& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Jaipur Literature festival - Toronto

The Jaipur Literature Festival came to Toronto with a day-long program at the Young Centre in the Distillery District. Of a dozen or so panel discussions and chats, I participated in three and missed one.

Meenakshi Alimchandani interviewed MG Vassanji on his novel A Delhi Obsession (2019). His ninth novel is an exploration of history, memory, and identity, the broad themes that are integral to everything that he has written.

Vassanji has a rare skill to mask his piercing observations on contemporary society with a wry sense of humour. In his new novel (which I haven’t yet read) he returns to India and to Delhi. His part memoir, part travelogue, part ruminations on identity, religion and culture, A Place Within: Rediscovering India, won the Governor General’s Prize for non-fiction (2009).

He is both an insider and an outsider in India. A product of the syncretic culture, where identities are not rigidly defined, he is forever abhorrent of the Indian obsession to compartmentalise everyone into religious and caste categories.

He describes his unease with identity thus: “I find the labels ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ discomforting because they are so exclusive. They have not defined people for me in Africa (where we were simply called ‘Wahindi’ Indians), in the United States (where I lived for some years), or in Canada. I refuse to use them this way, perhaps naively and definitely against a tide; but I am not alone. I use the distinction ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ only in the context, and especially when it has been used by people for themselves or others, as in the Gujarat violence.

Despite being a two-time winner of the Giller and several prestigious awards, Vassanji is an undervalued and underappreciated Canadian master. The Jaipur Literary Festival organisers did the right thing by having Vassanji talk about his book; they could not have thought of a better way to kick-off the Toronto edition of the festival.

John Ralston Saul is another underappreciated genius. Among the most vocal votaries of the rights of the indigenous people of Canada, Saul’s latest book Comeback argues that Canada would be a better place if it acknowledges and respects the rights of the local people.

In a freewheeling conversation with Daniel Lak (Al Jazeera), Saul spoke about the revival of the indigenous civilisation and culture and how it will be beneficial to Canada’s future, if only Canadians don’t interfere with the natural growth trajectory of the indigenous people.

I’ve read Saul’s A Fair Country (2008), in which he argues that Canada is a M├ętis nation (as opposed to a ‘western’ nation) that has been shaped by aboriginal ideas of egalitarianism and nonviolence.

The book successfully explains the absence in Canada of the dilemmas of identity, the existence of the ‘other’ in a society of multiple minorities that dominate other western societies.

Finally, William Dalrymple, Suketu Mehta, Pico Iyer and Andre Aciman read passages from their travelogues. Mehta read about the onset of the wonderous Bombay monsoon (from Maximum City, 2005); Dalrymple read a passage From the Holy Mountain (1997), that deals with the affairs of the Eastern Christians; Aciman read about the permanent nature of exile, where an exile continues to search for home and is never able to find one; and Iyer read a passage from his book about the Dalai Lama’s visit to Japan.

I was keen to listen Farzana Doctor speak to Shree Paradkar in Dictionaries of Desire, but it was too late in the evening and I’m now too old to spend an entire day out, even it is for contemporary literature.

Recently, I also went to the Munk Centre to listen Ramchandra Guha speak about the four faultlines of the Indian Republic. Guha is a secular scholar who has written on a number of Indian subjects including the environment, cricket, Indian history and, of course, Mahatma Gandhi.

According to Guha, the four faultlines are:
  • Deepening religious division
  • Persisting social inequality – caste, gender, tribal
  • Environmental degradation
  • Degradation of our public institutions

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