Contraband

The Festival of Compromise

Jaipur Literature Festival caves to the right, teaching writers to be craven

Siddhartha DebJanuary 25, 2017
Complete except for book reviews. / Wikimedia Commons

The Times of India’s owner considers book reviews to be free advertising. / Wikimedia Commons

If, in some counterfactual universe, the Maharajah of Jaipur had married the Queen of England and sent their progeny to study at Harvard, the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival, which ran over the weekend, is exactly the sort of cultural jamboree you’d expect the multicultural royal wastrels to come up with. A claim, on its website, to be the “greatest literary show on earth” a thin sprinkling of interesting speakers and, going by the program notes, a four-day desert festival of clichés: “The Foreign Correspondents Club,” “The Tartan Turban,” “Ideate.”

Take a closer look, however, at Zee, the sponsors of the festival, and you might get a sense of what passes for literary and intellectual culture in India these days, where writing dresses up in finery for corporations and corporations wink at the demagogues in control. One of India’s largest entertainment companies, Zee is best known for a news channel that serves as the media bludgeon of the Hindu right, its favorite term of abuse, usually flashing in extremely large font, being “Deshdrohi,” or “Nation-hater.”

A wide array of organizations comprise the Hindu right, including the ruling political outfit, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the cultish paramilitary organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and various offshoots abroad, especially in the United States, but their legacy is rather limited when it comes to an engagement with literature. Instead, any account of the trajectory of the Hindu right—from its inception in the 1920s to its rise as a major political force in the last three decades—would have to include its admiration for Mussolini and Hitler, its assassination of Gandhi, its role in endless sectarian massacres, its strong addiction to conspiracy theories, and its nurturing to power of leaders such as current prime minister Narendra Modi, widely suspected of encouraging the massacre of Muslims as chief minister of the state of Gujarat and of quashing, in its aftermath, any efforts at justice. This is no doubt the reason why Donald Trump declared himself on the campaign trail to be “a big fan of Hindu [sic].”

Since the BJP, led by Modi, was elected in 2014, the Hindu right has turned government agencies and freelance mobs on anyone who might be critical of its violently sectarian idea of India. This includes legal intimidation of writers and environmental activists, the bullying and scapegoating of scholars, students, and artists, routine assaults on minorities and oppressed castes, the vilification of women, and the creation of such a culture of intimidation that a disabled man can be beaten up for not standing up to the national anthem at a movie theatre. In all this, Zee has been a tireless cheerleader of violence on its news channel, encouraging the mob on against the Deshdrohis. Why should it be surprising, then, that a literary festival sponsored by Zee is inaugurated by the BJP chief minister of Rajasthan (the state where Jaipur is located), and features speakers from the RSS?

 India’s largest English newspaper sponsors its own literary festival but did away with book reviews, because its owner perceived them to be free advertising.

The organizers of the Jaipur festival have their usual defense against such criticism. The favored word is diversity, although in the Orwellian way of corporate communications, diversity seems to mean exactly its opposite. In 2016, when the festival hosted an event in London (it has also begun organizing festivals in Colorado), its chosen sponsor was Vedanta, a mining corporation accused of destroying indigenous lands and communities in India, Zambia, South Africa, and Australia. When there was a call for a boycott of the London event (I was a signatory) and protests at the festival itself, its organizers and supporters defended it on the grounds that such criticism and protests were tantamount to censorship. “I have not understood why it’s Vedanta in particular and not ever [sic] big mining company, every big builder, every giant ruthless corporation whose sponsorship should not be considered suspect. What about the dictator [sic] or extremist money that funds so much of academia now?” said a television journalist supporting the event and its sponsor.

“Freedom for the exploiters! Freedom for the warmongers!” one might chant, quoting Brecht. “Freedom for the Ruhr cartels! Freedom for Hitler’s generals!” Still, such twisted reasoning is not surprising. The corporatization of everything in India over the past few decades has, on the surface, opened up opportunities for India’s westernized cultural elites. As publishing houses have proliferated, driven by western conglomerates seeking new markets, and festivals have attracted literary agents and commissioning editors to Jaipur, ambitions have expanded.

This is happening at the same time as the supporting structures for critical writing and thinking are being systematically dismantled, the space filled up with the demagoguery of Zee and its like. Criticism, or discussions of literary form, ideas, and politics barely exist in the mainstream media, where writers appear only as celebrities. The Times of India, India’s largest English newspaper, sponsors its own literary festival but did away with book reviews, because its owner perceived them to be free advertising.

For writers to be co-opted by the Zees and Vedantas of the world is to allow themselves to admit that we live in a dystopia from which there is no exit.

In such a setting, literary ambitions expand not in terms of aesthetics, ideas, or engagement with the world, but along the lines of a networked career. The lesson being reinforced in the writer by such tainted festivals, a lesson antithetical to the very soul of writing, is to compromise. Don’t stick out; don’t make enemies among the powerful; don’t dissent; don’t run with the outliers, the eccentrics, the contrarians. Learn to get along with the captains of industry, with the thugs of the far right, and focus on building your brand. If they ask you to bend, be willing to crawl. Do not, by any means, make the same career move as Rabindranath Tagore, the poet who, almost a century ago, returned his knighthood in protest against the British massacre of civilians at Jalianwallah Bagh.

Against this craven culture of looking away and of deal making, it is worth asserting the need to resist, to defy, and to question. For writers to be co-opted by the Zees and Vedantas of the world is to allow themselves to be possessed, to admit that we live in a dystopia from which there is no exit. To find a way out of our present situation, in India or elsewhere, we must call to account all those who visit devastation upon the world on their working days and choose to sponsor literary festivals on their weekends.

Siddhartha Deb is the author of two novels and The Beautiful and the Damned, a book of narrative nonfiction that was a finalist for the Orwell Prize for political writing in the UK, and the winner of the PEN Open award in the United States. The book was published in India without its first chapter because of a lawsuit. His journalism, essays, and reviews have appeared in the Guardian, the New York TimesThe Nationn+1, and Caravan magazine. He teaches creative writing at the New School.