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 Bhojpuri novel 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, authors Camilla 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’s Sport 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.
By Shillpi A Singh
New Delhi-based academician, columnist and translator Gautam Choubey has scripted history with his literary outing — Phoolsunghi — that happens to be the first-ever translation of a Bhojpuri novel into English. Apart from being the most representative work in Bhojpuri, Phoolsunghi also happens to be one of the most loved literary works by Pandey Kapil, who is hailed as the protagonist of Bhojpuri literary movement in the post-Independence India. Published in Hamish Hamilton by Penguin Random House, the book hit the shelves earlier last week.
The story from the soil of Bihar pans out in Chhapra where the magical, mystical, and mundane intertwine much like the lives of three characters — courtesan Gulzaribai who was popular in the region as Dhelabai; ageing zamindar Babu Haliwant Sahay, who worked as an official in the law court and had a stake in the flourishing opium trade; and Bhojpuri folk poet and singer Mahendra Misir. The timeless tale about these celebrated legends of Bihar has traversed centuries and fascinated litterateurs across ages. These dalliances resulted in three other literary jaunts of repute — Ramnath Pandey’s Mahendar Misir, Jauhar Safiyabad’s Poorvi Ke Dhah and Anamika’s Dus Dwareka Pinjara.
The historical novel spanning ninety years touches upon the early years of colonial rule in India without making any direct references to the fight for independence or any social conflict or instances of religious disharmony. The plot, story, and setting spread over 16 chapters together draw a reader into the enchanting world of the lifelike characters. Music serves as the perfect backdrop in Phoolsunghi, and there is a lot of drama, action, tragedy that unfolds in the lives of these people, to keep one hooked, from start to finish. The enthralling mehfils and mujras, high-pitched abduction drama, episodes of court cases and counterfeiting notes reveal author’s attempt to make it a wholesome entertainer. The author explores various shades of romantic love, making it an emotional roller coaster ride for a reader. It delves deep into the characters through the maze of the relationships that they share with each other, crossing paths at times, and flowing like the two banks of a river in a few instances.
The novel documents the lives and times, rise and fall, love and longing, trials and tribulations of these characters, who live in and around the banks of river Saryu in Chhapra and its adjoining villages of Mishrawaliya, Sheetalpur, Revelgunj and Muzaffarpur. Like a river that flows through these cities, the plot intermittently drifts to Banaras and Calcutta, and makes pit stops in Punjab and Delhi, before returning to Chhapra. The story also traces the advent of the railway line and how dhuwankas or trains play an important part in the narrative. Phoolsunghi offers a bird’s-eye view of how the characters co-existed in harmony without being bothered by religious, class or caste considerations, and in some measures, it is also a social commentary on the lives of migrant workers. It reveals how some of them seamlessly merged in the mainstream in their adopted land while a few others, bit by melancholia trace their way back to their roots, sooner than later. The migrant’s life in a metropolis is bound to resonate with the readers, and tug at their heartstrings, especially those who have either been a migrant themselves or have witnessed something more heart-wrenching pan out in the country not so long ago.
The Bhojpuri story is quite evocative and engrossing, and Choubey has done full justice to it. The translated work has a cinematic language to it with lively characterisation, and vivid imagery making it an endearing read. It will be no surprise to see the real characters, who inhabited Chhapra once upon a time, taking a reel avatar sometime soon and glossing the big screen, regaling the larger audience who live far, far away from this mofussil. The verses in Bhojpuri have been passionately and painstakingly translated into English by Choubey, but a reader would have benefitted from the richness of the language and appreciated it more had only a list of the originals been provided along with the glossary.
By foraying into the unexplored domain of translating a popular piece of Bhojpuri literature for a discerning, elitist, city-bred reader, Choubey has managed to do the unthinkable, and in one go. It is a stellar act for its sheer thought and effort. He has not only highlighted the long and diverse literary culture of the language but also debunked the common perception of it being only a folk language, giving Bhojpuri its due. His disruptive effort, hopefully, might lead to many more such works being produced by the speakers and readers of the language, and in that context, Choubey’s present translation will fondly be remembered for being the first of its kind that helped to pave the path for many more.
Phoolsunghi has something for all; it serves as a timely reminder about the richness of Bhojpuri literature for the younger generation and has a multitude of joy and nostalgia to offer for the older ones. The story will transport you back to your roots so soak in the subtleties of a bygone era from a faraway land, and shore it up for yourself and your coming generations.
(Cover image sourced from Penguin Random House’s Twitter handle)