The 2018 edition of the Bangalore Literature Festival (27 and 28 October) turned out to be a colourful affair. I missed going to the last edition of the fest but fortunately was able to make it to this one. Like last year, the literary feast was held at The Lalit Ashok, which I must say turned out to be just the right place for a soiree like this one. The sprawling lawns of one of The Garden City’s oldest five-star hotels accommodated five stages for the event which made it that much easier for the organisers and the visitors. There was so much space for everyone to move around and the sunny weather added to the warmth. The atmosphere was vibrant and happy, one reason being the plethora of children’s events that were introduced in this edition. There were a lot of children prancing around. The food stalls were making brisk business despite the items being overpriced. A few stages were set around the hotel’s swimming pool adding to the visual quotient of the feast.
I couldn’t make it for the first event of the day as I reached late. I headed for The Red Couch as soon as I reached the hotel at around 10.40 am. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Vijay Seshadri was almost midway through his talk. I did not pay much attention and dabbled with my camera settings instead. At around 11 am, Telugu scholar Velchuru Narayana Rao took the stage to speak on ‘Translating Classics’. The talk turned out to be quite informative. Narayana Rao started by speaking about the importance of translation. In a country like India which is multi-lingual, it is important that works of authors are translated otherwise literature cannot survive.
When translating, a lot of factors have to be taken into account. For example, English and Telugu are poles apart syntactically, semantically and culturally. When translating works from Telugu to English, it is important to explain the origins of the work, what the content is all about and also what to expect. It is important to tell something about the Indian culture to the Westerners. It is important to avoid translating compound sentences. Such sentences should be broken up. Compound sentences have always been a challenge for translators. Translators should also avoid making the translation sound like the language it is translated from. When translating poems, skilled translators find a poem within a poem.
Poetry is also written in pictorial formats and these are categorised into different types: (1) Cow’s urination pattern which is zig-zag; (2) snake’s posture (all intertwined) are two such types.
When translating, it is important not to attempt translating all the text. It is next to impossible.
The English language is the doorway to the entire world. Hence, it was imperative that works from other languages are translated into English. The greatness of Indian poets like Kalidasa would not have been known outside India had their works not been translated into English.
Certain poems carry a double meaning. In such cases, the translator comes out with two versions of the translation. Different people translate poems in their own unique style.
The next discussion on The Red Couch had author Shoba Narayan in conversation with Rashmi Menon. The conversation ‘The Cows of Bangalore’ had to do with a book of the same name by Shoba Narayan who also happens to own a cow and chases cows off road-dividers. Every region has a spirit animal. In the North-East, the hornbills are revered, in Karnataka, it is the tiger and in entire India, it is the cow. The book was inspired by a real-life incident when Shoba bumped into Sarala, a lady who owns cows and supplies milk, in her apartment lift. Sarala requested her for a loan and told her that it was for a cow. When asked how much she wanted she said 40,000 rupees. When asked how she would repay such a big sum, Sarala told her that she would supply milk to her free till she clears the amount, Shoba agreed but on condition that she will accompany her to buy the cow. The search for a perfect cow took some time. After a cow was finally selected, Shoba was assigned the honour of naming her. The process of naming turned out to be a not-so-easy process. Tradition required that the cow’s name end with Lakshmi. Of the names available, there were none that could be used because one among Sarala’s cows already had that name. Finally, the ladies arrived on the name Anandalakshmi. During the course of the discussion, Shobha mentioned that male calves are not wanted in the urban eco-farm and usually end up getting slaughtered. She went on to add that she has steered clear of cow politics in her book. The book is not only about cows but Indian society too. The book celebrates Indianness. A takeaway from the book is the emphasis on Indian cows and the need to buy desi cow’s milk like the milk of the Halekar cows, Amrit Mahal cows and the short-legged Malnad Giddu cows. Desi cow milk is less diabetogenic. Cows feed on 30 varieties of grass. When someone in the audience asked the author for her view on cows eating from dustbins she said that the owners of the cows have a romantic view about that. The cows they believe eat only the healthy stuff from the muck!
The next discussion ‘Things We Do’ was one which I was waiting for. On the panel was The Snake Man of India, Romulus Whitaker, in conversation with his film-maker and writer wife Janaki Lenin. I had grown up hearing the name of Romulus Whitaker and the pioneering work he was doing towards conservation of snakes and crocodiles. It felt great seeing such an iconic figure in the flesh. The conversation between the husband and wife duo started on a very light note. Janki humoured the audience when she said that Romulus was always a security threat at the airport as he would be caught carrying a snake or crocodile or something live in his baggage. Romulus Whitaker as everyone knows has always been obsessed with snakes unlike many of us who dread being in the midst of one. Romulus spoke of his early days when he came to India after his mother re-married. His step-father was Indian. He was all of seven when he set foot in the country and had his schooling at the Kodai International School. He spent two years serving the US Army. He came back to India as his heart was in India. His love for snakes and crocodiles saw him set up the Madras Snake Park and the Madras Crocodile Park Trust. He mentioned his memorable stints with the UN at Ethiopia and other African countries. He spoke of near-death encounters he had in Africa when he actually went around on a helicopter collecting crocodile nests by dodging crocodiles and hippos in the dead of the night. The crocodile skin industry in Africa is a million dollar industry. Romulus Whitaker helped set up village co-operatives in Africa to prevent mass slaughter of crocodiles for their skin. When asked what was his scariest experience he mentioned an incident in the tiger-infested Sunderbans when he was working on a project on saltwater crocodiles. He was accompanied by security guards carrying old guns. He was more worried about the old guns going off than the appearance of a tiger; his heart was thumping. When asked about his memorable experiences, he spoke about setting up a research station at the Agumbe Rainforest famous for the King Cobra. His documentary on the King Cobra won him an Emmy much to his surprise. Janaki spoke about female King Cobras entering people’s houses before laying eggs and housing themselves in bathrooms and toilets for days and weeks. During that period, the residents of the house would use their neighbour’s toilet. Romulus Whitaker was instrumental in helping the Irula tribes who once earned their livelihood selling snakes. When the ban on snake skin trade came into force, Whitaker used their services for extracting venom and in this way fetched them an alternative livelihood.
After the discussion, for some reason I felt disinclined to get up from my seat and check out other events happening at the other stages. The discussion that followed was one on finance for which I have absolutely no flair. The discussion ‘Ujjivan: Small Loans Transforming Lives’ had Samit Ghosh, Founder of Ujjivan Financial Services, in conversation with journalist Subir Roy. Samit Ghosh spoke on the significance of micro-finance. It is all about giving loans to poor people, without security. The name micro-finance is synonymous with Mohammed Yunus who started the concept in Bangladesh and went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for the innovative idea. According to the speakers, the concept was born in India before Mohammed Yunus introduced it and the person behind it was Ela Bhatt. The speakers were in full praise of the Aadhar card and that it turned out to be a boon for micro-finance. Giving away loans involved lesser paper work because of Aadhar. The procedure involved carrying hand-held devices to the doorstep which made things that much more easy. Compared to the middle-class and the rich, the poorer sections were more open to technological advances as it made their lives easier because they are toiling whole day. Also, micro-finance in a large way got rid of dubious chit-fund schemes.
The discussion that followed, ‘In Search of Wacky Female Characters’ had best-selling author Sujata Parashar in conversation with Nandita Bose. Among other things, Parashar spoke about her debut novel, ‘In Pursuit of Infidelity’ in which she has modelled the protagonist, a female, after Madame Bovary. She is disillusioned with her marriage and is neglected by her husband who is busy with his work. ‘Temple Bar Woman’, one of her other works is a Bollywood-like story about a woman who is brutalised.
After the culmination of this discussion, I decided to take a break. I first checked out the books at the Atta Galatta bookstore which was adjacent to the stage. I couldn’t buy any books as I was broke and I had just enough money for grub and travelling back home. I then headed to the food court and realised the only thing I could afford with my current budget was a ‘chaat’ and opted to have ‘Bhel Puri’. Chaats are usually very light on the tummy but I must say this plate of ‘Bhel Puri’ was quite filling and didn’t taste bad. After finishing off all that was on my platter and downing them with a glass of water, I decided to move to the ‘Naale Baa’ stage to listen to the discussion ‘Fashion: The Seamly and The Unseamly’ that was scheduled to start at 2.30pm. It was only 2.15pm and ‘Naale Baa’ was filled to the brim. An ongoing talk on narrative non-fiction had attracted a huge crowd. This meant I had to wait for this talk to get over and for some members of the audience to disperse. It was then that I ran into my school classmate Anand aka ‘Puppy’, the class jester. What a surprise! Someone like Puppy is a very unlikely visitor to a Lit Fest. I felt very amused seeing him. Puppy was very pleased with the goings-on at the fest and couldn’t contain his happiness. After a quick chat, he headed for the food stalls and I to the front of the ‘Naale Baa’ stage. The stage was huge and it was important that I get the front seat as it would be more convenient to take pictures. Luckily, quite a lot of the audience dispersed and I found a comfortable place to sit right in the front row. The discussion that revolved around fashion had former model and Miss India Shvetha Jaishankar (who was once married to tennis ace Mahesh Bhupathi) and writer-activist Manjima Bhattacharjya in conversation with Susan Thomas.
Manjima spoke in length about the seamier side of the fashion industry, the pains small-town girls go through to shine on the ramp and make a mark on the modelling scene. She also mentioned that when it comes to work, India has the worst female work participation in India. Leggy beauty Shvetha who looked stunning in a blue a-line dress agreed that modelling is not easy money. She left modelling early as it is a short career defined by age and beauty. She went on to add, “If you want to fight it, you will be fighting against you”. Her book “Gorgeous : Eat Well, Look Great”, was one of Amazon’s memorable books of 2016. She wrote the book to dispel some wrong notions about food. The book features recipes from models and Bollywood personalities. Manjima said that feminism has become more reflective now. Feminists have become fashionable. Fashion industry has created a body image picture on the Internet and it is influencing feminists. Shvetha commented that models should not be deified nor should they be villified. She went on to add that social media is a good tool in spite of the trolling. And most importantly, she has faced more prejudices in the corporate world than as a model.
The talk on the fashion industry was followed by a discussion titled, “Intrepid Travellers: Strangers in a Strange Land” which had as panellists former New York Times crime reporter Dan Morrison, journalist Rhea Saran and Aparna Raman. Dan described his days as a reporter in Afghanistan during a not-so-bad phase and confessed it was just the right job for a (in his own words) “knucklehead” like him. Rhea admitted that the days when people preferred safety are gone. In fact, everyone prefers being adventurous and wants transformative travel. She spoke of how she drove through unlit streets in Havana and ate alone at restaurants. It is not only conflict zones that one should be scared of. Dan mentioned that when travelling in alien lands, he does not rely on translators. All his writings are heavily contextualised ad he has written keeping the layman in mind. Rhea is of the opinion that people who read online are different from those who read printed magazines. She was in the Middle-East for five years and said that people’s perspectives towards travelling are changing. Dan admitted her prefers places where he can leave his belongings safely. On the other hand, Rhea mentioned that she prefers going to unfamiliar places.
Owing to some last-minute re-scheduling, The New India Foundation Awards originally scheduled for 4.45pm on the Naale Baa stage was preponed to 3.30pm. The newly instituted awards saw Ramachandra Guha, Nandan Nilekani, Manish Sabharwal, Yelchuru Narayana Rao and Srinath Raghavan take the stage to honour the winner. The authors were judged on their writings on India. Milan Vaishnav became the first winner of the award named after Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay. He won it for his book, “When Crime Pays”.
After hanging around for a good one hour at the bookstore, I headed for the Adjust Maadi stage to be audience to the talk “Pencils Drawn: Cartooning in Trying Times”. The speakers were noted cartoonists Ponnappa and Ravi Shankar Etteth and the moderator was noted journalist and author Bachi Karkeria. In between lamenting about the step-motherly treatment meted out to cartoonists, the low pay scale, and the risks entailed with their sketching political cartoons, Ponnappa and Etteth enthralled the audience with their drawing skills and their sense of humour. When asked to sketch a political cartoon in trend with the times, Ponnappa drew one that was based on the Sabarimala temple controversy that had the audience in guffaws. The cartoonist was quite sure that this cartoon would not have got accepted had he sent it to any daily. Ravi Shankar Etteth mentioned that cartoonists had better prospects with vernacular dailies than the English ones. The vernacular dailies were more flexible with their choice of subjects than English dailies.
I decided to listen to one last talk before heading home. As it was the end of the day, and had barely slept the last night, I was feeling awfully sleepy. Star speaker Ramachandra Guha’s talk was scheduled next. His topic of discussion was “Is There an Indian Road to Equality”. He started his speech by saying that in a perfect world all will be equal. He had everyone in splits when he stated, “In capitalism, man exploits man. In socialism, it is the other way round.” He spoke of the significance of employment and the necessity of every other person having decent employment.
He emphasised on the equality of caste and gender. Over here, he mentioned that Dalits and women were the most oppressed classes in India. It was important that this kind of oppression be overpowered. He added that discrimination of Dalits was intrinsic to Hindu culture. Dalits were not allowed in temples and walk in front of upper castes. Mahatma Gandhi tried to bring in a lot of reforms. Unfortunately, not all were a success as some of the Hindu religious leaders were against such reforms.
He mentioned that such caste-based discrimination did not exist within Hindus alone. Muslims from Central Asia also thought they were a superior race. Christians and Sikhs also allowed caste-based discrimination. He slammed pernicious practices like child marriages. Although, there were many Hindu female dieties, Hindu men married multiple times time till the 1950s. Muslims discriminated against women by bringing in the purdah rule. In comparison, Muslim and Sikh women were less ostracised. He lamented that Hinduism is historically disfigured because of oppression against women and caste. Indians did not deserve freedom because of this. Because of this oppression, Gandhi was fighting Britain and India at the same time. The battle against this inequality was the core of India’s freedom struggle. When he said he was all for the #MeToo movement, females in the audience applauded him. However, his support for allowing women in the Sabarimala shrine got a mixed response.
After listening to the electrifying talk by Ramachandra Guha, I headed home hurriedly as I had to attend the lit fest the next day and had to be there by 10am to attend the first session of the day featuring Shashi Tharoor.