May 24 2016
In its third year now, Londoners got a chance to experience a little bit of what the world’s biggest and most popular literature festival is like right on their own doorsteps. Our correspondent assesses the Jaipur Literature Festival in London and picks out her highlights…
By Chitra Mogul
MORNING RAGAS – melodious music – set the tone for a day of fascinating and lively literary debates at the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), at the Southbank Centre in London and hosted as part of the ongoing Alchemy Festival on Saturday (May 21).
There was little warning of the fleeting but totally unexpected protests.
With almost twenty sessions taking place back to back, the only regret one had was that there wasn’t a clone or two to attend the other sessions.
Building on its success over the past three years, the festival will be even bigger in 2017, as it will mark the 70th year of Indian independence as well as the UK-India Year of Culture according to India’s High Commissioner to the UK Navtej Sarna, who was attending as an author in his own right.
He was speaking at the inaugural session in the Clore Ballroom at the Royal Festival Hall.
He went on to unveil the anthology “Translating Bharat, Reading India” and was joined by JLF organisers Namita Gokhale, William Dalrymple and Sanjoy Roy who also addressed the audience and spoke of the early days of the festival and how the festival has grown both in numbers and stature.
‘British Asians: The Changing Face’ saw Mukulika Banerjee, Sathnam Sanghera and Yasmin Khan discussing British Indian identity with Patrick French in a jam-packed session at the St Paul’s Roof Pavilion. French raised the question of whether British India was talked about or not, in Britain, and how it was spoken about, and if British Indians knew enough about their heritage.
Banerjee felt that British India and that period in history was not adequately covered in UK schools and that it should be, as it was all essentially a part of British history.
“It’s not learning about other parts of the world. It’s Britain’s history,” she commented.
For more on this, see our story on ‘British Asians: The Changing Face’.
“This Unquiet Land“, featured well-known Indian television anchor and writer Barkha Dutt in conversation with British writer and historian Patrick French and picked up on Dutt’s own 2015 published memoir of the same name.
A protest against JLF Southbank sponsors Vedanta Resources, an Indian mining company listed on the London Stock Exchange, broke out when the day of talks got underway but fizzled out before it became anything. Protestors had also delivered an open letter, urging authors and others to boycott the one-day literary celebration. It was reported that two authors did pull out.
The campaigners claimed the Vedanta is guilty of human rights abuses and environmental violations in countries in which it operates, but these have always been vigorously denied by the firm.
The protestors then disrupted the first Dutt session and continued to make a scene but were led away by police after a few minutes.
Co-festival organiser Sanjoy Roy told The Indian Hindu newspaper, that the protesters had not been willing to engage in a dialogue and had come only to disrupt JLF. He defended the festival, saying only a country’s courts could adjudicate over a firm’s behaviour, and the festival was committed to free speech and discussion.
Dutt, herself a campaigning journalist and much admired in India for asking direct questions, said she was against such boycotts and invited the protestors to come up on stage and air their views but they had declined and had continued simply to voice their opposition before leaving with the police.
Dutt spoke about her career as a journalist and reporting from the frontlines during the Kargil War (1999).
“My mother was working for the Hindustan Times and was the first Indian female war correspondent,” revealed Dutt.
She was told that she couldn’t be sent to the front lines being a woman but had managed to make her way there anyway. Dutt added that she had faced similar obstacles but had found a way around them.
Dutt said she had never interviewed Prime Minister Narender Modi and was unlikely to, as he felt that the English language media in the country was hostile to him.
She said he had become convinced of this, after media reports on the 2002 Gujarat riots when he was the chief minister of the state.
‘Reporting India’ was an enlightening and frequently hilarious session on the various facets of being a foreign correspondent in India.
Three veteran journalists, John Elliott (Financial Times), Dean Nelson (The Daily Telegraph) and Andrew Whitehead (BBC) had a freewheeling chat with Dutt about their stints in India.
Reporting on Kashmir had proved to be his most challenging assignment according to Whitehead, due to tricky logistics, being in a disputed territory and having to get both sides of the story from the armed forces as well as the militants. In a light aside, he said that an intern had once asked him “why does the BBC lie about Kashmir?”
Elliott said tongue-in-cheek that reporting on the Indian economy had proved to be challenging as he ‘wasn’t an economist’.
For Dean, it was the Indian elections and trying to understand the complexities of the caste system and other factors and having to explain them to a western audience.
The ‘Savage Harvest: Literature of the Partition’ discussion, was chaired by journalist Salil Tripathi who shared the stage with Navtej Sarna, writers Tahmima Anam and Rakshandha Jalil and singer and musician Amrit Kaur Lohia.
Sarna’s father Mohinder Singh Sarna wrote “Savage Harvest“, a compilation of stories on Partition (when India was divided, Pakistan and East Pakistan created and millions died in what remains probably still the largest displacement of people on earth in history), in Punjabi and son Navtej has translated them into English. Sarna read one of the short stories to the audience in an emotion filled session.
He said a Partition museum would be a good way to memorialise the suffering and horrors when thousands were murdered and raped – and pay respect to those who had lost their lives.
“In addition to Partition literature, a good middle ground would be a Partition museum, so that people from the younger generation would know about it,” said Sarna. “Their memory is kept alive generation after generation… And it helps to realise, never again.”
Lohia sang a plaintive and moving composition that evoked the tragedy of Partition.
‘Against the grain’ featured outspoken Israeli journalist and writer Gideon Levy, Dutt and Indian actor/politician Shatrughan Sinha in conversation with Tripathi.
Levy said that apartheid in South Africa had ended only due to international pressure and that was what would work in the case of Israel and Palestine as well.
“Israel needs a wake-up call and that will have to come from outside in terms of boycott and pressure,” Levy opined.
Critics would argue that boycotts and other moves to ostracise Israel have not really had the intended effect and only serve to bolster Israeli intransigence and do not put enough pressure on Palestinian leaders to reform.
The day ended on a high note with a rollicking rendition of Bangladeshi folk, Afro-beat and Cuban Rumba beats by world music collective Lokkhi Terra.
Top Picture (l-r): His Excellency High Commissioner Navtej Sarna, Tahmima Anam and Salil Tripathi
- South Asian inspired literature events continue at The Southbank Centre during the Alchemy Festival, which ends on May 30. Check for more info/booking: