Occasion for hodgepodgeThe festival has been educating the public in a way that educational institutions have not been able to
The fifth Nepal Literature Festival ended on Monday in Pokhara—a clear imitation of the Jaipur Literature Festival held every winter in the Pink City, which, in turn, was a copy of such festivals in Europe, including the Hay Festival of the UK held in May and the Berlin International Literature Festival held in September. While a full-length exploration and theorising of the emergence of literature festivals in late 20th and 21st centuries as a powerful cultural phenomenon would require more space and investigation, one can at least say that in travelling from the West to India and Nepal, the literature festivals have changed into something bigger and broader than just literature. One wonders why this is the case.
For example, if one attends a literature festival in Europe, more likely than not one would encounter mostly creative writers (literary scholars have their own guilds where they exchange their closed-door lingo, as I recently did from January 6 to 10 in Texas, at a Modern Language Association convention) and their readers. The general public seldom show much interest in these festivals, even though the writers who appear there write fiction, poetry, drama and other non-fictional works. In short, the general character of the literature festivals in the West more or less remains literary. And even when it becomes heated, the heat emanates from interpersonal rivalries between writers for one personal reason or another, such as the heating up and cooling down of animosity between V.S. Naipaul and Paul Theroux. Even when such festivals become political, it is the politics of free speech versus censorship in the Third World that exercises the participants and which ends in unqualified endorsement of free speech endowed by God or nature to an individual. Either way, these literature festivals remain what Fredric Jameson says about Western literature: The expression of the monadic self.
But look at the nine or so years of Jaipur Literature Festival. Almost every year what is literary boils over into something social or political. One year, it was the banning of Salman Rushdie from attending the festival by a mullah; in 2016 it was the growing culture of intolerance of the Hindutva brigade and its contestation by a fine film actor Anupam Kher. Not only that, all kinds of celebrities—film stars, media mandarins, and social activists—attend and present at the festival. And the aspiring general public, especially the young fans among them, line up to listen to and get autographs of their favourite writers and stars.
In Nepal, over the five years, the organisers have given space to all kinds of people, including Indian writers and media personalities whose writings and presentations are known among readers here. But increasingly, the Nepal Literature Festival has taken on its own originality and character. It has become an occasion for hodgepodge in a good way. One can find discussions not only on culture, literature, and media but also on the Nepali film industry, politics, exclusion, the implications of being a hero and even a free-flowing discourse on the epic Mahabharata as an allegory of state power by a dilettante politician. Had a Mahabharata scholar spoken instead, much of it might have been filled with jargon and religious preaching.
Similarly, if a political scientist had spoken on the session on politics, the discourse might very well have turned into specialised nuances of academic gobbledygook meant for fellow academics rather than for the wide-eyed college students and the general public. Clearly, the festival has been fulfilling the role of educating the public in a way that educational institutions have not been able to.
But what was most interesting to me this year was the obsession with the state of Nepal as a downward spiralling polity. One session after another, whether it was on Baburam Bhattarai’s new force, media or the Madhes, the recurrent theme of anxiety about the country stood out as inescapable. Even the session on the film industry could not escape the melancholic shadow over the country’s general health.
But the most thought-provoking expressions came in the inaugural speech by the academic Pitamber Sharma and Ahuti at a session called Bahishkaran Ko Dalan (Oppression of Exclusion). The past decade of political upheaval and continuous display of free media discourse-fest about the country’s future have tested and exposed many public men and women in Nepal, forcing them to choose sides. In this test of times, only a few, even among the academics, have managed to retain both a sense of justice and a staunch loyalty to complexity rather than descend into binary thinking. Sharma’s speech, especially the section under federalism, amply displayed his clear but complex stance on justice for the marginalised and the true nature of inclusive cultural and linguistic future. It was also quite obvious that his intellectual vision had further sharpened after getting reportedly abused at an evening party by a US-educated drunken Congress politician and a CPN-UML young gun for whom the temptation of political posts trumped everything, especially principles. “Why did you fall prey to Baburam’s temptation and join his Planning Commission and endorse identity-based federalism? Do you want a post? What do you want? We can give you any post you want,” the politicians had reportedly challenged him. But the scholar had calmly left the venue in the face of this insult.
However, his mind and soul had apparently examined and further firmed up his conclusions about Nepal’s future, which came out in his inaugural speech.
I had never heard Ahuti speak before, and I have not read his poetry but the way he passionately analysed Nepal’s culture revealed his grounding in critical theory. Although he may never have studied it formally, his life experience as a Dalit and his consciousness as a writer-politician seemed to have taught him well how to deep-read Nepali culture and its relationship to the Nepali state.