Among the roving and appreciative crowds at the second day of the DSC Jaipur Literary festival, the word ‘cerebral’ has been floating about a lot.
The consensus seems to be that the organizers have this year abandoned appeals to populism, in the form of mega-famous guests like Oprah Winfrey, Candace Bushnell and Salman Rushdie, in favour of a cast of a more intellectual ilk.
While the rumour that Pakistani author Mohammed Hanif’s no-show was because he had been denied a visa was swiftly quashed by the festival directors, after last year’s Rushdie debacle, the debate about who should be allowed to speak and where, still provides an undercurrent to many of the discussions, on and off stage.
In a session titled, ‘The Writer and the State,’ the Argentine-Chilean author and human activist Ariel Dorfman, who was forced to leave Chile after the military coup in 1973, spoke about the life of a writer in exile: “Exile is a very good place to write,” Dorfman said, “but you have to write from the complication and not lie about it.”
Sudeep Chakravarti spoke about sedition laws imposed by the Indian state, and his feeling of alienation, even while writing in a place where he belongs. “Businesses have become extensions of the state,” said Chakravarti, also a Mint columnist. “For acquiring land in Orissa, people were shot dead by the state police. We are living in dangerous times.”
Against this rather solemn background, three writers from very different cultures were eliciting uproarious laughter, and taking it in turns to deride their respective homelands. Deborah Moggach, the screenwriter best known to the audience as the author of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, her novel about “outsourcing Britain’s old people to India” that was made into a hit film last year, spoke about the English and their inordinate sense of embarrassment. The fount of British comedy, she said, is that “English people make jokes because we are incredibly embarrassed and sexually repressed, so we just make jokes about it.”
Not to be outdone by Moggach’s self-deprecation, Gary Shteyngart’s speech about being a Russian-American Jew writing for a culture in which “no one reads” was sprinkled with one-liners that would have made Woody Allen proud. Shteyngart described his novel Super Sad True Love Story, which won the 2011 Wodehouse prize for comic fiction, saying it was: “set in the future, where a completely illiterate USA is about to fall apart… so, next Tuesday.”
“Writing in America is very exciting because nobody reads books, so you can write pretty much whatever you want,” he continued. “In Russia, everybody takes offence. My last review was headlined ‘Balding Traitor Betrays Motherland’ -- and that was the positive review.”
Manu Joseph, the Indian author and journalist, piled in at this point. “I’m from a country that is desperate to be offended,” Joseph said. “NRI (non-resident Indian) nuts, the guys who grew up in Madras cracking those exams and then went to the US and get offended about almost anything that you say about India. Why don’t you come here and be patriotic, which is very difficult?”
Emerging from the hilarity, there was a serious point to be made, and Moggach summed it up articulately: “People bracket comic novels in a genre which they shouldn’t,” she said. “There is a distinction between seriousness and solemnity. They think that if you are solemn, you are writing profound stuff. But if you are serious you can be extremely funny.”
Joseph, whose latest novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People, laces the story of a tragedy in a highly dysfunctional south Indian family with plenty of wry humour, agreed: “What is called comedy works because there is an element of truth in it. It’s about accuracy. There’s a distinction between something that is just flippant or frivolous. There is something sad about most comic novels.”
In the panel on the writer and the state, Dorfman and his fellow panelists had struggled with the so-called “Orwell proposition: if you’re going to be an honest political writer, you have to be most critical of your own side.”
The panelists in the comedy session had a fuller answer to that. “My books are fairly political,” said Shteyngart. “In my book there’s only one party -- the bi-partisan party. I’m very angry about American politics and Russian politics and I don’t know much about Indian politics, but I’m sure I’ll be angry about them too once I do.”
In each of the panelists’ books, the comedy works to highlight a sad political or social truth, whether the impossibility of a 12-year-old boy breaking out of the gloomy mould of the Indian academic system, the sad reality of getting old in a country that offers little solace to its senior citizens, or the stultification of the American political system. And the comedy works powerfully.
As Moggach said, “I think that there is no situation where there is not humour, because life is just so ironic and strange and weird. My mother had dementia for two years and it was extremely harrowing but it was also very funny. It wasn’t just relentlessly tragic and I think that if we write relentlessly tragically people don’t get the humanity.”
Not that comic writers have the easier job. Shteyngart bemoaned the difficulty of writing good jokes: “It’s so hard! I don’t even write these books anymore -- I just out-source them to India,” he quipped, “but when I used to write them myself it was so hard.”