Meeting of streams

Literary festival

I have just returned from the Jaipur Literature Festival having spoken at two sessions, ‘Outcaste and public conscience’ and ‘The journey to childhood.’ A group of writers and artistes has been holding this conference for five years now. The attendance at the conference was amazing. Intellectuals from several fields had gathered in that city of history and culture of its own.

As I participated in this festival for the first time, that too as a speaker on a subject — caste and untouchability — it opened my eyes for two reasons. One, it had shown me how big is the literary world. Two, it also has shown me how small is the presence of Dalit-Bahujan writers and readers in such a globally visible conference.

It had drawn writers, poets, artists, painters, actors and playwrights from all over the world. Of course, the focus was by and large India. Apart from the writers in English language there were some Hindi writers. By all standards it was an elite conference but one could see writers whose interests and commitments went beyond their elitism.
For the first time I realised that literary festivals also teach how one should connect oneself to the social mass culture, if one is doing the transformative writing. Though the writing for pleasure and fun would also have some transformative element in it, the writers who write for radical transformation of the society need to work with a different language and idiom.

I was trying to learn from my readers — surprisingly there were quite few of them in that conference — how my English language and idiom was communicating. I met a cross section of my readers both from India and abroad.

A Bhutani woman writer told me that though she was a writer herself with a vast reading she never knew that caste was such a big problem in India. Of course the responses vary depending on the caste background, age and experience of the readers. But one common point was that the Dalit-Bahujan writings have shown them a different India.
In a conference where the presence of Wole Soyinka to Gulzar-Girish Karnad to Christophe Jaffrelot to Mark Tully to Omprakash Valmiki and P Sivakami (both well known Dalit writers) very different and varied experiences of writing and the themes that they work got discussed.

India revealed itself in many different ways. In a country, where the upper caste elite including the writers do not have a sense of shame and guilt, such literary festivals work as a place for exchange of ideas. This is a country where sex is discussed and written about from Vastayana days onwards but caste was an issue of shame about which they never wanted to discuss and write about.

When Nayantara Sehgal (Nehru’s niece) said at a panel discussion on Edwina and Nehru’s relationship that the copyright holders of Nehru’s letters to Edwina wanted to hide the simple fact that “our politicians too have sexual organs,” she was just making a known point.

But this is the same country that had hidden the fact that it has a horrendous system of caste and untouchability from the rest of the world. For all these years the copyright of caste remained with them and they never allowed it to be written about and published.
The caste and untouchability was/is there as part of our day to day life for so long but any writing about it shamed them and they have hidden their guilt as it involved an immoral intercourse between two human beings — a Dalit and a Brahmin. At least this literature festival has lifted the veil.

After Valmiki, Sivakami and I got off the stage there were several young people, who rushed for our autographs. Though I did not ask them about their caste background, there was no way that there could be many Dalit/OBCs among them. Such a response from the upper caste English medium educated youth certainly opens a page of hope.
No positive writer, who writes for the transformation of the society like India, wants a civil war for its own sake. But the change could be smooth and peaceful only when the upper caste intelligentsia begins to act on its sense of shame and guilt. A transformative book writing is meant to work both ways. It is meant to embolden the weakest and also meant to weaken the spirit of exploitation of the oppressors.

If writing helps even a section of oppressors to stop oppressing the oppressed and they begin to understand the point of view of the oppressed the role of writing becomes more meaningful. The Jaipur festival has shown the signs of such positive exchange of views.
But this is only one side of the story. There could be another side as well. The Dalit-Bahujan literature is not yet seen as part of the mainstream. To make the Dalit-Bahujan literature mainstream literature either the streams need to be changed radically or the small steam should become big enough so that the others have no way but cross it by swimming, and not jump it over.

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