– By Mohini Khot and Satish Khot
Going to the JLF was the best decision ever! It was a wonderful experience. It was free! There were lots of other people around who were interested in the same intellectual feast as us! There was good food. There was good shopping to be done… right there! There were clean toilets! And best of all was the informal democratic atmosphere!
It was well organized, beautifully laid out. The sound system worked, the pandals were tastefully done, there were screens to magnify the action for those who were seated at the back. The authors who spoke were articulate and allowed questions. There were 6 venues and 7 sessions per day, including workshops for children. Namita Gokhale and William Dalrymple, directors of the festival, have done a grand job.
The 5 day festival began with quite a spectacular traditional Rajasthani orchestra of drums and wind instruments played by people from around the world. The inaugural event was a charming speech by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. He suggested a prayer to “The Goddess of Medium Things” asking for 7 things that exist in his wish list for India. They are 1) the restoration of classical education (the humanities), 2) a strong secular Right wing party at the centre, 3) the focus of Left parties to be on real upliftment of the really poor sections, 4) Speedier disposal of cases by courts, 5) good medical care and good education should reach everyone, particularly the poorest, 6) real freedom to write and speak (article 377 should be reversed), 7) more balanced media, less shrill, more credible and relating the issues of the economically weaker sections.
There was a series of sessions under the title “Democracy Dialogues” and another series on women writers called “Women Uninterrupted” which proved to be excellent. Women authors from India, Israel, the Muslim countries had much to say about restrictions and prejudiced perceptions about them and their writing. Jhumpa Lahiri proved to be a great favourite and attracted the biggest crowd but was a trifle disappointing since she kept her discussion very narrow. But she made 2 remarks that were promptly noted – her preference for the term “universal novel” over “global novel” and her comment on the power of the Anglophone novel. Gloria Steinem was another crowd-puller. She spoke of the ill treatment of women “from womb to tomb”. She would like to see daughters raised like sons and not remain just cheap labour for men. They must also control their wombs and be the decision makers for reproduction. She said that change has meant that women are allowed to do the things men have been doing but it should now come to mean that men learn to do the things women have been doing.
The workshops on contemporary dance by Astad Deboo and on photography by Dayanita Singh were well attended by children and adults. Both gave practical guidance and also talked about the wide scope of their art.
A couple of discussion groups under the “Democracy Dialogues” banner which we attended were “Revolution from Above” and “Why India Votes”. In the first, Dipankar Gupta’s new book on the Citizens Elite was discussed. It asks the question whether democracy is driven by the citizens or the citizens elite. A member of the citizens elite is someone who has vision for all and not just for himself. He thinks out of the envelope and discovers innovative solutions. Well known sociologist Gupta believes that at every historical juncture when democracy made significant advances, it was the citizen elite who led the charge. Examples being the fight against manual scavenging, against caste differentiation and untouchability as well as ahinsa.
Mukulika Banerjee’s recent book Why India Votes says that if there is anything India has to be proud of then it is the Indian election and its procedure. In 2009 India had 714 million voters, 8 million polling stations and about 58% people voted, ie 414 million. No other country comes even close. But why do people vote? Do they want to be “ek din ka raja”? Are they swayed by “biryani, batli and cash”? No. The author believes that it is the peer pressure that makes people vote. Also, they tend to vote for a party rather than a programme. This blog writer, based on his own experience of the electoral process and its reforms, objected to Ms Banerjee’s opinion.
There was a very interesting talk on Oscar Guardiola-Rivera’s book Story of a Death Foretold. It is about Salvador Allende – doctor, activist and finally President of Chile. It traces the history of Allende becoming the President by climbing up from the electoral ladder. Allende was finally defeated by a coup d’etat of the Chilean National Army. The USA thought that Allende’s work would spread left wing governments all over Latin America and hence clandestinely supported and fomented trouble which finally led to a coup.
Another beautiful symposium discussed Habib Tanvir and his life and work. Mahmood Farooqui has recently translated the first and only volume of Tanvir’s Memoirs into English. The readings from this were witty, sharply observant and so redolent of the time and place that they became a record of the way of life of those days.
We took back with us great memories of the couple of days we sent at the JLF and would like to make this an annual feature in our lives.