Literature fests have spread all over the subcontinent, like an epidemic
My home in Kolkata happens to be very near Kalighat. This is one of the holy shaktipeeths (centres of divine power) that are spread across the subcontinent where different body parts of Lord Shiva’s wife, Sati, fell. For Bengalis, the Shaktipeeths, especially those in Bengal and Assam, are of immense divine importance. At Kalighat, the reigning goddess is Kali. In my life, I can rarely remember an auspicious occasion where a trip to Kalighat was not undertaken. Kali, the dark mother, holds immense sway over her mortal children.
As I grew up, I have often roamed about in the by-lanes around the temple. The temple lies on the bank of the Adi Ganga, at one time the principal flow channel of the Ganga and now a near-dead, rotting creek. This area with river-bank, shops, inhabitants, ganja-sellers and smaller temples has pulled me towards it time and again. Some of the smaller temples right on the river bank belonged to goddesses whose names I did not know. In the pantheon of caste-Hindu Bengalis like me, there was an assumed mainstream where Kali and Durga had very important places. It was only by chance that I went to Kalighat once on a weekday afternoon on a chance school holiday due to rains. I was quite taken aback by the huge crowd, a few thousands strong, that had gathered around the temple. But to my astonishment, they were not there for the main temple of Kali but for a very small temple of goddess Bogola. The people gathered had a very intricate set of offerings that looked quite different from what I was used to seeing. And everyone there knew this occasion and at that moment, I was the fool in town, with my pantheon suddenly seeming irrelevant. Due to my very limited immersion in what we call in Bengali as gono-samaj (mass society can be a poor translation of the concept), a divine set had been built in my head that had entirely bypassed what was so near and what was always there. The blindness and illiteracy due to my social locus and ideologies that come with it was very badly exposed. Social alienation creates culturally illiterate beings.
Thankfully, the festivals of southern West Bengal (where my home is located) gave me many opportunities of unlearning and literacy. And they are not too hard to come by unless one is of the kind whose worlds are not defined by the physical-ecological-social reality they live in but the fantasy worlds they can afford to inhabit. I started attending the mela of Dharma Thakur, whose few sacred sites spread over the two Bengals, and have a distinct character in the kind of rice product that is offered (called hurrum) among other things. There is the 500-year old fish-fair held near the akhara of the seer Raghunath Das Goswami at Debanandapur in my ancestral district of Hooghly. The many Charaker melas that I have been to have been so enriching culturally that one wishes to be a sponge. The Gajaner mela in Tarakeswar, again in Hooghly district, goes on for five days and the cultural action is frenzied. The number of “parallel sessions” (if one were to call the things going on there) is probably more than a thousand and there are no websites to print out the schedule. And that does not matter.
The Ganga Sagar Mela is different every time. This mela, the second-largest in the Indian Union, is literally and allegorically an immersion experience. The experience is different in different times of the day, on different days of the mela and in different years. The festival around Salui Puja (worshipping the Sal tree) in Medinipur has tremendous footfall. Further west, in the adivasi areas, I once attended the Chhata Parab on Bhadra Sankranti day. In Malda, the week-long Ramkeli festival is a cultural cauldron that overflows during the summer month of Jaistha. The two big Ms associated with this fair is music of the Gaur-Vaishnavite tradition and mangoes that are harvested around this time. While stalls selling wares are an integral part of these festivals, each festival is different in its different parts and substantially different from each other. It is sad that I have to underline this point but I say this remembering my one-time know-all attitude towards these festivals before I had even attended them. What culture can a bunch of brown people produce left to their own devices? To know that, one has to have some humility in admitting cultural illiteracy and suspend ideas of supposed superiority of textual literacy.
White man knowledge systems and the artifacts they produce. This unlearning can be harsh, especially when whole self-identities are built around wallowing on these artifacts. But there are too many brown people making too many things for too many centuries to take imported ideas of superiority seriously. One can live without being exposed to this reality and that won't cause any peril. The urbanites of the subcontinent have created a wondrous system by which they can eat rice but not know the rice-type or the growing area, get a house built but not know where the masons live. But of course they know where Indian wines are grown and the life-events of authors they have read, and other details of the lives of sundry characters of their fantasy world. The mindscape of the “enlightened” can be more enlightening to the rest of us than they would want to it be.
The point of mentioning these festivals is not to create a mini catalogue but mention certain characteristics. Most of these festivals have a deep connection with the local ecology—cultural and natural. These are not American Burning Man type of fossil-fuel powered “creative” fantasies (I have always failed to understand what is “creative” about pursuits that require high fossil-fuel burning or require pollution-intensive, factory-made accessories). They don’t say “free entry”; that I mention that at all is absurd in their context. They don’t “say” anything at all. They happen. They are organic, as opposed to the “festivals” that are primarily thronged by the “fashionable”, the “articulate”, the “backpacker”, the “explorer” and other curious species of the top five per cent earning class of the subcontinent. Most of these festivals don’t have the kind of portable artifact quality that is so popular with the rootless, possibly best exemplified both by the Great India Mall and its location (the “sector city” called NOIDA created by destroying many villages like Chhajarsi and Hazipur, now known by more fashionable and presentable names like Sector 63 and Sector 104). Most of them are not part of the “Incredible India!” imagination and hence are largely devoid of white and brown people with cameras. Such a shabby state of affairs, however, has not prevented some of these festivals to go on for centuries, without sponsorship from ill-gotten-big-money supporters.
Big money-lit fests
It was sometime in high school that I started noticing newspaper headlines such as “Kolkata’s young heads to the clubs” (clubs being dancing places with rhythmic music). Many more young people regularly headed (and still do) to the East Bengal club or Mohan Bagan club grounds for football matches. But this was a different club. The idea was to create a fantasy and a false sense of feeling left out, of being in a minority, on not being “in”. For the already socially alienated, this pull can be magnetic – particularly because these come without pre-conditions of prior social immersion. If at all, certain kinds of fantasies and “enlightenments” celebrate de-linking from one’s immediate social milieu and replacing that with fantasy milieus, typically with White people’s hobbies. If the products of such indoctrination happen to arrive at the Muri Mela of Bankura, (a festival where hundreds of varieties of muri or puffed rice is produced, exhibited and sold), all they might see is more of the same. However, they do aspire to tell the difference between different red wines. Anything that requires being socially embedded in a largely non-textual cultural milieu (hence Wikipedia doesn’t come in handy), they are like fish out of water, gasping for the cultural familiarity of over-priced chain coffee stores.
It is the season of a new type of festival. Like an epidemic, big-money “lit” fests have spread all over the subcontinent. The sudden-ness of the epidemic reminds me of the time when suddenly, year after year, brown women started winning international beauty pageants. That “arrival” was meant to signify that browns are beautiful. The present trend probably is meant to convey that now there are enough number of moneyed browns spread all over who can nod knowingly hearing English. “Half of Jaipur is here at Google Mughal Tent” – read a tweet from one of the fests. This tone sounded familiar to that time when I read that youth of my city headed to the clubs, but saw that no one around me did. Maybe I just belonged to an odd social sector, or may be they never counted me. But I am quite privileged otherwise. I never ever saw a headline saying youth of India head to Ganga Sagar mela on Makar Sankranti. At any rate, it is a greater statistical truth than saying youth of such and such city head to such and such “lit” fest. This non-counting of many and over-counting of some is a predictable and sinister game that is played by the urbanbubbleophiles over and over again till it actually starts sounding true. The believers in such a world view fear real numbers - the “odd”, the stubborn, the smelly. They would much rather “weigh” according to their “subjectivities”. The sizeable “hip” throngs within their tents are never “masses”; they are assemblages of aficionados. They have individual minds. They can think. They are human. The rest are better kept out until some floor mopping is required.
When real estate dacoits, construction mafias and mining goondas come together for a “cause”, one can well imagine the effect. The well-lit fests provide a good opportunity for branding and white-washing crimes. Taking prizes from greasy hands, some authors are only too happy to oblige in that project. There they are, on the newspaper –smiling. They write “sensitively”, argue “provocatively”, and entertain “charmingly”. Ill-gotten prize money from the infrastructure mafia can supply powerful batteries for their headlights as they reach into the dark inner recesses of the human condition through their words. All this boils down to a few days of “litting”, “Think”ing, “festing” and other things that may get you in jail when done to people who have dignity and the courage to speak up.
The need to distinguish oneself from others can be rather acute in certain sectors of the subcontinental bubble urbania. What distinguishes one from the others whose “purposeful” lives are peppered by sampling cultures whose social roots they are alienated from, long drives, coffee-chain hangouts, mall meet-ups, multiplex evenings and money-powered “rebelliousness”. To see oneself purely as a consumer—a seeker of market-defined and mass-produced hatke (alternative for the discerning new Indian) “experiences” and “thrills”, can be bit of a self turn-off for the brand and ego conscious yuppie. In a society where they want to define taste, no quarters should be given to others to make them appear as vacuous and crude. Hence, there is the search for “meaningfulness” beyond the necessary evil of quotidian parasitism. This is best accomplished while practicing parasitism with a thin veneer of “meaningfulness”. Practising White people’s hobbies and engagements, with a bit of Indian elephant motif thrown in, fits the bill perfectly, at home and in the head. The well-lit fests of the rich with the “famous” for the aspirational and the arrived accomplishes multiple functions at the same time. It is apparently “meaningful” to be an onlooker at ill-gotten money sponsored talk-shows with only a few rows of seated brown sahibs and mems separating the top five per cent income audience from the gods discussing the intricacies of brown and paler experiences. This “refinement” is so much more substantive than double-refined mustard oil. And then there is the extra benefit of the Question and Answer session—that which gives a feeling of participation and contribution, even accomplishment and “production”. That should give enough warmth, inject enough meaning and experiential richness to last through a cosmopolitan, urban winter after the show is over. And if any heat was lacking, such festivals and the spotlight it brings on the “winners” and other such losers gives them an opportunity to impress those who hold such characters in awe and worship them. This gives these heroes a perfect pretext and opportunity to sample some fresh, young, fan “meat”. When infrastructure sleaze hosts “intellectual” posturing, the sleaze-fest is complete. And of course it has to be winter. That is the time when brown and white migratory birds from White lands come down to brown land. They are in much demand – hopping from one gawk-fest to another. They dare not hold it in summer, like the Ramkeli festival. Their armpits might just start smelling like those of the ones outside the gates.
The well-lit festivals have as much connection to ground realities as the owners of the palaces have with the local population. The court-like atmosphere, graced by tropic-charred whites turned native and tropic-born natives itching to be white, creates much gaiety and banter. Typically and predictably, the pre-eminent language of these well-lit courts is something that most localites would not identify with. That goes for most of the books and the preferred language of the authors. Collectively, it represents their fantasy world, as they claim to represent much. It is not as if the writers thronging these places are most sold or most read. The English-speaking spokesperson who has captive white and coconut (brown outside, white inside) ears becomes the chosen voice. He is the authentic insider and quite often a chronicler of the urban ennui and excitement of the parasites. The subcontinent has many authors who have sold more and been read more than all brown Englishwallahs taken together, but no infrastructure mafia wants to honour them by prizes. The loot of people’s money from the Commonwealth Games by a famous prize giving company is better utilised elsewhere. Why is it that the Chennai or Kolkata book fair, with more attendance of authors and readers than a desert jamboree can ever manage, will never be covered by corporate media with the same degree of detail, as an event of similar importance. One has to ask, what are these choices meant to convey, why now, for what, for whom, against whom. The benign smile of prize acceptance of some of these first-boys and the fellowship of enthusiastic clappers need to be seen for what they are and what they represent. Why this project of pumping air into the English cat so that it looks like a tiger, to assist it to punch above its weight? Who does it want to scare into submission? Who does it want to provide confidence? Cultures, especially those that come associated with upward mobility, hubris and power, seek to displace others. As Hartosh Singh Bal puts it, “English mediates our own social hierarchy.” The soft hearts of sensitive beneficiaries of cultural-economic hierarchies are too sensitive to probe their complicity in this project. Elsewhere, as Akshay Pathak has shown, the way some well-lit fests have tried to replicate their foreign idiom of “storytelling” through festivals in less lit places like Dantewada shows another aspect of the dark underbelly of the “articulate” beast. Such beasts hunt in packs, as shown by their excellent teamwork.
This odd idea of non-local, exploratory tourism cum weekend-thrill is a symptom of a deeper disease. This disease adds layer after layer between the earth and the birds who float atop that earth, with the organisers making sure that the undomesticated and the unrefined stench of the earth does not make its way into this stratospheric paradise. Such cosmopolitan inhabitants who belong nowhere produce nothing. Of course they know about the Sati “tradition” and their books and minds are filled with that. These are those who see no intrinsic value in any tradition but partake in its goodies, document it, sample it, sell it to visiting firangs, package it as if they were wares on sale but contribute very little to the richness of the human condition, on a long term basis. If this worldview and lifestyle becomes the dominant one, I shudder to think what kind of a cultural desert the flittering non-traditionalists will produce with their contempt of tradition and rootedness. Given their clout and power, that urban-industrial dream of an atomized society might become true, till every grain looks the same. Individual grains of sand around Jaipur have more heterogeneity and character than this.
Would the dominant idiom and language of these well-lit fests survive if Whites paid reparations for colonialism and slavery? Will any of these well lit-fests survive even for a year if the world magically becomes becomes crime-free? Something that owes its very survival to dirty money and claims to be a festival of “mind-opening” needs to be exposed. This is true for many other creative pursuits of these times and these classes- they don’t exist without the backing of money, cannot be produced by the poor (hence most human beings) and, if the world could be flattened so that everyone was at mean income, none of these creativities would even exist. These are pursuits for which inequity is a necessary pre-condition. But there is art beyond that, in persisting oral traditions, lores, gods, non-cosmopolitan ways of everyday creativity and knowledge and earth-inspired insurgents like Namdeo Dhasal and Gaddar but that is beyond the well-lit faces and enlightened minds of the perfumed ones. It must be painful for the enlightened ones to imagine that the world can actually go on without their collective knowledge being at the centre of it. But it does. It always has. And whether you like it or not, and whether you matter or not, it always will.
Such festivals and the spotlight it brings on the winners and other such losers gives them an opportunity to impress those who hold such characters in awe and worship them. This gives these heroes a perfect pretext and opportunity to sample some fresh, young, fan ‘meat’. When infrastructure sleaze hosts “intellectual” posturing, the sleaze-fest is complete.
Garga Chatterjee is a columnist and a cognitive scientist. Twitter: @gargac