Tata Literature Live! – Day 2

Right, time to rewind. This is from the second day of Tata Literature Live (November 1). Here’s the diary that was printed in DNA, and below are the Quotes and Notes of the day.


At the end of a session at Tata Literature Live!, someone asked novelists Chandrahas Choudhury and Jeet Thayil to name one book that had changed their lives. An audience member was overheard, murmuring, “No Indian writer ever changes an Indian writer’s lives,” and true enough, both Thayil and Choudhury’s picks were foreigners.

Considering the enthusiasm with which audiences and panellists have been participating in this festival, it’s worth wondering why the sons (and daughters) of the Indian soil who write books don’t ultimately count for us.

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra had one answer: we simply don’t remember our own creativity. Mehrotra presented a crash course in Indian poetry in which he read out his translations of Kabir’s poems from 15th century and sparkling little works by Prakrit poets from the 1st century. He expressed amazement that we’ve chosen to forget these poets, despite the beauty and modernity of their verse. “This kind of forgetfulness is unique to India,” Mehrotra said drily.

Thayil offered another explanation for our reticence when it comes to Indian literature. “We are the last colonials. We still need the white man to tell us what’s good in our culture,” he said, and spoke about how Indian critics first panned his novel Narcopolis and then praised it after American and British critics praised it.

One white man certainly felt some desi pressure and he was literary agent David Godwin. During his session, one audience member complained that Godwin had rejected his manuscript and another demanded to know what kind of advances the literary agent is able to secure for his clients. (“Anything between 3000 and a one million pounds,” was Godwin’s reply.) Those hoping to attract Godwin’s attention will be happy to know Godwin is committed to “haggling with publishers” for his authors and is not planning on writing any more books.


Quotes and Notes

From First Book Blues with Miriam Batliwala, Yasmeen Premji, David Godwin and Rajini Vaidyanathan

No idea how good a writer Miriam Batliwala is, but the woman is a livewire on stage. She’s infectious, talks nineteen to the dozen and even though she derails the conversation, you want her to just go on and on. You’d never guess Batliwala can’t see. There’s a confidence in her that you simply don’t expect to see in someone who has any kind of impediment, let alone something so serious. An absolute delight.

When Batliwala’s editor, a young man, read her book (Insight), he went on and on about how he couldn’t believe she had done all the things that she had done. “Well, you better believe it,” she told him after a point. “Now, carry on reading and finish the book.”

David Godwin:

“The book was like a magnet. It drew me to her.” (on The God of Small Things)

“I’m not a writer. I’ve written a book, but that’s not the same thing.”


From 2000 Years of Indian Poetry with Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and Gerson da Cunha

Mehrotra reading from his translation of Prakrit poetry. Date: 1st century. These are dramatic poems, about love and sexuality and most of them are spoken by women. Mehrotra’s amazement that we’ve chosen to forget these voices and not marvel at the wit and cleverness of this poetry.

“This kind of forgetfulness is unique to India.”

The poems are mostly tiny, fragmentary. But certain phrases and images — they stick.

“Hair like roughed feathers.”

“Having played the man, you know how we suffer.”

“The way he stared, I kept covering myself. Not that I wanted him to look anywhere else.”

It’s also how Mehrotra reads it — simply, crisply and with such a real, heartfelt intensity. As though the woman who is speaking in the poem is inside him, just past that beard, beaky nose and white hair.

The poem about the man who parts the fingers of his palm while the woman pouring the drinking water slows the stream to a trickle. What we do to lengthen that moment. It’s so beautiful, so subtle. Can’t help but remember Nargis and Raj Kapoor from the water scene in Jagte Raho (?).

AKM: “Each time I read them, I’m surprised they left nothing unsaid.”

“He groped me for the underwear that wasn’t there. I saw the boy fluster.” All of us in the auditorium burst in to laughter and you can hear the difference in tonality between men and women. The men sound embarrassed; the women, delighted.

AKM read the poem in which a mother consoles her daughter that the river and her friends will help her pass messages to her lover and that marriage isn’t the end of fun. He paints a picture of a society that’s like a sorority in many ways — elder women who help the younger ones to figure out affairs, commiserate with them about having to sleep with their husbands. It’s such a far cry from the cases of wives tortured by mothers in-law and daughters rejected by mothers. Sigh.


From 10 Ways A Novel Can Change Your Life with Jeet Thayil (JT), Chandrahas Choudhury (CC) and Rahul Bose (RB).

JT: “I think poetry has the same impact that prayer does.”

CC: Novels = “Deeper immersion in life.”

A novel is a sandwich. The story is the filling and the reader and author are the two pieces of bread.

JT: Novelists are boring. “Poets are the ones dancing on tables at 4am.”

“We are the last colonials. We still need the white man to tell us what’s good in our culture. Or bad.”

“People actually read the book (Narcopolis). That was really thrilling for me.”

CC’s aunt was scandalised that he wrote the “racy, graphic bits” of Arzee the Dwarf. She called up CC’s mum and asked, “How did Chandrahas know how to write all this? He isn’t married.”

When Rahul Bose was asked by a reporter about the masturbation scene in English, August, he said that the director (Dev Benegal) had slipped him a date rape drug and then made him do things and so he had no idea about how that masturbation scene came about.

Really, Dev. Date rape drug and Rahul Bose? Tsk tsk.

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