Expanding The Mind
Nearly 30,000 people from all over India and from many other countries appear to have visited the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival during the four days of its duration, between the 21st and 25th of January 2010. This affluence marked the intellectual vitality of India in a city whose 18th century founder, Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh, an outstanding representative of worldwide Enlightenment in the Hindu Ethos, is reputed for his practice and patronage of arts and science and for his keen interest in knowledge from all climes. The capital he founded was inspired in its planning and appearance by various cosmopolitan models and not only by the Silpa and Vastu Sastras, and he invited scholars of many origins, including Portugal and Italy, in keeping with a long Indian tradition of universal eclecticism.
This spirit was present in the literary festival which represented the ancient national philosophical and poetic legacy as well as contemporary creation from here and abroad. Traditionalists might frown upon the neo-liberal and westernising influences that were prominently at work in the gracious and festive setting of Diggi Palace, whether in the ornate Darbar Hall or in elegant mughal tents, but diversity was an inevitable characteristic for such an event.
The Indian worldview however remained a potent factor throughout, as if casting a spell over what could have otherwise been a thoroughly globalised anglophone talking marathon. Visions of the itinerant courts of the Maharajas and Mughal Emperors came insistently to mind when pungent whiffs and the neighing of horses wafted from the neighbouring stables, reminding one of an epic feudal and chivalrous past, while the open air setting and the vegetation evoked the sylvan Vedic tapovans. The evening musical performances, pervaded by the mystical spirit of the various religious streams of the country, lent a spiritual anchor to the otherwise assertively secular character of the gathering.
The format of the festival reflected the peculiar Indian mixture of freedom and rigour, openness and flexibility, which makes the country such a propitious venue for debates of all kinds. The variety of topics addressed was as bewildering as India’s own plurality, ranging from the Kama Sutra and the Agamas to terrorism in the Middle East and from African mythology to the history of the financial system, but the culture of the written word, also in its new computerised, virtual avatars, provided the unifying theme even though the English language was the medium and focus, more as a lingua franca than as the expression of civilisational unipolarity, even though there were some eminent voices of that globalised mindset, such as the queens of literary gossip Tina Brown and Shobhaa De.
Reviewing many of the presentations and debates at the conference would require a small volume, but a few impressions gathered at random help to form a conclusion. The Anglo-Saxon political and cultural dominant note was struck by journalists and authors covering the Middle Eastern conflicts, such as Max Rodenbeck and Lawrence Wright, but perhaps even more so by Niall Ferguson, who in his brilliantly eloquent and humorous account of his book “The Ascent of Money,” sought to pin the blame for the current global financial debacle on “human ignorance”, thereby taking part of the responsibility off the shoulders of the bankers and speculators of New York and Wall Street.
Ferguson’s fiancée, the African activist Ayaan Ali Hirsi, in her outspoken critique of Islam provided a sort of cultural counterpart to his subtle defence of the West. Hirsi Ali’s Abyssinian pulchritude and her perfect poise and command of language qualified her as a most seductive champion for the neo-conservative agenda of her sponsors at the American Enterprise Institute, but her almost unqualified support of the US Republican policies, justified by a naïve or disingenuous claim that the Superpower “gave so much money” to the developing world and was an innocent victim of Islamic bellicosity, robbed her of much of the credibility that her heartfelt
convictions could have lent her.
Indeed, the Somali self-professed “Infidel’s” seemingly unreserved promotion of Pax Americana was undermined by the general tone of the British and American authors who spoke on related issues. If Ferguson, while trying to put a good face on the debacle of the Anglo-Saxon globalised financial system, was ironically self-deprecating in the description of his native land which he repeatedly confessed to find depressing and foundering, the writers who chronicled America’s war on “global terror”, such as Lawrence Wright could not hide well their skepticism about the methods and motivations of this increasingly absurd and self-destructive conflict. However, they could not refrain either from making the customary appeal for India to “do something about the Kashmir problem”, allegedly in order to help the West in the Afghan quagmire.
The fact that the issue of the 911 conspiracy made its appearance even in this literary gathering highlighted the pervasive cynicism of our times regarding the official US version of that mysterious catastrophe. Rodenbeck drew sniggers from the audience when he pointed out that the nondescript and dispersed elements that are alleged to make up Al Qaeda now are reduced to plaintively claiming the authorship of the 911 attacks in the face of widespread disbelief. The self-doubt of the West was in the background of the humorous banter about the seemingly sad state of contemporary Scotland which marked a debate between four well known Caledonian writers, including Alexander McCall Smith.
A counterpoint to this understated if perhaps premature Requiem for the Anglo-Saxon empire was provided by the robust lyricism and universalistic inspirations of Nigerian Nobel Prize winner Wolé Soyinka and of some other African novelists and poets who evinced their grounding in immemorial and always powerful native lore.
William Dalrymple in his readings from Nine Lives, his latest tome, also echoed the power and mystery of magical and mystical transcendence as it survives in India today and whose fountainheads are the Indian classical texts, the underlying sutra or thread tying together that necklace of international literature. The discussions on some of the masterworks of ancient Samsrkt and Prakrit literature, from the Vedas and Brahmanas to the various Ramayanas and to Kalidasa’s plays highlighted the oceanic depth and richness of that intellectual collection, in respect to which modern literature often seems to be shallow and ephemeral in its forms and ideas.
Lord Meghnad Desai turned out to be more profound and convincing in his reflections on Lord Rama’s epic than in his better known economic and political vaticinations. Sudhir Kakar, Reba Som, and Devdutt Pattnaik also voiced valuable insights, but it was the Italian publisher and scholar Roberto Calasso who, in my view, provided some of the most lucid and farseeing glimpses of a lost civilization in his comments on an opus as hermetic and monumental as the Satapatha Brahmana, which he rightly described as a 2,500 page treasure house that remains mostly unexplored. Yet, an analysis of a few passages from just this one of twelve Brahmanas reveals a kaleidoscope of revelations about the nature of reality that utterly transforms our vision of the very foundations of space, time and being, to the point that it leads us to review drastically the basic notions that “western” science is built upon.
It is not surprising that, excepting the most open-minded of Quantic physicists, such Indian texts have been regarded with disdainful or suspicious irritation by the rationalists of the last two centuries who, frustrated by their abstruseness, prefer to describe them as mumbo jumbo composed by a mischievous priestly oligarchy. However these arcanes clearly reflect a radically “alien” conception of the universe and of our own selves.
In his autobiographical dialogue with Sunil Sethi, English novelist Louis de Bernieres incidentally pointed out that the study of philosophy robs us of all our certainties, leaving us in an intellectual vacuum, but although that conclusion applies to most contemporary western schools of thought, in one way or another, it does not do justice to Hindu, Buddhist and Jain thought which carries us beyond that deconstructivist reductio ad absurdum and takes its beginning there where western intellectualism comes to an end. That the first known prose work of mankind may be the Krishna Yajur Veda reinforces the impression that India, from its intemporal, meta-historical stance, is found at both ends of the universal literary caravan in its cyclical course.
Perhaps the underlying and unspoken message of the Jaipur Festival is that all literature acquires its deeper meaning in the context of the Indian scriptural tradition, just as all stories on earth are supposed to be enshrined in the Mahabharata.
By Come Carpentier de Gourdon