Literature and Literary Tamashas

Isn’t it only by engaging with the world’s noise that we form the selves that read and write?

It is nothing to be ashamed of to feel a curiosity about the lives and habits of the writers one admires. MANISH SWARUP / AP PHOTO
01 March, 2012

Tamasha. ‘Etymology < Arabic, Persian, Urdu. ... 1. An entertainment, show, display, public function. ... 2. transf. A fuss, a commotion.’ (Oxford English Dictionary)

THERE MIGHT HAVE BEEN AS MANY as 100,000 people at the Jaipur Literature Festival this year, of whom a goodly number seem thoroughly cynical about the whole affair.

“Journalist?” says a small bewhiskered gent at the sight of my press pass, extricating himself from the veritable stampede for the tea stall. “Here, take my two paise. I’ve been at the last five, but I’m not coming next year. I can remember when this was about books. Now it’s become a total tamasha. Have you written all that down? Yeah? Good. There’s more where that came from.”

On the grounds of Diggi Palace, there are clichés aplenty in the air, none more rife than branding the festival—indulgently, dismissively—a tamasha. Many, touchingly, seem to think the observation an original one. Outside the festival grounds, the sniping continues in the English press. “Delhi’s pre-eminent annual literary event”, jeers The New York Times. Outlook bemoans the “sassing and faffing, boozing and schmoozing”. Apparently, “it’s not about books at all”.

Meanwhile, on his blog, Amitav Ghosh has a more thoughtful contribution to the conversation that takes the serious question to be about “the way in which literature is coming to be embedded within a wider culture of public spectacles and performances”, a culture that threatens to “overtak[e], and indeed overwhelm[...], writing itself as the primary end of a life in letters”. The point has political implications too: Ghosh writes of how the relative impersonality of the traditional relationship between reader and writer—the fact that writers were not required to confront their readers directly—was the source of the writer’s security, and grounded her ability to be a social critic. He perceives, rightly, that “if there is something to be gained from the transition” to a culture of writers as public figures, “there is also much to be lost”.

Of course, in these matters, everything of importance is in the details. The right answer to the question of what we should make of this transition involves not a weighing of pros against cons, but a consideration of where the emphasis is properly to be placed.

THE GIRLS FROM AJMER, perched abreast atop a parapet, took the bus to Jaipur early this morning. How do you feel here—safe? One of them, tall with high cheekbones, takes the lead: “I feel ki no one is looking at us here. Sab apna-apna business mind kar rahe hain. You can wear what you like. If you want, smoke; if you don’t want, don’t smoke. No one is telling you ki you do this, you do that. I like that. Except the public mein smoking. I don’t like that so much.”

I thank them and turn away. The girl with the cheekbones rushes up behind me: “Does your magazine publish poetry?”

I brandish my press pass and ease my way through the crowd into the lunch buffet (writers, press and delegates only). “The only thing I’ve seen like it is the Haj,” says the European journalist struggling to tear his roti with one hand. He gestures for me to join the queue; I decline. Two days of festival food have done me in. The Britons behind him in the queue, old India hands, are sympathetic and soon comparing cures for Delhi Belly.

A man accosts me, “Excuse me, are you not eating?”

No, my stomach is …Why do you ask?

“I am a poet.”


“I do not have a pass.”

He waits awkwardly for me to get the message.

“Oh—yes, yes, I can get you some food.”

We line up for the plates at the buffet. Where are you from?

“From East Godavari district. I write poems. Poems and songs.” He serves himself some vegetables from the buffet.

In Telugu?

“Yes. Thank you,” he says, “thank you very much”, and disappears into the crowd.

At one of those parties that stud the evening schedule, I find myself bumping into the writer of an article on the Mumbai film industry I enjoyed very much. It is her fourth time at Jaipur, and her cynicism is tempered with an affecting nostalgia:

Three years ago—the first time I was here—they had these Baul musicians performing. They went and colonised the stables behind the Mughal Tent—like the actual stables, with the horses and everything. And they were there all day, singing, and smoking their chillums, and just generally chilling. A friend and I were hanging out there, listening to them sing, and we met this woman who had her own supply of ganja—and ended up spending most of a day hanging out with her. She was quite mad, gave us unsolicited feminist relationship advice and told us we should come stay with her in the hills, but there was something like a connection. I’ll never meet her again, but that’s not the point. It’s that this kind of thing was possible ...

At yet another such late-night soiree—I hear it described, optimistically, as the Jaipur Fringe—I have been drawn despite myself into a dispiriting debate with an elfin, and somewhat addled, young Delhi journalist about the invasion of Iraq. His colleagues join in, and the conversation, pleasingly, turns to PG Wodehouse, then Oscar Wilde, then George Orwell.

“This is depressing, man,” says the elfin journalist forlornly, as it starts to become clear that the evening is over. “I don’t want to go back to Delhi. Twelve months of waiting for next year’s Jaipur.”

He and his colleagues walk down a deserted street on the lookout for a rickshaw, their faces downcast in a passable approximation of the haunted visages of hacks twice their age. It is half past one in the morning and very cold.

I cannot help being moved by his avowal. When I find myself inclined to adopt the pervasive cynicism that hangs about the affair, it is helpful to call to mind these reminders of those for whom the festival, in its six years of existence, has come to have this kind of meaning. I hope I am not being merely sentimental.

The concern about tamashas stems from a certain view of what the life of letters ought to look like: to put it broadly, it should be quiet, reflective, and largely solitary. The view is an old one. A long early essay of Marcel Proust’s saw him take on the 19th-century critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve for his suggestion that understanding a writer’s work requires the critic to know as much as possible about the writer in the way of mundane biographical detail. Against this, Proust argued that Sainte-Beuve had simply ignored “what a very slight degree of self-acquaintance teaches us”, that “a book is the product of a different self from the self we manifest in our habits, in our social life, in our vices. If we would try to understand that particular self, it is by searching our own bosoms, and trying to reconstruct it there, that we may arrive at it. Nothing can exempt us from this pilgrimage of the heart.”

Proust complained that “At no time does Sainte-Beuve seem to have understood that there is something special about creative writing and that this makes it different in kind from what busies other men and, at other times, busies writers.” Rather,

it is the secretion of one’s innermost life, written in solitude and for oneself alone, that one gives to the public. What one bestows on private life – in conversation, that is, however refined it may be (and the most refined is the worst since it falsifies the life of the mind by getting mixed up in it ...) ... – is the product of a quite superficial self, not of the innermost self which one can only recover by putting aside the world and the self that frequents the world.

The lines from Proust, and a sense of what in them might be true, occur to me as I watch the playwright Girish Karnad fend off the attentions of a clamorous autograph seeker while trying in vain to carry on a conversation with an earnest audience member. I have no doubt Proust’s view reflects the values of many writers and readers and I do not doubt that their distress at finding it not (or no longer) widely shared is genuine and understandable. But I do not share it, not quite.

There is much to be said for solitude and silence, but a preference for them is not itself a moral virtue; misanthropes enjoy them too. It is a mistake to conclude too readily that a space for honest reflection is only to be found in the quiet solitude of a room of one’s own.

Certainly, Proust’s abstract point about the nature of the self must be rejected. It too “ignores what a very slight degree of self-acquaintance teaches us”: that the artistic self is not, and cannot be, wholly detached from the self that is manifested in our private life and conversation. His lonely “pilgrimage of the heart” is as frequently an occasion for wanton self-deception as it is for self-discovery, for wishful thinking as for truth-seeking. There is truth to be found—truth about the self and about the world—in what we reveal of ourselves in our interactions with other selves and the world.

I HAVE JUST BEEN at the alternately stimulating and vapid session titled ‘Imaging India’ listening to the political scientist Sunil Khilnani and the journalist Tarun Tejpal. The floor is opened to questions. A few inanities later, there comes a sudden electrifying moment:

“Tarun” [and] the voice from the audience is pure English public school, “what are you talking about? We know from your work that a patriot, a true patriot ... is someone who criticises his country ... We know that very well from the passion with which you have pointed out the flaws [with] which India, our India, lives out the vision of its founders. Why do you make ... these frankly childish points about ... the American founding fathers being ‘pygmies’ compared to our founding fathers? Why is it a competition? ... Do you really believe that? Or is it that you feel the need to challenge our middle class by telling them what they ought to aspire to because of what their inheritance is?”

Tejpal sticks to his guns: “Everything good in India today can be drawn in a straight line from the vision of the founding fathers.” He repeats his claim about American founders. There is a burst of self-satisfied applause that, I suspect, rather proves the questioner’s point.

Around the buffet counters at lunch the next day, someone is blustering about his intense embarrassment at the questioner who insisted that the Arcadia of Tom Stoppard’s classic play was based on Darjeeling. Why does every bloody thing have to be about India?

The concern about tamashas stems from a view of what the life of letters ought to look like: it should be quiet, reflective, and largely solitary. MANISH SWARUP / AP PHOTO

What did I interrupt, I ask, descending on a table at which I spot an affable British publisher I met the day before. “The Jaipur festival embodies the spirit of Indian triumphalism. Discuss.” And we do, ranging from the infuriating tendency of panel moderators to utter such banalities as ‘India is the most complicated country in the world’—again, why is it a competition?—to the constant references to the size of the festival, as if that by itself proved anything. I complain too, but in love. A tamasha this may be, but a tamasha of an unusually reflective, reflexive kind.

At a nearby table, I hear an Indian writer of nonfiction complain about having been placed on a panel titled ‘Fiction and Non-Fiction: Blurring the Boundaries’. “The whole point is not to blur the boundaries!” The American journalist sitting across from him nods archly: “I had to have a chat with my publisher about this. The fact that I know the difference between good writing and bad doesn’t make what I write fiction.”

The conversation at my table moves on, inevitably, to Salman Rushdie and the significance of his absence from the festival. We struggle to avoid reciting the worthy banalities that come so readily to the lips, but not because they aren’t true. However the conversation always leads outward, from being about the Rushdie affair to being about Rushdie’s books; from being about India’s literary culture to being about India, and literary culture, in general.

I think now about Amitav Ghosh’s intriguing suggestion that for the writer “to be called upon constantly to provide answers is inevitably to become answerable”. There is clearly something to his concern, most obviously when answerability involves the threat of assassination. But it is one thing to want a society in which the freedom of dissenting writers—indeed (nonviolent) dissenters of all kinds—is protected by state power and a robust liberal culture. It is quite another to want a society in which writers have a special waiver from the burden of human beings generally: to take ownership of their words and responsibility for their actions. Certainly for some sorts of writing—journalism, academic scholarship and argumentative writing more generally—it is plainly false. Being answerable here goes with the job.

For what it’s worth, I should say I enjoyed watching Tejpal squirm, and joined in the derisive laughter at Union Minister Kapil Sibal’s pretensions to poetic talent. What a pity Salman Rushdie wasn’t there, or he might have faced some tough questions about his political interventions of the past decade.

The serious question is this: What is the appropriate way to subject the writer to the rigorous scrutiny of a thoughtful, questioning audience that values truth over a desire not to be offended whilst preserving something of the distinction between argumentative and imaginative writing, and something of the writer’s prerogative to refuse to answer?

I confess I do not know. The ideal likely cannot be stated in the abstract anyway. But might I suggest that Jaipur is not as far away from it as its critics allege?

There is something at Jaipur that, for all the crowds and the ubiquitous triviality, presents a version of the ideal. JASJEET PLAHA / HT PHOTO

WE STAGGER THROUGH the city traffic, an unsettling experience, passing palace after mouldering palace. The cityscape has the dangerous effect of making its poverty look almost picturesque. The party—the party to be seen at, I’m reliably informed—is at one of the city’s quondam palaces, a longish journey from the city centre.

There are rows of turbaned men arrayed outside, regally moustachioed, standing in sundry gestures of hospitality. (The irony: only a couple of hundred years ago it was the artists who had to pay court to kings and queens.) Trays of finger food are wafting about the quadrangle atop the cold palms of a few dozen waifish adolescent waiters. At the centre of it all is a sinister tableau of enormous, luminous balloons suspended over a crisscrossing arrangement of pale draperies and tea lights.

“Just met the chap who designed the thing,” says the British publisher I mentioned earlier, weaving his way to the bar. “Told him how marvellous it was. Only the twenty-first lie I’ve told today, and yes I do keep count.”

Are they accosting you with manuscripts, I ask the commissioning editor at a large publishing house moving languidly through the crowd.

“I’m trying not to let on that I’m a publisher.”

What do you say when you’re found out?

“Oh I tell them I have no power to accept manuscripts.”

Is that true?

“Of course not.”

His perky younger colleague appears beside him; we’re introduced. Right, so you’re the one that writes the rejection slips?


Do you write nice ones?

“I write the lurveliest rejections. People are positively flattered to receive them.”

I’m sure they are.

I’m accosted by yet another young editor—there are many of them about—who insists we’ve met before. “Weren’t you at College?”

I was at a college, yes. Not the one you mean.

“Oh. But you sound so College.”

Do I now.

Things are getting noisy near the bar. There’s a bestubbled man in a polo shirt leaning conspiratorially to the girl sitting next to him. He mutters—“That one’s totally a Dosco.”

“How do you know?” she asks.

“I can tell a Dosco from six miles away.”

I hurry to the one quiet corner of the quadrangle and find myself a spot on an improvised settee.

“Is this seat occupied?” asks a statuesque woman in, I estimate, her 70s.

No—do sit down. Are you alright?

“Oh just tired. It’s rather trying, this whole business.”

It emerges that she once ran the Indian chapter of PEN, and was running literary festivals, little ones, in Bombay in the 1950s.

“Of course, there wasn’t much money in it in those days.”

Have you enjoyed yourself here at all?

She smiles grimly.

But you’re still here.

“One is here ... because one is here. And I’d rather be home now.”

I look to the tableau before us, cast about for something to fill the awkward silence. What a strange arrangement—do you think it’s supposed to mean something?

She looks bleakly at the bobbing balloons. “Hot air?”

There’s a commotion at the bar; they’re out of wine. There’s a sudden shriek, and a burst of flame—one of the balloons has been losing air over the last hour and finally lowered the edge of a drapery into the flickering flame of one of the tea lights. A palace minion materialises, hopping to avoid the shards from smashed wine glasses that line his path—things have been getting the tiniest bit rowdy—and puts out the flame. Someone brings out a cylinder to inflate the balloon again, and it rises once more to its former spot at the top of the tableau. They’re not yet out of hot air.

IF THE ONLY ALTERNATIVE to a prim solitude is to throw oneself promiscuously into the wilder bacchanals of the publishing universe, it is an easy choice before the sensible writer. But it is not the only alternative. For one thing, even allowing that the activity of writing is a solitary one, it does not follow that the process of making a book is any less a collaborative activity than making a film. As several publishers point out to me when I raise the point, it is the rare book that would not be improved by a spot of editing, whose intrinsic virtues will suffice to win it readers without the help of agents and publicists. The world is too full of distractions. Readers always have other books to read, and people have other things to do than reading.

Maybe the coming decades will produce a superior business model, where writers and readers can discover each other without the rigmarole of a dozen intercessors from the publishing industry and media: agents, editors, marketers, booksellers, reviewers ... Perhaps this development will even produce better literature. I do not know. While we’re stuck with the system we have, however, it sounds like a good idea for those invested in it to come together to talk about these matters, say, at a festival like this one.

Of course publishing parties—like birthdays, weddings and funerals—can be occasions of surpassing snobbery and triviality. Who knew? Publishers are human, and we should not expect publishing to be any purer than any other part of human life concerned (naturally enough) with making money. The problem of creating an open, accessible, serious literary world free of nepotism, stupidity and triviality is nevertheless a real one, and it is not entirely separate from the problem of freeing society more generally from these vices.

There is still something at Jaipur that, for all one complains of the crowds and the ubiquitous triviality, presents a version of the ideal. Like the ideal, it is trying, and sometimes oppressive, but there are other ways to respond to this fact than to opt out completely.

I submit that a seriousness of purpose about writing does not demand a single-minded commitment to writing and nothing else. The vocation is compatible with—indeed it requires—a serious interest in the things that books are about: life, people, the world. Equally, a commitment to reading does not require us to treat literature as a sanctuary from the cacophony of voices outside the study. Rather, reading can present us with yet other voices that render the cacophony intelligible, give us the resources to live in the world. The converse is also true: it is in engaging with the world’s noise that we form the selves that read and write. Sometimes, the right way to engage is to refuse to engage, but the operative word here is sometimes.

On this view of things, it is nothing to be ashamed of to take an interest in the conditions of literary life, in the opinions and feelings of other readers in conversation with whom one forms one’s own, and indeed in feeling a curiosity about the lives and habits of the writers one admires. The challenges of keeping one’s head and one’s soul, one’s integrity and one’s sense of proportion, must be faced whether one throws oneself into the tamasha of the world or keeps at a cautious distance from it. Of course, this leaves nearly all the important questions open—but who thought they were ever anything else?