Bridges, not barriers

Delhi’s new literary festival is an appropriately polyglot affair ♦

If India is, as Mark Twain put it, “the country of a hundred nations and a hundred tongues”, then Delhi is the place where all  these nations and tongues inevitably meet. This fortnight, a new festival acknowledges the importance of the capital as a literary destination – just as worthy as your Jaipurs, your Thiruvananthapurams and your Hay-on-Wyes. But more importantly, it puts the spotlight squarely on those hundred tongues (well, eight of them, at least) in a way that few stages have before.
The· idea for Samanvay was born out of the India Habitat Centre’s desire to ride the popularity of literary festivals, but to turn the focus inwards – towards Indian languages – rather than outwards. IHC Director Raj Liberhan said “The citizen is usually kind of immune from the beauty of the Indian languages’ writing for various reasons. We wanted to actually let people see for themselves the universality of thought, emotion, and yet the variety of expression.
The festival was designed by Satyanand Nirupam, Associate Editor at Delhi Press’ Sarita magazine, and Giriraj Kiradoo, founder and editor of bilingual journal and publisher Pratilipi. The two decided to invite writers of Assamese, Punjabi, Malyalam, Urdu, Tamil, Hindi, Bengali and English literature. lf Samanvay does become an annual fixture as planned, the next year’s edition may include more or different languages.
Kiradoo and Satyanand decided to hone in on relatively specific themes for each of the three-day festival’s sessions. They spoke to established and new writers to put a finger on the pulse of each language’s literary scene. So there are sessions with topics as narrow as Punjabi Dalit love poetry, challenges for women writers from Assam, and “women writing the body” in Tamil. Each session will include readings and discussions between a moderator and an author panel. The writers themselves range from famous (Javed Akhtar on “The Death of Mushayara”) to young Sahitya Akademi winners, bloggers and a few fresh faces.
The Malayalam session on “Autobiography from the margins”, for example, is moderated by celebrated poet K Satchitanandan and includes authors Nalini Jameela, a sex worker; Sister Jesme, a nun who left her convent after 33 years; CKJanu, a tribal activist; and Pokkudan, a Dalit who wrote about vanishing mangrove forests. Autobiography has always been a strong genre in Malayalam writing, Satchitanandan told us, “but what has happened recently is that a lot of people who are on the margins of society have come out with their stories. These mark a break from the mainstream autobiographies, mostly written by political leaders, bureaucrats or well-known actors.”
With over 50 such writers from far and wide, the organisers realised that they’d have to push Samanvay’s intended November slot to December. The bigger logistical question though, was deciding which language to use In each session. Each discussion will have oneor two bilingual participants and a bilingual moderator. If a writer speaks in her own language, the moderator will take the conversation forward after quickly briefing the audience. Nirupam explained that “Our whole focus is on expression. There should be a dialogue between people without language acting as a barrier.”
This refusal to spoon-feed the audience underlines Samanvay’s relative lack of interest in selling big names or drawing attention from the international media. “Just as books are being written with a target reader in mind,” Nirupam said, “festival directors also ask who will be attending. We figured that if we talk about things that are important, people will come of their own accord – if not this year, then next year.” Liberhan explained the decision to stop worrying too much about accessibility (read: accessibility to English speakers): “It’s so difficult amongst the generality of audiences to pick and choose. Hopefully, we can get people who can pick for themselves.”
Those who do attend might come to the pleasant realisation that Indian language writing is more approachable than they think. Nirupam pointed out that a person from Delhi “knows quite a bit of Urdu, but he’s not confident of how much he knows. So when he sits In the Urdu session and hears the language, he’ll realise that there’s hardly a difference.”
He also quoted the example of people leaming Hindi to read Devaki Nandan Khatri ‘s novels. More recently, Kashinath Singh’s Kashi Ka Aasi was adapted as a Bengali play, Kashinama, by Usha Ganguli. “When it was staged In Kolkata, lots of Bengalis learned Hindi just to read the original,” Nirupam said. “Sometimes, good books or authors act as a bridge between languages. Hopefully, the festival can remove some of the mental blocks that prevent us from reaching outside our own languages. Our languages are tied together, they have commonalities.”
By letting linguistic plurality reign – in all its glorious cacophony – rather than touting its headliners, Samanvay should provide a diverting complement to the Delhi intelligentsia’s annual exodus to Jaipur. At the least, it will help bring authors whose books grow dusty on the sturdy, but sometimes unreachable, upper shelves of the Sahitya Akademi’s library to a wider audience. At best, Delhi’s own festival could become an important forum for the knitting together of our hundred nations.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, December 2011.