Wandering through the Jaipur Literary Festival
by Come Carpentier de Gourdon on 29 Jan 2014 2 Comments
The 2014 edition of the Jaipur Literary Festival was at least as bustling and crowded as the previous two and it is to the credit of the organizers that in spite of an often inclement weather that made the mostly open air venue rather uncomfortably drafty and soggy, the programme proceeded with very few hitches. The choreography of this annual logo-technical display is highly complex and tightly woven, but the competence of the team led by William Dalrymple, Namita Gokhale and Sanjoy Roy manages to stage it with fanfare and grace. It is enlightening to compare the attentive, patient and generally polite mass audiences in Jaipur with the often scarce, listless and distracted Delhi public at similar events throughout the year.


After an opening salvo by the winner of the Bank of Sweden’s Economic Prize named after Nobel laureate Amartya Sen who seems to have little new to say and is now harking for a “right wing secular government” in India, the festival proceeded with six concurrent sessions for most of the next five days, embracing a vast variety of subjects, many of which are very much on the world’s and India’s radar screens.


The connection between contemporary fiction and global events is not always obvious and it is clear that human imagination, even when it is plentiful, has trouble keeping up with the fantastic character of day-to-day reality. Novels, even those written by some of the noted authors present in Jaipur, can easily seem tame or trite when weighted against the accounts of historians and observers of the past or present. Antony Beevor evoked many tragic and horrifying facts about the Second World War which put paid to the notion that the Axis “evil” powers behaved far worse than their “democratic” opponents. He detailed the atrocities committed by the US Army and the Marines in particular when around the Pacific they used the vast American capacities and experience in industrial human slaughter to massacre their fierce Japanese enemies whom they regarded as subhuman.


In some documented cases they used flame throwers and tractors to burn and bury alive large numbers of Nippon soldiers and then robbed the corpses of any belongings or body parts they could retrieve to keep or sell as war trophies to other warriors less ‘fortunate,’ who wished to prove that they had been part of the action. Some of the self-styled “brave and proud” even resorted to boiling the decapitated heads of the “Japs” to take home the skulls. As Beevor thoughtfully noted, history is a branch of literature and not an exact science which is why current policies in certain ‘democratic’ countries to forbid ‘revisions’ and modifications of official accounts by law, or restrict access to their archives for the same reason, is so suspect.


Oscar Guardiola Rivera, the well known writer about the “other” US Deep State’s September 11 – the 1973 coup in Chile against president Allende, provided vivid instances of America’s continuing love affair with violence and subversion as when the US specialized agencies trained Latin American military and police forces to kidnap, torture and kill domestic opponents, including women, while some French shadowy operatives reportedly inaugurated in Argentina and Chile the policy of dumping the bodies of ‘communists’ into the ocean from high flying aircraft in order to erase all traces of those murders which subsequently became disappearances.


From the Second World War and the Indochinese conflict until 911 and the assaults on Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, there is an uninterrupted legacy of deception, subversion and homicidal cruelty left by the western Imperial powers (though not only by them) in the Third World, despite their insistence on teaching democracy and exporting ‘freedom’ outside their borders. Current examples are provided by the same countries’ highly dubious role in building up all sorts of “democratic activist” guerillas against the Syrian government and in not so covertly supporting violent protestors and even  terrorists in nations that are not a part of their alliance, such as Russia and the Ukraine. When one heard some of the speakers discuss the subversive destabilizing actions sponsored by both major powers and multinational corporations in the past, one could not help evoking the equivocal attitude of the United States and its European confederates towards the prospect of terrorist attacks on the upcoming Olympic Games in Sochi.


Adrian Levy exemplified the western tendency to shift our collective gaze on certain events loaded with a geopolitical significance such as the terrorist attacks on Mumbai on 26/11, 2008, towards the admittedly intriguing personal biography of shadowy US asset and drug dealer David Coleman Headley. The novelistic psychological exploration of an individual’s character has the advantage of reducing the visibility of certain behind-the-scene puppeteers of those Svengali-like agents. The same stratagem was used in the past to confine the drama of JFK’s assassination to the personal problems of Lee Harvey Oswald and thereby ignore the overwhelming evidence of a conspiracy.


Indeed, the stigma successfully attached to the name “conspiracy theory” by the powers-that-be is such that most speakers at the festival felt they had to apologize whenever they were compelled to describe conspiracies. 911, which inevitably finds a place in any discourse since that fateful date, is likewise obfuscated by sensational accounts of Osama bin Laden’s belief system and the alleged state of mind of one Mohammed Atta and his merry men, while irrefutable signs of high level collusions and machinations are ignored. Michael Axworthy was also understandably coy when he described the role of the CIA in the 1953 coup to overthrow Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh by leaving some room for doubt about whether the US-British agents were wholly responsible for his downfall. Samantha Weinberg focused on the colourful personalities of some local actors and mercenaries involved in some of Africa’s idiosyncratic coups, from Comoros to Congo.


It is a fact that the Jaipur festival remains a bastion of western and more specifically Anglo-Saxon influence by the very nature of the language it promotes, as Hindi remains on the sidelines. It is not surprising that some of the very ‘westernized oriental gentlemen’ that hold prominent positions in India’s ruling elite or represent it abroad put up a staunch defence of western civilization in Macaulay’s tradition, Europe’s in particular. Lord Meghnad Desai opined that India’s cultural achievements and socio-political thought could never measure up to nor replace the triumphant occidental enlightenment, while Dipankar Gupta hailed the aggressively agnostic French model of secularism and the Scandinavian social welfare system as ideals to be aspired to universally, in contrast to what he saw as the backward, religion-bound South Asian polities.


Although it is difficult to share or even sympathise with his belief that India for one could ever become a larger version of Denmark, either climatically or demographically, one can concede that many aspects of social democracy are worth adopting, but the present state of France, where not only certain ideas and theories are banned by law but even some  gestures, forms of clothing and ornaments are forbidden although pornography, blasphemy and pornography enjoy constitutional protection, is hardly a convincing image of success. The only French orator in the Festival, former foreign minister Hubert Vedrine gave the impression of being rather disconnected not only from the dominant Anglo-Saxon world but also from non-western socio-political realities which is true enough of the French elite that still functions on a self-referential, narrowly “secular”, rationalistic, ‘Jacobine’ source code and is less exposed to the changing perception of human affairs that in the USA and larger Commonwealth nations is increasingly influenced by resurgent native civilizations. John Ralston Saul who dialogued with Vedrine spoke of the relevance of native American forms of social management and juridical customs for a new, more inclusive alternative to the neo-liberal paradigm.


Sinologists and people familiar with China were predictably salient at this festival. Rana Mitter gave a useful reminder of China’s crucial but mostly forgotten role during World War II as an ally of the liberal Western powers against the Fascist axis and a convincing account of China’s seemingly prodigious ascent and of its future potential which he felt would be fully realized if the Communist Party renounced its monopoly on power. Although that will almost inevitably come to pass, one wonders if a switch to party-democracy inspired by western models would allow China to pursue its turbo-charged economic development process or even to survive as a united nation, and one can certainly understand why most Chinese may, contrary to what other nations would like to see, not wish to trade stability and rising prosperity for the uncertain promises of a predictably corrupt, inefficient and divisive multi-party system.


The sobering cases of so many “developing” states like Ukraine, Mexico, Colombia, South Africa or even, closer to home, Thailand and Philippines must act as scarecrows. Even India is far from being seen as a stellar success in the average Chinese view and therefore the “Middle Kingdom” is still trying to chart an alternative route. No one can predict with certainly how the country will emerge in the next decade or two but Chinese novelist Xuo Luguo was cautiously hopeful in view of the current steps taken by the leadership towards environmental sustainability, social welfare and growing inclusiveness in governance.


One of the paradoxes of the liberal democratic vision is that it assumes the leading role of a ‘citizen elite’ which Dipankar Gupta saw as solely capable of carrying out his vaunted “revolution from above”. Indeed many of the authors at the festival stood as living examples of that hoary figure known as the British Victorian gentleman scholar, remarkable not for his keen political interests but for the vastness of his erudition, the precision of his methods and the self-deprecating but polished style of his oratory.


Such personalities present were Richard Holmes, whose investigative skills into the biographies of his subjects evoke the feats of the homonymous amateur detectives AN Wilson and David Cannadine, all experts in the aforesaid Victorian Age that they presented with the unflappable poise and eloquence for which their nation was long famous. Ranging from Coleridge’s ‘Old Mariner’ and the ecological content of his allegorical visions to the way in which 19th century Englishmen and Scots conquered remote oceans, explored the Poles and the upper atmosphere, governed India and a world-spanning empire with few people and means, these historians showed how easy it was for the contemporaries of such impressive achievements to believe that God had indeed chosen Britannia to rule the waves and lead mankind, even if it is alleged, rather improbably, that they built their empire without intending to do so. Yet that supposed lack of ulterior motives - akin to the American contention that the country is a ‘reluctant imperial power” - did not prevent them from enrolling millions of Indian soldiers and using them, often as cannon fodder, in the pursuit of their wars and colonial expeditions on four continents.


However, the revival of an oddly anachronistic nostalgia for a medieval past that Romanticism had aroused led the British to preserve and nurture many aspects of feudal pageantry that they found necessary to justify and manifest their supremacy. India played a major role in turning the United Kingdom’s largely rural governing elite away from the modernizing and missionary projects of the technocratic, capitalist new rich classes. Rather, after the 1857 Indian insurrection, Westminster, in unison with Queen Victoria’s own views, was content to maintain many of its overseas possessions under a semi-feudal “ornamental” hierarchic order which called for massive and frequent shows of pomp and ceremonial if only as a cover for the financial operations of the City of London, in keeping with one of the oldest attributes of power in pre-industrial societies.


One can of course infer that the abandonment of protocol and splendor by states and ruling classes tends to be followed by a creeping increase in the powers and reach of espionage and surveillance, as can be seen in the USA and many other supposed democracies which are turning into high tech cryptocracies indulging in pervasive and obsessive prying into all people’s lives in the likeness of the reviled and equally unglittering and prosaic ‘people’s democracies’.


One might conclude from the previous accounts that the zeitgeist of the Festival reflected the dominant global mindset which consecrates western civilization and its current social, political, cultural, scientific and technological pursuits as the universal norm. However countercurrents were visible in some of the panels where, apart from thought-provoking considerations about Dostoyevsky’s radical and anti-modernist spiritual message by Homi Bhabha and others, native indigenous wisdom and Asian legacies were presented and extolled by South American, Canadian, European and Asian speakers.


India’s heritage in its universal relevance was explored by some in matters as diverse as the enormous but threatened classical Sanskrit literature (an estimated thirty million manuscripts survive according to Harvard professor Alex Watson, many untranslated and not even catalogued) which can be read and understood by less and less people, and the transmission to the West of Indian inventions such as the board and card games. Barnaby Rogerson, author of the Book of Numbers ventured to quote scholars who have concluded that the Sumerian civilization, the earliest in Mesopotamia, may have been founded by seafarers from the Sarasvati-Indus valley in India, a thesis that was unacceptable and even deemed outrageous in expert circles only a few years ago, while the Latinist Mary Beard pointed out that gold coinage may have been created in the Roman empire solely to fulfill the need of the high volume trade with India.


The fabulous wealth of the latter nation then may be related to the extraordinary diversity of its creativity which cultivated the “much maligned monsters” of its mythology of whom foreign visitors were often so critical, as recalled by Partha Mitter, in contrast with Europe’s tendency to reach a consistency and a unity defined in terms of what is deemed best, often resulting in uniformity in thought and in aesthetic standards. The growing recognition in scholarly circles of the historic validity of much of the ancient epic literature was reflected in some of the discussions that also illustrated the endless number of interpretations that can be given to the stories it enshrines. Is there as such an Indian way of thinking as claimed by some, or is it only a culturally specific version of the “weltanschauung” of traditional, pre-positivistic societies? Indeed there as are many Indian worldviews as there are schools of philosophy, ethnic groups and religious sects.


In a wholly different area, Ray Monk, in a remarkable biopic of Ludwig Wittgenstein showed how that brilliant philosopher eventually came to realize that his attempt to build a purely objective logics patterned on a mathematical model was vain as “what cannot be said in words must be left unspoken,” so that contrary to his colleagues of the Vienna School he finally embraced a form of mystical awareness akin to Vedanta and Buddhist epistemology which superseded all his earlier work. Wittgenstein was one of many to see that European rationalist philosophies can only hope to end where Eastern wisdom begins in its many Indian, Chinese and Middle Eastern forms. The West, and therefore the entire world, are suffering many of the consequences of the barren or self-destructive propositions of positivism, existentialism, deconstructionism and relativism and would do well to take the cue left by Wittgenstein whom it hails as one of the pioneers of modern philosophy.


It would be perilous to relate the call of eastern metaphysical worldviews with a new regard for traditional forms of government, but a spirited defence of India’s feudal order was presented by Ambassador Indrajit Singh Rathor, Rao of Masuda, and by Admiral Madhavendra Singh of Chomu, a former chief of the Indian Navy who introduced his historical book “Through a Feudal Window…”. The contention of both speakers was that overall, and given circumstances in the past, the record of most of the innumerable Hindu and even Muslim princes who had governed their respective states, large and small, all over India until the nation’s independence, was enviable when compared with the rather chequered history of the six decade old Republican system.


One can only observe, without entering this sensitive debate, that, as the late Raimundo Panikkar wrote, the leaders who took over from the British Raj in 1947 and largely maintained its institutions, occupied all the colonial buildings vacated by the overseas colonizers while quickly dismantling the indigenous states and letting the ancient palaces and monuments built by the traditional rulers either collapse or be turned into hotels for tourists.


There can be no more eloquent proof of the choices made by India’s new elites which were largely converted to the “western” way of thinking and doing things. India is now at the crossroads as several discussions in the festival highlighted, and although there is no real alternative to the westernizing influence of globalised science and technology, the apparent decline of globalism itself and the dystopic nature of today’s hyper-capitalism is forcing many to reconsider the course being followed by the country. On the one hand, western-trained businessmen like Ravi Venkatesan when they call for a liberalization of the economy seem to equate democracy with an unfettered international free market, while politicians such as Yashwant Sinha acknowledge that a delicate balance must be struck between the needs of the poorer majority and the legitimate demands of business. Of course those who stand for elections must try to please as many people as possible in their words but can hardly achieve the same result through their actions.


A distinction must be made between the Indian dharmarajya system of yore and the bellicose tribal set up that still exists in much of West and Central Asia and Africa and which, in combination with undigested forms of government borrowed from the West, is keeping countries like Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan in bloody turmoil. Much attention was dedicated to the Af-Pak witches’ cauldron in which many an empire foundered and that the Americans are now losing hope of ever subduing. Although the discussion on that “dispensable nation” looked from its participants like a US-British imperial confab, it yielded some interesting conclusions. One of the orators was Barnett Rubin, a prominent US “diplomatic hand” in that area, whom president Hamid Karzai has accused of conspiring with the Taliban against him on behalf of Washington. He conceded, like Ambassador Blackwill and Mark Mazzetti, that his government has run out of options other than a rapid or slow withdrawal from the quagmire. Ben Anderson, who is familiar with the situation on the ground, offered a dim prospect as he expects much of the country to fall under the control of the Taliban and the rest to be engulfed in civil wars for years to come as the corrupt Kabul regime has no legitimacy and depends for its survival on infusions of foreign cash. All the NATO’s men have not succeeded in twelve years in training a competent and reliable Afghan army and police and that realization provides a stark epilogue to the West’s latest neo-colonial venture.


In the pre-election national climate, the issue of democracy as a form of government kept surfacing; the last session was dedicated to it. It is hardly possible for anyone of eminence in any position of responsibility to express doubts about the validity of the system nowadays, but the conditions and circumstances for democracy to be “real” remain a matter of dispute. While “centre-left’ parties find it easy to question the commitment of Right Wing politicians to that formula, the fact is that leftist thinking is responsible for the advent of at least as many dictatorships or forms of totalitarianism as its right wing counterpart.


Murli Manohar Joshi of the BJP pointed out that the viability of democracy depends critically upon people assuming their responsibilities and respecting the state institutions and not merely asserting their rights. Shazia Ilmi of the Aam Admi Party claimed that when laws are unjust or are not being implemented, people’s agitation alone can force changes if constitutionally set parliamentary reforms are not possible or adequate. She also said that for democracy to be real, those who belong to “feudal” dynasties should not be eligible for election to positions of power. That discriminatory notion makes many wonder if the AAP, when it calls for a “participatory” rather than a representative system, does not aspire to a “people’s democracy” in the likeness of former Soviet republics!


Anis Ahmed retraced the travails and conflicts in his native Bangladesh and extolled the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Indian system. Lily Wangchuk pointed to Bhutan’s democracy as a gift from a hitherto absolute monarch which had not even been asked for by the population and which may have brought mixed blessings. The question remains if in a small and sheltered nation such as Bhutan the multi-party electoral system is not a superfluous toy whereas it appears to be an unmanageable and destabilizing contraption in countries that are not culturally adapted to it, as is the case in most of Africa, West Asia and even in South East Asia where Thailand is suffering from the nefarious effects of a too easily corruptible Westminster model. The sacred cow (or rather the golden calf) of personal freedom is too often offered for worship without leaving room for legitimate questions such as: freedom to do what and freedom whom what?


Mankind always stands close to the brink of chaos, political and economic, and only the timeless wisdom that India has stored and expressed probably better than any other civilisation can time after time return it to sanity. Neither literature nor science can achieve that purpose unless they are steeped in it.

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