The final day ended with a Bollywood star but a very down to earth and powerful message…
By Sailesh Ram
MANISHA KOIRALA’S grace and eloquence brought a fitting curtain down on the 6th London edition of the world’s most popular literature Festival – the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) on Sunday (June 16).
For two and half a days at the British Library, some 90 authors across more than 35 sessions, regaled delegates with their experiences, thoughts, readings and jokes.
Lives – both real and fictional – shared across the page are still one of the most powerful ways people, not just politicians, change the world or just our world, one step at a time.
Perhaps this was no more apparent than in the closing session…
At one point Koirala, accomplished actress and much used to the public gaze, became emotional as she recounted what she had confronted – a fight against cancer with survival rates not particularly high for her condition.
Koirala’s book, ‘Healed’ is the Bollywood star’s journey from cancer victim to positive life changer.
When she was first diagnosed with stage III ovarian cancer, she was frightened, worried, and scared about the next step forward.
Today, she is well, bright and cheery – and while there is still a threat – her form of cancer needs to be absent for 10 years for it to be regarded as vanquished and she has notched up six to date – she has vowed never to be cowered, defeated or utterly dejected, if that dark night ever approaches again.
In conversation with Sanjoy Roy, managing director of Teamworks, the company that delivers JLF around the world now (with new editions in New York and Houston to add to Boulder, and Toronto in North America, and Sydney in Australia – and now Belfast too, on Friday this week); and Nasreen Munni Kabir, UK-based India film commentator and Hindi-English subtitler, Koirala was wise, witty and very inspiring.
Koirala said initially after the diagnosis, she hid herself away, but one day she was out and heavily ‘disguised’ with a baseball cap – a stranger who recognised her, said she looked well. From that moment, her attitude began to shift.
She was advised to keep notes about her treatment and feelings – and she read widely and put into action a way of thinking holistically about health (see our interview) – and a feeling of positivity began to emerge.
“It’s so important for people who have gone through this and come out a winner – I wanted to give people hope – you can come out of this and lead a better life than before,” she told everyone.
In India, talking about illness is difficult, especially on a personal basis in Bollywood.
“Everyone thinks it’s some bad karma,” said Koirala. “And you won’t get work.”
But when she was receiving her successful treatment in America, she saw more people embraced their illnesses, talked about them and often pointed a way forward.
“We do need to change the narrative, and educate filmmakers,” she said talking about the climate of fear and suspicion of dealing with illness in Bollywood generally.
“Don’t be scared about talking about it,” she urged.
As in our video interview, she presents a picture of positivity and power – her smile conveys a thousand words to the effect – that whatever is in front of you or that needs to be overcome, challenged or resolved, can be.
“I don’t want to live in fear, I’ve made my peace with it (death), I will do my best and put my best foot forward and I don’t know how long that will be,” she reflected.
Surina Narula, whose company, DSC was among the first sponsors of the Jaipur Literature Festival and more recently, organises the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, encouraged Koirala to make a film about health and healing.
Narula said she had financially backed a film called ‘Decoding Annie Parker’ (2012) which charts the discovery of the genetic link in breast cancer. It stars Helen Hunt and Samantha Morton and was very popular in the US, where the story is set.
Maybe in few years, there will be such a film and Koirala and Narula will be on a stage or in front of a screen talking about it – you heard it here first!
Elsewhere on the final day…
It was on Sunday (June 16) that President Donald Trump again criticised London Mayor Sadiq Khan (through Twitter) about his handling of violence in the UK – four men died in the capital overnight and one of his predecessors, appearing in the main Durbar Hall theatre at the British Library, defended him.
Ken Livingstone, at the session on, The City and The Nation State, said the cuts in police numbers had had impact on violent crime reduction and argued investment in all public services was necessary.
He was in conversation with Rana Dasgupta author of ‘Capital’, a book about the rise of a new elite in India’s capital city, Delhi. Livingstone has a a work about London out next week. The two didn’t engage so much in discussion but outlined their particular viewpoints.
Livingstone said that living standards had been rising in Britain, since the post war period – he did not have a bathroom in his house and initially shared a room with his sister. He pointed out that over the last ten years, living standards have not been rising and wages are mostly depressed.
Dasgupta’s book explores – in interviews – the psyche of those who have made it big in financial terms in Delhi, and he notes how many had done so moving away from the Punjab, which had been partitioned (in 1947) to amass huge wealth and power in a new city.
Scarred by this at one level, but largely untouched on a personal lone (they were too young), these figures often, nevertheless, expressed huge antipathy towards Muslims; and British-born Dasgupta, who has made Delhi his home for 17 years, said he was shocked by it.
Earlier in the day, Navtej Sarna, former India High Commissioner to the UK and ambassador to the US, discussed Guru Nanak (the founder of Sikhism) with Amrit Kaur Lohia, musician and young Sikh.
Lohia, who plays the traditional sarangi, began the final day of the ZEEJLF at the British Library with a music session in one of the outside tents – the piazza pavilion – picking up from where she left off at the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival in 2016.
Sarna has written a book (‘The Book of Nanak’) about Guru Nanak’s life and the talk looked at the great man’s travels to the Middle East and to Tibet and China. Their discussion was wide-ranging and instructive to many who did not know the stories of how Guru Nanak came to found a new religion just over 500 years ago.
For Sarna, the crucial point was that Guru Nanak was opposed to ritual and superstition (much of which had taken root in Hindu practice at the time) and the poet, philosopher and wanderer, was also against the orthodoxy and fanaticism that was driving some elements of Islamic rule on the sub-continent during that period.
The new faith emphasised equality, justice and a strong sense of brotherhood, based on respect and love, regardless of religion. Sarna explained that Guru Nank wanted to refocus people’s religious practices and get them to concentrate on what mattered about their life on earth.
At the closing reception at the Aga Khan centre in King’s Cross, London nearby, Matt Reed, CEO of the Aga Khan Foundation UK, said the organisation backed ZEEJLF at the British Library because its core values were close to its own – it not just recognises the plurality of life, but celebrates it.
The centre has several ‘gardens’ that reflect the plurality of Islam itself and show wide variation in aesthetics and temperament. There was also a poetry reading from writer Ruth Padel and music by a mother and daughter duo.
The weather may not have been very Jaipur Literature Festival-like but the spirit of the Pink City during ZEEJLF was much apparent.
ZEE JLF at The British Library is an international edition of the now 11-year-old Zee Jaipur Literature Festival, billed as the ‘greatest literary show on earth’ and quite easily the biggest literature event of its type anywhere in the world with an audience of around 400,000 for the five-day literary extravaganza in Rajasthan, India.
The ZEEJLF London edition is now in its 6th year, and is based at the British Library, having started out at the Southbank Centre and originally being part of the (now discontinued) Alchemy Festival there.
www.asianculturevulture.com is a community partner to ZEEJLFatBL 2019
JLF moves to Belfast now… (June 21-23)