[Guest post by Hannah Green. Green is a writer and student learning Urdu (and Hindi) in Lucknow, India. She got her Bachelor's from Northwestern University in June 2012. Her writings have appeared on ThinkProgress, 3 Quarks Daily, and Racialicious. Here is a link to some of her other work, and to a very unfinished website.]
Whose 21st century?
I didn’t know whether to be inspired or depressed by Mahasweta Devi’s keynote speech. You could hear the length of the iconic Bengali writer and activist’s life in the way she talked. You could hear the effort with which she pulled her most distant memories to the surface, as clearly as though she had just experienced them. Each of her sentences left a stark image in your head, but grouped together they didn’t seem to make a single point or leave me with a single emotion.
The fact that she was as an old woman was part of the introductory speech before she got on stage. Her introducer explained that just before coming, she’d had several injections. During her speech, she moved from memory to memory as though by free association, the way a lot of old people do, although with much more beautifully arranged words. She began by saying how not long ago, life had seemed to hold many more possibilities than it did now. I couldn’t tell if she was speaking for herself or for the world.
“I am repeating myself, repeating what has been, what is,” she told us. I couldn’t tell which was more vivid for her, the past or the present. She talked about her political beliefs, the suicide of her first lover, the irrepressible physical attractiveness she’d possessed in her youth. From her speech, I got the sense that she had felt full of hope at times in her life, but that she was not really satisfied with the state of the world or even her own accomplishments. Her involvement with the communist party and the political movements of India had not managed to suppress the hypocrisy of the Indian Middle Class or the arrogance of those who had declared themselves the first world. Our future could be as vivid as the most hopeful moments of her past. That we could fulfill all the possibilities that she had not managed to. The speech set the stage for the rest of the day, where people reminisced about the past, moved it from place to place, and even suggested, maybe without meaning to, that it would be better to go back there.
During the various events, whether the subject was the future of the novel, or Afghanistan, or Hindustani language, a lot of famous people lamented the present state of the world. They were full of nostalgia for a past when people appreciated literature and had long attention spans to read long novels, or when Afghanistan’s warlords weren’t being supported by the American government, or when everyone spoke one Hindustani language where they selected the most beautiful words from Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit, and everyone liked the way it sounded.
I was surprised at how often I heard people suggest that the past of the West was the future of the East. In these reflections, they always seemed to wish that the Western world was more connected to the past that they said continued to live in the East. Given that the festival was taking place in India, it seemed somewhat brazenly Euro-centric to say, for example, as Edward Giradet did during a panel on the future of Afghanistan, that in Afghanistan one foot was still in the 19th century, not adding that what he meant was Europe’s 19th century. Giradet, the British journalist who had happily wandered through the mountains of Afghanistan during the 1980s, seemed pretty unhappy with what England and especially the United States governments were doing to the country he felt had transported him to a different century. During another panel on “the future of the Novel”, Zoe Heller, writer of Notes on a Scandal, lamented the diving sales of novels in the Western world. She refused to take comfort from the fact that in India, novel sales are spiking, because the future of America was the future of the entire globe. Tim Supple, speaking during a session on “The Global Shakespeare”, described his experience of producing a multilingual version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in India. He said that he was thrilled to have the opportunity to stage a Shakespeare play in India, because it allowed him to connect to “the other half” of Shakespeare- the ancient half, which modern England could only manage to ignore. Supple felt that Shakespeare in England had become superficial as directors attempted to find new ways to costume the same plays- by making the fairies into punks, for example. By staging A Midsummer Night’s Dream in India, he felt he was able to connect the play back to the ritualistic, ancient past of Shakespeare, to the “higher and the lower human reality.”
At the end of the day, I thought that Javed Akhtar made the best point about literature and the past and the future: “so on one hand, it is always deeply rooted in its own soil and its own time. On the other hand, it’s a universal. This is paradoxical, contradictory, but … Voh apne samay main bilkul sach hai. Apne samay main uski jammein bilkul gaheri hai. Lekin voh har samay ke liyai hoti hai.” (It’s quite true to its own time, the embedding in its own time is quite deep. But it’s for all times.) Perhaps Akhtar has more freedom to say this, as he knows how to express himself in new mediums (film) as well as old (poetic forms, like the ghazal.) His speech acknowledged the fact that it is the responsibility of literature to remain relevant, and not the responsibility of society to hold onto old literature.
Women In Film: Celebration or Commodification?
Since the brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old in Delhi sparked outrage over women’s rights across India, I’ve heard one topic become the subject of hot debate on multiple occasions: The “item song.” One of my Urdu teachers described the item song as a music video that has nothing to do with the plot of the movie, but which the movie needs to become a superhit. “Item girls” similarly, usually do not have any role in the movie except to sing and dance in the item song. Two famous examples come from Dabang and Dabang 2. “Munni Badnaam Hui” features Malika Arora, and “Fevicol Se”, Kareena Kapoor. Especially recently, item songs tend to feature scantily clad women singing lyrics with strong sexual overtones.
At the Jaipur Liteature Festival, the Delhi rape has also inspired discussion of women’s issues, including the portrayal of women in film. During one session titled “Sex and Sensibility: Women in Cinema”, actress Shabana Azmi, and screenwriter/lyricist Sanjoy Roy passionately discussed and debated the commodification of women. Azmi believes that is a good thing to celebrate the sexuality of women, but not so to commodify her. So where do you draw the line? Images that fragment a woman’s body take away her identity, she said. A shot of a heaving chest or a gyrating navel is commodification.
I thought that she had a point, but what can be done about this? Should the film board censor certain camera angles and not others? Something else that she said bothered me as well. According to her, actresses who decide to feature in item numbers are kidding themselves if they think they’re making informed choices about what they’re doing. Azmi said she’s had conversations with such actresses where she convinced them to rethink their decisions by implying that their music was responsible for the molestation of children. When a six-year-old child dances and sings the words “Main to tandoori murgi hoon yaar Gatkaa le saiyyan alcohol se” (I’m chicken tandoori, lover. Swallow me with alcohol.), then isn’t this to blame for the sexualiztion of the child? No, I thought, anyone who looks at a six year old doing or saying anything and thinks of them as sexual is responsible. Or, if you don’t want the child to be exposed to such songs, then you should keep the children specifically away from them.
But I have another reason to want to defend item songs. I tend to like them. I like the energetic and fluid choreography; I like the sense of humor and coyness in their style. But when I think about it, I have to realize that I might be more than a little brain washed too. Because I grew up listening to hits that were not unlike item songs. In my third grade music class we got to listen to a list of “top ten” songs that we made ourselves every week, as a treat. One song that we would frequently sing along to, in a classroom setting, was Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle.” The refrain goes like this:
If you wanna be with me, baby there’s a price to pay
I’m a genie in a bottle. You gotta rub me the right way.
If you wanna be with me, I can make your wish come true.
You gotta make a big impression. I gotta like what you do.
When I was 18, I looked back on those lyrics and was surprised at how sexual they are. (Now that I’m thinking about them again, I’m surprised at how Orientalist they are.) And while I still would never go so far to say that such lyrics and the images that go with them are responsible for rape, they definitely influence the way we see ourselves, especially if we internalize them in our formative years. So there is a kind of sexual power that I admire and like to see in music videos that I enjoy seeing in item songs also. And this has nothing to do with me thinking “Oh, I bet men really love her” and everything to do with the potential power of someone’s individual personality and identity. (Other examples of songs like this include “Hips Don’t Lie” and “Bootylicious.”) But I have to recognize that I value this particular kind of individual power because of the American society I grew up in, and I can understand why someone wouldn’t want this kind of thinking to creep too much into their culture when it places such a disproportionate value on looks and sex.
It’s impossible to escape the way your culture changes the way you see the world. Azmi admitted that when she started her career, she did not always make informed choices. Only after receiving heavy criticism for her film did she start to think more carefully about which roles she would play. In the film Thodi si Bevafai she plays a woman who courageously leaves her husband only to return to him with her tail between her legs and heed his warning: “Yaad rakho ke pati ke ghar ka dukh bhi maike ke ghar ke sukh se behtar hota hai”. (Remember that sorrow in your husband’s house is better than happiness in your mother’s house.) When she took that role, she just wasn’t thinking hard about what she was doing, she said, she just took any work that seemed attractive. Although she now says she’s better informed, her fellow panelists still accused her of continuing to be brainwashed. When Prasoon Joshi said that Krishna was India’s worst eve teaser. (Eve teasing is a common term for sexual harassment in India.) Azmi defended Krishna, saying that what he did was romantic courtship. Joshi told her that she was socially conditioned to think that.
Are They Wrong Enough?
Gandhi, it turns out, thought that although violence is always wrong, it isn’t always the most wrong solution to a given problem. At least, he felt this way at certain points in his life. I learned this on the second day of the Jaipur Literature Festival, during a panel discussion called “Gandhi vs. Gandhi” featuring four of Gandhi’s biographers.
Richard Sorabji, author of Gandhi and the Stoics (2012), told the audience about a series of letters from Gandhi that sparked outrage when he was writing them in 1926. In the letters, Gandhi recommended that sixty rabid dogs be killed. According to Sorabji, although Gandhi believed that in ideal society violence would never be necessary, in reality sometimes it was the better of two wrongs. It was not only important to recognize oneself as a rational human being, but also to recognize one’s individual role in society and act accordingly. Therefore, someone in charge of a municipality who has the duty to protect his people from disease should kill rabid dogs.
There were multiple times, and in different discussions, during the festival when the question of relativism came up, in terms of era and culture, and how one is situated in them. During a panel discussion on Shari’a law, most of the panelists agreed that one of the main factors that decided what was and was not allowable under Islamic Jurisprudence was not the raw text but the cultural context in which it is being interpreted. Reza Aslan, the moderator of the discussion, opened the session by quoting his spiritual guide, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf. The Shari’a was like water, the Sheikh had said; it takes the shape of whatever vessel it is poured into.
One of the most interesting discussions that again brought up the question of moral relativism drew me in with its present day weight, as it related to recent discussions of the now famous December rape case in Delhi. I was wandering when I heard the conversation, not sure whether I should find a new event to listen to or a cup of coffee. A young Indian woman was speaking passionately about what rape means in Indian society. She was not a panelist but an audience member, and I was surprised that she was talking about rape because the name of the event was “The Public Philosopher.” The young woman was saying that rape was worse than murder in this specific society, during this specific time, but that she hoped that society would change to make murder worse. In cases of sexual assault, she said that not only were you violently attacked, you were also blamed for it, and you were given no support. Another young woman said that, ideally, rape would be considered the same as other kinds of violent assaults. That rape was considered worse was attached to the wrong assumption that a woman’s virtue is attached to her virginity. Then a young man said that it was a sign of society’s advancement, and not its decline, that sexual assault and other kinds of assault were thought of differently. A sheep probably wouldn’t care if it were raped or beaten otherwise, but human beings know the difference. All three of them spoke so articulately and with such ease that I thought they must have had these arguments before.
I found myself agreeing and disagreeing with all of them. There’s so much you’d have to know to really be able to say who was right. You’d have to know more than any human being has ever known, to have access to the experience of someone who was a victim of sexual and nonsexual violent assault, and then you’d have to be able to somehow isolate and analyze those experiences in the context of their individual personalities and the societies that they come from. One person’s experience wouldn’t be enough. You’d have to map out and parse out variables in hundreds, maybe hundreds of thousands of experiences. To know if rape or murder is really worse, you’d also have to know what death is. But the fact that it’s impossible to know doesn’t save society from the responsibility of having to decide. Now a lot of controversy is rising up about which cases should be fast tracked, and which crimes should receive the death penalty under Indian law. To make these decisions, you need to have some kind of rubric that says which crimes are the most serious.
In an ideal world, none of these questions would have to come up, because there would be no rape, no murder, no violent assault of any kind. That was the kind of world that Gandhi envisioned. But even he would not have found this conversation superfluous, at least not at certain points during his life.
But there is a mind frame that my culture has provided for me that I doubt I will ever be able to escape.
The Kumbh Mela of Literature, The Burning Man of India (except with books instead of drugs)
On the first day of the Jaipur Literature Festival, as I walked into the venue someone handed me a newspaper with a front-page article calling the festival “the literary Kumbh Mela”. My roommate in Lucknow, who is from London, compared the festival to London Fashion Week, because of the combination of socialites and celebrities. For me, at moments I felt like I was reliving my favorite parts of college, listening to controversial and engaging discussions.
There were also bits of it that reminded me think of one of those intense long weekend music festivals, where there are five concerts going at the same time and everyone is half totally out of it and half totally pumped. Many attendees of many nationalities experimented with interesting combinations of facial hair, head hair, and thick-framed glasses, as nerdy and fake nerdy hipsters all over the universe are wont to do. People sprawled out on the grass to try and nap between events. Others stood on their tiptoes to get photos of celebrities. Events were overcrowded, and people grappled over the space in public. It was impossible to go to every event that you wanted to, because there were too many good ones. As stimulating as the discussions were, in order to see as much as possible, by the end of the day you had to pound cups of the festival’s creamy, sugary coffee to stay awake.
When it was almost over, the Jaipur Literature Festival felt most like the end of a day at Disneyland when I was four. I was ready to collapse from exhaustion; if someone had picked me up and carried me home I probably would have fallen asleep immediately in their arms. Even so, I really didn’t want the day to end. In an exhausted haze, I lingered as long as I could.
After the final event, a debate over whether capitalism had lost its way ensued. “In the largest democracy, one in four people go hungry. In the oldest democracy, one in three is overweight,” said journalist Pranjoy Guha Thakurta, who was on the team arguing that capitalism has not lost its way. But he believed wealth ought to be redistributed. Suhel Sheth, also on the pro-capitalism side, said in his opening statement that “Capitalism has and will continue to lose his way,” but that it would continue to correct itself. Michael Sandel, Shoma Chaudhury and Sudeep Chakraarti, who were on the anti-Capitalism side of the debate, admitted that capitalism would continue to be a necessity, but believed that it was going out of bounds. “The areas of civic life, health, education, law do not belong to capitalism,” said Sandel. “We are not arguing here to get rid of capitalism but to keep it in its place, which is not an easy thing to do.” The debate itself was lively enough to keep my sleepy self at attention. The debaters spoke with zeal, and when they were out of time a turbaned drummer in the corner of the sage drowned out their voices with music. A bagpipe band played near the exit and a crowd gathered and dance. The bagpipe player smiled coyly when he was done and people shouted at him to keep going for two more minutes.