendency for you to believe that you, as that repository of power, can bend rules in accordance with those measures required to sustain your power.”
Pavan K. Varma, Writer-diplomat and politician | For the Motion | All Power Corrupts
Amish Tripathi countered saying, “Lord Ram had tremendous power, but he wasn’t corrupt, so what power showed was who he really was.” Amish talked of power as an unveiling of human nature and a challenge to find out what you’re really made of. He also referenced The Dalai Lama as someone who currently wields tremendous power, but uses it for good.
Pinaki Misra, who spoke against the motion, reminded the audience of Abraham Lincoln’s quote“Nearly all men can withstand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Speaking from his experience of working in the public sector, he added that “power can be viewed, not as an end in itself but as a means to an end, to transform the lives of the people”.
Speaking for the motion, Suhel Seth said “A lot of people do good, but it’s more political power unbridled that we are talking about, that is then used to abuse the system.” He argued that “compassionate benevolence” is much more the exception than the rule.
Pinky Anand who also spoke against the motion said, “I think we have shown with the test of time that institutional challenges, institutional controls, checks and balances have ensured that constitutions and democracies are able to function and of course ultimately, it’s the will of the people.”
Pavan K. Varma reinforced his stance emphatically, saying that if all power didn’t corrupt, “Why does democracy provide so many checks and balances? Unless they exist, power will corrupt.”
At the end, while the panelists seemed to be reluctantly coming more towards a mutual understanding, the audience poll boldly declared the winning argument to be in favour of the motion that “All Power Corrupts”.
The weekend was also filled with musical performances by Anirudh Varma Collective, Rehmat-e-Nusrat and ‘Belonging’ featuring Jason O’Rourke and Deepmoy Das.
The ongoing 14th edition of the iconic Festival will be held till 28th February on an exclusive virtual platform. The next in line for the upcoming weekend is a multifaceted conversation on climate change with Bill Gates, apart from sessions with John Zubrzyck discussing his book The House of Jaipur, authorsCamilla Townsend and Peter Frankopan discussing the Aztec empire, Nobel Peace Prize winner and bestselling author Malala Yousafzai, artist Anish Kapoor in conversation with Homi K. Bhabha, Marina Wheeler on her exploration of her Indian ancestry. There will also be sessions on the Chipko movement with Ramachandra Guha, Shekhar Pathak and Manisha Chaudhry in conversation with Mukul Sharma, Boria Majumdar’sSport and a Billion Dreams: 2021 with Pullela Gopichand and Mansi Joshi, Jeremy Seal on A Coup in Turkey: A Tale of Democracy, Despotism and Vengeance and several more important themes.
New Delhi, February 20, 2021: The second day of ‘the greatest literary show on Earth’ featured sessions on fiction, film, food, feminism, biography, theology and much more. It included sessions featuring novels that unblinkingly examined inequity across Indian society, the extravagant journey of perhaps one of the greatest filmmakers Bollywood has seen, the life and writings of the master of words, Dante, on the 700th anniversary of his death, along with a session that brought together a cross-section of voices and perspectives to understand feminism and its kaleidoscopic dimensions. In conversation with Shahnaz Habib, Annie Zaidi and Deepa Anappara spoke about their writing process, their exploration of the fiction genre and the source of their inspirations. At the session, supported by The JCB Prize for Literature, the authors spoke about the liberty that writing fiction allowed and how it helped them bring harrowing stories from marginalised communities to the fore, allowing them to showcase different points of view without having to approach the subject from a journalistic lens. Prelude to a Riot by Annie Zaidi is the disturbing narrative of two families, and charts the growth of religious intolerance, while Deepa Anappara’s debut novel, Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, tells a haunting tale of heartbreak and the loss of innocence.
Bestselling author Simon Winchester discussed his latest book Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World, which traces the concept of land and its ownership from an anthropological perspective. In conversation with Raghu Karnad, Winchester spoke about the “bloody” history of land ownership, which he attributed to “capitalistic thought” and its mythical idea of land that dictates that once you own it, it’s yours, mostly because land had the capacity to yield money. “Land is proving to be no longer immutable,” he said, “We’re losing it to global warming and climate change and it may be slow but it is very noticeable.” Unfair, oppressive and fascinating ideas such as ‘Terra nullius’ (Latin for nobody’s land) were brought to light. The conversation traced political, religious and technological feats and shone light on everything from the history of race to ecological plights and how humankind’s connection with land has been elemental, contentious and necessary.
The session “Of the People, For the People” featured former Chief Election Commissioner of India, Navin Chawla, former Chairman of the Election Commission of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Deshapriya, former Chief Election Commissioner of Bhutan, Dasho Kunzang Wangdi and Commissioner at the Election Commission of Nepal, Neel Kantha Uprety, in conversation with author Mukulika Banerjee. Together, they spoke about the process, achievements and challenges of the electoral process in their respective countries. Uprety talked about how the electoral system played a significant role in bringing the insurgents into Nepal’s peace process. Deshapriya spoke of Sri Lanka being the first South Asian country to have gone through elections amid a global pandemic. In response to a statement about many politicians having criminal records, Wangdi said that in Bhutan, candidates seeking election to the Parliament needed a university degree as well as a certificate that testified they did not have a criminal record. Chawla highlighted the sheer scale, the “secrecy of the ballot” and the quick delivery of results as among the strengths of an Indian Election. Another important aspect of the Indian system, he added, was that results had to be accepted by both losers and winners graciously.
“Conducting free and fair elections is the basic building block of any democracy. We took this process for granted until the US elections, where the transfer of power was not peaceful.”
Mukulika Banerjee, Author
The almost-mythical figures of the nationalist movement have always been surrounded by controversy and hold a revered status in the minds of many as they continue to influence the politics of today. Very rarely does a conversation revolving around the Partition not mention Nehru, Jinnah, and Gandhi; their political presence has played a key role in the formation of the modern-day understanding of India and Pakistan. Speaking at a session, Ishtiaq Ahmed, through his book ‘Jinnah: His Successes, Failures and Role in History’, aimed to debunk myths surrounding Pakistan’s Quaid-e-Azam. A well-known scholar of South Asian history and politics, Ahmed possesses an intricate understanding of partition studies, while his reliance on primary sources details his rigorous efforts to document true narratives.
Scholar and author Rupert Snell chatted with Harish Trivedi on his translation of the Bihari Satsai. Describing his long association with Biharilal’s compositions, Snell said that he was initially drawn to the playfulness of the poet’s language – the puns and alliterations attracted him to take on the translation. But he clarified that the book of his translation of the Satsai was only a “snapshot” of Bihari’s work and “not necessarily the final version”.
At a delightful session on feminism, writers Bee Rowlatt, Mariam Khan and Sabrina Mahfouz shared their perspectives on feminism and why feminism in its present form must die to accommodate other versions of feminism. Rowlatt, who calls herself a late-emerging feminist, said that one could not get stuck to one idea of feminism and that feminism needed to be constantly reframed. “I would compare feminism to a white shark that has to keep moving to get oxygen. Otherwise, it will die,” she said. Mahfouz, however, was not quite hopeful if feminism within the framework of patriarchy and white supremacy could be challenged. “It is tough,” she said. In fact, she herself continues to struggle with multiple tags that people put on her identity. For example, people wonder how she is both a Muslim and a vegan!
“I would compare feminism to a white shark that has to keep moving to get oxygen. Otherwise, it will die.”
Bee Rowlatt, Writer
Discussing prolific playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard, authors Chandrahas Choudhury and Hermione Lee uncovered many fascinating facts of Stoppard’s life. During the session supported by the Hawthornden Trust, Lee shared her feelings that through her writing, she had found an artfulness that spoke to many different readers.
New Delhi, February 19, 2021: The 14th edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival began on February 19, 2021, in a virtual avatar that recreated the magic of its customary home, the iconic Diggi Palace. Like every year, the Festival began with a breathtaking Morning Music performance by an internationally acclaimed performer, composer, cultural entrepreneur, and music educator, Shubhendra Rao. This was followed by the inaugural address, titled “Brave New world”, delivered by Jaipur Literature Festival Co-directors Namita Gokhale and William Dalrymple, Managing Director of Teamwork Arts Sanjoy K. Roy and Hon. Minister Dr. B.D. Kalla, Government of Rajasthan.
An intense day of conversations followed, with sessions on music, poetry, politics, science and India’s linguistic wealth. Some of the highlights included sessions on music across genres of folk, classical and popular; the First Amendment of the Constitution of India; the inspiring story of Kalbeliya exponent Gulabo Sapera; increasing political polarisation and its impact on democracy globally; the ancient Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna and his ideas on the conjunction of science and philosophy; the challenges that Covid-19 has brought to the fore and learnings from pandemics of the past.
In a session discussing his book Moustache, JCB Prize for Literature 2020 winner S. Hareesh talked about the story of the book’s protagonist Vavachan. Through the protagonist, Hareesh weaves a picture of caste and gender politics in Kerala’s Kuttanad. Hareesh said that no Indian story can be told without writing about caste. “Caste is a way of life; it pervades everything we do. As an Indian writer, caste will be a part of your writing, whether you realise it or not.” Moustache won the JCB Prize for Literature 2020, and with the help of award-winning translator Jayashree Kalathil, the novel was able to reach readers across the world.
At another conversation, celebrated actress and international star Priyanka Chopra Jonas was in conversation with author and columnist Shobhaa De, discussing her recently released memoir Unfinished. From her efforts with the girl child, the evolution of how women are perceived in the entertainment industry, from issues like nepotism to the positive power of support from friends and family, Priyanka spoke candidly about her journey through life and cinema. During the course of the conversation, Shobhaa asked Priyanka about her efforts with the girl child and referred to “Chhoti” in the actor’s memoir. “Chhoti is a really important part of it because it shaped just the person I am and the idea of being aware of the world around you was inculcated in me through my parents,” Priyanka said. Sharing an anecdote about Chhoti, she said that Chhoti’s mother worked as a cook at the Chopras’ home and she couldn’t go to school so that her brothers could. This provoked and moved her and eventually led her to initiate the change, said the actor. “I am a daughter of the same country and my parents raised me with encouragement, having an opinion, with choices in my own life, and making decisions according to my desires, and here was a daughter of the same country who didn’t even have the idea that she had choices,” she explained.
The session “Asia Vision 2021” featured an energy-driven panel discussing the global significance of Asia, given that it included more than half of the world’s population. Vivan Sharan, Mihir S. Sharma, Parag Khanna and Shruti Rajagopalan spoke with Sajjid Z. Chinoy about varied subjects including economics, geopolitics, technology and the aftermath of the pandemic. When asked about the “Asiafication of Asia” and what it meant, Parag replied that the world was Asian – demographically, economically and in many other innumerable ways. Thus, “Asia needs to be further Asianised for Asia is most of the world”. He also talked about the collapse of the Soviet having led to the “intra-regional processes” that have caused a “deepening interdependence” of Asian markets. Sharan spoke about technological aspects highlighting that almost all countries had agreed upon the “free flow of data” across borders but with different governance strategies. On being questioned about global politics and the tussle between the USA and China, Shruti suggested that “the only way to deal with geopolitics is to act as if it doesn’t exist” since market economics was more likely to overpower its effects. Speaking about the impact of the pandemic, Mihir commented that it was difficult to know the magnitude of the setback that Asia shall face, when the impediments will come to the fore and how exactly they were going to play out.
At another session, senior journalists Edward Luce and Anne Applebaum, in conversation with Suhasini Haidar, attempted to unpack the complex idea of increasing political polarisation, shaking up established democracies worldwide, and discussed the reasons for this trend. Held, in partnership with The Week, the engaging session took the audiences on an exploration of the global recession of democracies. Haidar was also in conversation with John Micklethwait, the Editor-in-Chief of Bloomberg, at a session concentrated on global power shifts and the necessity for a structural paradigm shift within governments, exposing giant lapses within governments across the world as they scrambled to battle the COVID-19 pandemic.
Exposing the deep fault lines within governments across the world in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, author and journalist John Micklethwait’s latest book, The Wake-Up Call: Why the Pandemic Has Exposed the Weakness of the West and How to Fix It co-authored with Adrian Woolridge, offers both critical analysis and solutions.
Brussels, Belgium, February 17, 2021: Described as the ‘greatest literary show on Earth’, the Jaipur Literature Festival is a sumptuous feast of ideas and inspiration. From 19th to 28th February 2021, the Festival returns with it’s 14th edition – fully virtual – featuring famous writers and curated for audiences across the world.
During the two weekends of the Festival (19-21 and 26-28 February), four European Prize for Literature laureates will take part in extensive conversations with Indian counterparts and interact with international audiences. The authors – Kevin Barry (Ireland), Meelis Friedenthal (Estonia), Rodaan Al Galidi (the Netherlands), and Adam Foulds (UK) – representing some of the most talented writers in Europe, will showcase the depth of the continent’s contemporary literature at South Asia’s biggest literary festival.
Next to the Festival’s main programme, the European Union will also support encounters between literary professionals from Europe and India as part of the Festival’s B2B wing – the Jaipur BookMark (JBM). Three sessions will be supported by the EU and address themes including literary translation, current trends in international publishing markets, and the transnational circulation of literary output. EUPL laureates Matthias Nawrat (Germany) and Selja Ahava (Finland), and key industry stakeholders representing the Federation of European Publishers, Latvia, Greece, and Finland will engage with counterparts from the Indian publishing industry.
Speaking of growing EU-India artistic and cultural ties, H.E. Ugo Astuto, Ambassador of the European Union to India and Bhutan, welcomed this collaboration, remarking that, “The EU is committed to fostering an environment conducive to greater creative exchanges with India. With our participation in the Jaipur Literature Festival and the Jaipur BookMark, we wish to strengthen the EU’s position as a major cultural partner of India, recognizing the importance of inter-cultural dialogue as a key element of our partnership.”
Sharing his enthusiasm Sanjoy K Roy, Managing Director, Teamwork Arts producer of the Jaipur Literature Festival said, “We are delighted to partner with the European Union and European Union prize for Literature and explore the rich writing from this region and strengthen our focus on translations and bringing to the fore the best writers from across the world during the Jaipur Literature Festival.
Friday 19 February; 3pm IST / 10:30am CET
JLF 1st panel: Adam Foulds in conversation with Elaine Canning
Monday 22 February; 4:45pm IST / 12:15pm CET
JBM Session 1: European Union Prize for Literature: Writing from across Europe
Wednesday 24 February; 6pm IST / 1:30pm CET
JBM Session 2: Extending the Novel: Fiction, non-fiction, translation
Thursday 25 February; 4:45pm / 12:15pm CET
JBM Session 3: Publishing Market: International exchange
Friday 26 February; 4pm IST / 11:30am CET
JLF 2nd panel: Meelis Friedenthal in conversation with Malashri Lal
Saturday 27 February; 5pm IST / 12:30pm CET
JLF 3rd panel: Rodaan Al Galidi and Jonathan Reeder in conversation with Neeta Gupta
Sunday 28 February; 4pm IST / 11:30am CET
JLF 4th panel: Kevin Barry in conversation with Cauvery Madhavan
New Delhi, January 21, 2021: Set to take place between 19th to 28th February 2021, the Jaipur Literature Festival returns with a stellar online programme, spread over 10 days, for its 14th edition.
The ‘greatest literary show on Earth’ returns in a virtual avatar, featuring a spectacular line-up of speakers from across the world, consisting of writers, poets, playwrights, thinkers, politicians, journalists, cultural icons and recipients of major literary awards including the Man Booker, the Pulitzer, JCB Prize for Literature, Commonwealth, European Union Prize, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, PEN Award for Poetry in Translation etc.
The programme, unveiled today, is vast and kaleidoscopic, with themes ranging from Technology & AI, Politics & History, Environment & Climate Change, Mental Health, Economics, Translations, Poetry & Music, Food & Literature, Geopolitics, Science & Medicine, Democracy & Constitutions, Water & Sustainability, Historical Fiction, Travel, etc.
Some highlights from the programme include Glasgow-born author Douglas Stuart whose 2020 Booker Prize-winning debut novel Shuggie Bain evokes the essence of addiction, parenthood, courage and love. Following the bond between a son and his mother, fractured by alcoholism, poverty, aspiration and human misery, the novel graphs an intimate, devastating yet ultimately hopeful journey through their lives. In conversation with writer and playwright Paul McVeigh, Stuart will unravel the thought and process behind bringing this heartbreaking story out into the world.
Celebrated American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, historian, social critic, and political activist Noam Chomsky’s latest book, Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power, sharply questions the utopian idea of neoliberalism and the consequences of markets dictating all aspects of society. Evaluating the ten principles that have fuelled this idea, he will unravel its roots and its troubling impact on American society, culture and politics, in conversation with journalist Sreenivasan Jain.
Covering the ongoing pandemic, doctors and co-authors Randeep Guleria, Chandrakant Lahariya and Gagandeep Kang will discuss their exciting new project in conversation with award-winning journalist Maya Mirchandani. The focus of the session will revolve around whether India wins the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Randeep Guleria, Director of All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, is an MD in Medicine and the first DM in Pulmonary Medicine in the country, and has been at the forefront of the Government of India’s efforts on the COVID-19 pandemic’s preparedness and response. Dr. Chandrakant Lahariya is a leading public policy and health systems expert and a recipient of the Indian Council of Medical Research’s Dr. BC Srivastava Foundation Award for his work on translating community-based health research in public policy interventions. Dr. Gagandeep Kang is a renowned infectious disease researcher and virologist who serves on many advisory committees in India and internationally, including for the World Health Organization.
During the Festival, award-winning Irish writer Colm Tóibín will take us through the rhythm and roots of his writing process and celebrated career. A master of expression and text, Tóibín possesses a unique ability to inhabit and blend through his words an expansive universe of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. He is the bestselling author of The Master, The Blackwater Lightship, The Testament of Mary and Nora Webster; his upcoming book is The Magician.
Marina Wheeler, a Queen’s Counsel in England, opens the portals of memory as the daughter of a woman traumatised by the Partition of 1947 that divided British India into Pakistan and India. Wheeler follows her mother’s buried past, her marriage and move to England where she refuses to look over her shoulder at a lost world. In conversation with Navtej Sarna, the former High Commissioner of India to the United Kingdom, she will explore the meaning of the Punjabi Sikh identity as it survives through cultural transitions.
In a special session, director and writer Devashish Makhija’s latest book, Oonga will be launched followed by a conversation exploring the book. The book is a powerful novel based on his film of the same name. Capturing the inherent paradox between dystopian ‘development’ and utopian ideologies, the book narrates the journey of a little boy in the midst of a clash between Adivasis, Naxalites, the CRPF and a mining company.
Acclaimed author and historian Vincent Brown‘s groundbreaking geopolitical thriller Tacky′s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War takes on the Atlantic slave trade with a subversive and powerful reconstruction of the history of insurgency, rebellion, victory and defeat. With a keen emphasis on the seminal uprising that upended the dominant imperial rule of the British Atlantic world, eventually becoming known as the Tacky’s Revolt, and ultimately leading the way for abolition. At as session titled ‘Tacky′s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War’, in conversation with writer and academic Maya Jasanoff, Brown will unpack the complex narratives binding the conflicting histories of Europe, Africa and America, offering illuminating insights into the condition of terror and war, more relevant than ever in the era of BLM and socio-political change.
Our knowledge and information of the Aztec empire, their history and their conquest, for generations have been informed by the Western pen. Author and historian Camilla Townsend’s Cundill History Prize-winning Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs brings to light a complex and riveting history of the Aztecs based entirely on direct translations of the annals written in the neglected Nahuatl language. The author will speak to acclaimed author and Oxford professor Peter Frankopan and explore the precarious survival and brutal conquest of the people of the sun and their journey of endurance.
Journalist and writer George Packer’s Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century is an enduring account of the force behind the Dayton Accords which famously ended the Balkan wars. Packer’s sweeping diplomatic history is based on Holbrooke’s diaries and papers and gives a peek into the life of a man equally admired and detested. In conversation with journalist and writer Basharat Peer, Packer will dive into the life and career of an extraordinary and deeply flawed man and the political and social circles he inhabited.
Journalist and writer Meenakshi Ahamed’s latest book, A Matter Of Trust, charts the complex relationship between India and the United States from the years following Indian Independence to today’s evolving politics. Based on her research of presidential papers, newly declassified documents, memoirs and interviews, the book evaluates the dynamics between the people in power in both countries against the backdrop of constantly developing socio-political-economic changes. At a book launch session, the writer will be in conversation with former Foreign Secretary to the Government of India, Shyam Saran and former diplomat Frank G. Wisner, and will discuss the far-reaching implications of this relationship and the current global political climate.
Tripurdaman Singh‘s latest book Sixteen Stormy Days: The Story of the First Amendment of the Constitution of India is a fascinating look into the turbulent history and contentious legacy of the First Amendment of the Constitution. In conversation with journalist and writer Karan Thapar, Singh will explore the nascent years of India in the context of what he calls ‘the first great battle of ideas.’
Democracy is an inherently participatory process that ensures the role of constituents in the direction and operation of political and social life. Electoral systems convert individual votes and choices into larger decisions that impact societies, cultures and nations. At a special session, a distinguished panel consisting of author and the 16th Chief Election Commissioner of India Navin B. Chawla, former Chief Election Commissioner of Nepal Neil Kantha Uprety and the Chief Election Commissioner of Bhutan Dasho Kunzang Wangdi will decipher and evaluate the electoral process in conversation with anthropologist and writer Mukulika Banerjee.
These are dangerous times for democracy. In his new book, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? renowned philosopher Michael Sandel shows how the polarised politics of our time reflects the deep divide between winners and losers. He argues that we must rethink the attitudes toward success and failure that have accompanied globalisation and rising inequality. In conversation with celebrated author and Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor, Sandel will offer an ethic of dignity and solidarity that points the way to a new politics of the common good.
The Festival continues its rediscovery of the vast heritage of India’s languages. In a session focused on Hindipoetry, scholar and academic Rupert Snell will speak of the enduring legacy of the Bihari Satsai with its evocative romantic imagery and visual vocabulary, in conversation with fellow scholar, academic and translator Harish Trivedi. The Bihari Satsai is a work of the early 17th century by the poet Biharilal in Braj Bhasha. The Satsai was written in the court of Raja Jai Singh of Amber near Jaipur. The poet was rewarded with a gold coin for each verse; 700 verses were compiled into the Bihari Satsai, which has been considered an outstanding representative of the Riti period, weaving together worldly experience and divine immanence, and adapting the writing style of court poetry. Rupert Snell’s translation for the Murty Classical Library is scholarly yet accessible and brings alive the tradition for modern readers.
The first Bhojpuri novel to be translated into English, Phoolsunghi, is a period piece about the life of a tawaif in the late 19th century in colonial Bihar. Though Bhojpuri songs and cinema have gained popular appeal, the richness of Bhojpuri literature is not widely known. Gautam Choubey, an academic and a columnist, has innovatively translated this modern classic and rendered it with cultural nuances and poetry. Academic and author Francesca Orsini is Professor of Hindi and South Asian Literature at SOAS, University of London. In conversation with academic and award-winning translator Jatindra Kumar Nayak, Orsini and Choubey will discuss the novel, the times it was set in as well as the challenges of presenting it for contemporary readers.
In conversation with the author of Mapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas That Reveal The Cosmos, Priyamvada Natarajan, acclaimed Italian physicist and writer Carlo Rovelli will take us through the deeper meaning of the universe and our place in it. Drawing inspiration from the ancient Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, Rovelli will take us on an illuminating journey through the unknown, exploring the mysteries of the cosmos, the fabric of space and the nature of time.
The Festival will remember legendary Indian actress Devika Rani through award-winning author and playwright Kishwar Desai’s book The Longest Kiss: The Life and Times of Devika Rani which charts the life and career of the celebrated actress. Based on her personal letters and documents, the book narrates her journey through the creation of Bombay Talkies, India’s first professional studio, her marriages to Himanshu Rai and Svetoslav Roerich, and the struggle of being a woman in the entirely male-dominated world of Indian cinema.
Speaking on the programme of this year, author and Festival Co-Director Namita Gokhale said, “It’s been a joyous challenge to work on the programming for Jaipur Literature Festival 2021. We look at our transformative times and try to understand the future through the lens of the present and the past. Our hybrid digital outreach has opened up a new universe of possibilities. I’m excited at having Italian astrophysicist and writer Carlo Rovelli in conversation with Professor Priyamvada Natarajan, on Nagarjuna, Sunyata, and Stardust. Winner of the 2020 Booker prize, Douglas Stuart, speaks of his award-winning debut novel. We rediscover Emperor Ashoka’s ancient edicts through music with T.M. Krishna.”
“There is so much more to experience and reflect upon – from Gulabo Sapera and the dance of the serpents to the science, art and philosophy of Indian food – from the tragic life of the great Bangla writer, poet, and playwright Michael Madhusudan Dutt to the one and only M.S. Subbulakshmi. Shekhar Pathak and Ramachandra Guha tell us of the people’s history of the Chipko Movement. We present S. Hareesh’s award-winning novel ‘Moustache’, translated from Malayalam. In ‘Brown Baby’, British writer Nikesh Shukla explores shifting ideas of home. We pay tribute to the genius of S.R. Faruqi as we present his posthumously published novel, ‘Kabze Zaman’. These are some glimpses of the treats in store – a few surprises still await!” she added.
Sanjoy K. Roy, Managing Director of Teamwork Arts, producer of the Jaipur Literature Festival, said, “A year after the world was felled by the pandemic, we have persevered and shown that human endurance can and will prevail, fuelled by knowledge and information, empathy and the right to justice. The Jaipur Literature Festival is representative of these ideals and will continue to be a platform to celebrate the joy of knowledge.”
Jaipur BookMark (JBM), a B2B segment held parallel to the Festival, will open its eighth edition with an engaging virtual programme between the two weekends of the Jaipur Literature Festival. The virtual edition of JBM will run from 22nd to 25th February 2021, hosting two sessions per day. JBM will continue to bring together a wide range of publishers, literary agents, writers, translators, translation agencies and booksellers from across the world and give them an opportunity to exchange ideas and listen to major global industry players.