” A galaxy of stars from the literary world shone their light on London this week, as the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) returned to the capital for a second edition.
The two-day event was part of the Southbank’s Alchemy festival – an annual celebration of Asian arts and culture. The JLF is seen as an agenda-setter on key issues including the global economic crisis, the rise of Indian language publishing and the evolution of Indian feminism.
In an exclusive interview with Eastern Eye, writer Namita Gokhale, who founded JLF with historian William Dalrymple and producer Sanjoy K Roy, said: “Indian literature, in all its brilliant and bewildering diversity, is slowly but surely becoming more visible to readers.
“JLF has been one of the important catalysts in bridging the perceived distances and divides in between ‘English’ and ‘Indian’ writing. And although I write in English, I read and appreciate Hindi writing in the original, and also that from other national languages via translation.”
Reflecting on the evolution of south Asian women’s writing, Gokhale, who penned Paro: Dreams of Passion, dubbed India’s first ‘sari ripper’ said, “Women writers in south Asia explore their sexual identities not only at a personal level but also the political.
“It took me a long time to accept that I am, in essence, a woman writer. I value the history of testimonial literature in the Indian languages, be it Bangla or Malayalam, or in contemporary Dalit writing, which has had an important transformative role. And I am not a literary purist – I’m very happy with well-written pulp or chick lit, both dated words, which I find inadequate and also somewhere condescending.”
A highlight of JLF Southbank was a rare public appearance by Nobel Prize winner Sir VS Naipaul, in conversation with writer and TV producer Farrukh Dhondy. Sir Vidia, who is now 82, looked back on his distinguished career over the 50 years since he wrote his groundbreaking masterpiece, A House For Mr Biswas.
Dhondy told EE, “Vidia never uses a cliché and very often gives startling and controversial answers; for instance, Jane Austen is just a gossip . If she were Croation, no one would have noticed her. He is known as a prose stylist. For him, style is saying profound things in simple words.”
BBC anchor and writer Anita Anand, author of Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary, was part of a panel discussion about the Kohinoor diamond.
“We had a wonderful panel on the Kohinoor – it sort of became a relay race through history. William was first off the blocks, taking us from Golconda through Delhi, to Afghanistan. He has writ ten beautifully about how the deposed Emir (and descendant of Ahmad Shah Durrani), managed to flee with his diamond,” she said.
“Then the wonderful Navtej Sarna, former diplomat and writer, took up the story and described vividly how the stone passed from Shah Shujah to Maharajah Ranjit Singh – a forced gift from the former to the latter in exchange for martial aid.
“By rights, the diamond should have passed on to his son, Duleep Singh. But the diamond was forfeit, along with Duleep’s throne, fortune and his family’s future, when the British forced a terrified little boy to hand it over. They took the stone by stealth and guile.
“The loss of the gem hurt Duleep more than any of his considerable dispossessions. It also infected the lives of his children, driving them to rage and in some cases, all-out racism. I talk about this at length in my book Sophia, detailing the life of Duleep’s youngest daughter, the princess suffragette,” Anand said.
Though JLF Southbank lacked the glamour and buzz of the Pink City (Jaipur), it was thought-provoking and entertaining – Dalrymple told EE it would definitely return to London next year.
The Alchemy festival is on at the Southbank Centre until next Monday (25).