The Indian Litfest Bug

LitfestFor Gautam Pemmaraju apropos of a conversation last night, Amitava Kumar in Caravan:

A rash of Indian bureaucrats are now authors. It doesn’t bode well, in my opinion. Our host wasn’t a closeted writer, thank God, and was merely satisfied to regard the whole lot of us as delinquents. The writer Ruchir Joshi—maybe this was a critical postmodern antic on his part—was happy to oblige. But the most petulant schoolchild at the festival was VS Naipaul. He accused the American ambassador’s wife of a severe lack of intelligence and requested that she leave the table where dinner was being served. On the last day, Naipaul erupted once again. When Nayantara Sahgal bemoaned the sins of colonialism, he interrupted her, shouting, “My life is short. I can’t listen to banalities. Banalities irritate me.”

Banalities irritate me, too, but if you are so averse to them, you ought to stay away from literary festivals. And besides, not all banalities are created equal. The first year that I went to the Jaipur Literature Festival, I was given the honour of engaging in a public conversation with my early hero, Hanif Kureishi. Hanif is a writer of clean sentences; he has a dry wit, and isn’t afraid to be perverse or provocative. He also speaks just the way he writes, his utterances coming out clothed in elegant perfection, their hair gelled. He was in fine form that morning but quite unprepared for what, best as I can recall, was the very first question from the audience: “Mr Kureishi, are you circumcised?”

That was good, very good, in fact, and amused everyone. Much better than questions like, “Sir, how many books have you read?” that had been posed to me the previous day after my own panel. I’m calling such statements banalities, but I quite appreciate their directness and honesty. It’s important to know where these questions are coming from. The man with the pressing inquiry about Hanif’s foreskin really wanted to ask about Muslim identity; his own grandson, the questioner explained, had recently been circumcised. Why should young children undergo this trauma? Of course, we might want to ask why anyone would consider writers a source of great wisdom on such worldly matters: what exactly makes someone who does nothing but spend a lot of time alone in front of their computer uniquely qualified to answer questions about violent conflicts, or stubborn social customs, or world historical changes?