Source : The Pioneer – KK SRIVASTAVA
Many literary festivals wane, become dull and then pale into insignificance mainly because of lack of transparency and dominating vested interests. But lovers of literature hope every such festival held in Gorakhpur will act as a stepping stone for the next. Gorakhpur Literary Festival should in due course reach out to pacifying effect of literature and should aim at achieving what Seamus Heaney wrote, “You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your own.”
The market has changed; these days there were more writers than readers. Everyone was speaking at once while no one heard as in an asylum. The only books people read were diet books, cookery books or exercise books. People didn’t want to improve the world, they only wanted better bodies.
— Hanif Kureishi in his novel THE LAST WORD
Rita Srivastava lives in Gorakhpur. She is a teacher, TV. personality and an accomplished announcer. During 1976-78, I was her classmate in graduation in DAV Degree College Gorakhpur. Sometime back, I got a message from her requesting me to attend Gorakhpur Literary Festival in October 2018. That was how I came to know about this literary event though unfortunately I could not attend it. In this article I aim at stipulating a general framework for literary festival like Gorakhpur’s which is in its nascence. Different people form different notions about places they are not well acquainted with. People know Gorakhpur because they have chosen to learn of its fame or absence of it based on what they have read or heard about the place. Unfortunately in the absence of effective defence against such notions, people believe that the image of Gorakhpur despite a few noteworthy literary and other artistic accomplishments, more or less, has not improved much. VS Naipaul, whose mother hailed from some village in Gorakhpur leaving it in late 19th century to settle as indentured laborers in Trinidad before good fortunes started dawning upon Naipaul, had no demur, after visiting Gorakhpur around early sixties of last century, in describing it as a “half-made” and “unorganised society”. In that “unorganised society”, literature boomed; thoughts got propelled out of writers and we have had literary giants like Munshi Prem Chand and Firaq Gorakhpuri — one writing novels in Hindi; the other poetry in Urdu. English continues to be an anathema. Two things have emerged out. First after these two legendry writers, there is not the third, not only from Gorakhpur but also from entire eastern Uttar Pradesh, who can claim a status akin to either of them. Not that, there are no literary activities. There are writers but their writings are confined to closed literary groups or a few selected local newspapers. Second, I am not aware of any literary piece worth its salt in English from Gorakhpur. Some very enthusiastic readers may accuse me of feigning ignorance. I will like to be enlightened about a few. Self-critique is the best form of defence. It is the best disinfectant. The doubting Thomases can spare sometime to scan the literary scene in Kerala and Odisha to see for themselves how vibrant these places are when it comes to matured literary activities and literary personalities.
Amitav Ghosh is a highly rated writer though I am more comfortable with the books by writers like Raj Kamal Jha, Pico Iyer and Amitava Kumar. But Amitav Ghosh stands head and shoulders above his peers in as much as he shuns literary festivals, never raring to showcase his face before a crowd a majority of which hardly understand what literary books are all about. His articulated views are well expressed in his essay Festivals and Freedom. The essence of this essay is: Books are important; not their authors. “Public spectacles are a sideshow”. Great. The relationship between writers, their books and readers gets evolved not in such places of public rendezvous but in private, in isolation where only the book and the reader exist. The message being conveyed here is simple. Faces and personalities vie with each other to decorate the dais in literary festivals. This restricts the scope of such festivals. Should a ravishingly beautiful young actress or a model inaugurate or address a literary festival unless she herself is a literary tour de force? The lines cited in the beginning from Hanif Kureishi’s novel confirm the mishmash between what present day readers prefer to read and what ought to be happening in any literary gatherings. Tastes of readers defy logic behind literary festivals. People oftentimes don’t understand that not all books penned: fiction, non-fiction, poetry or any genre get classified in the category of literary books. The organisers of such literary events ought to be as careful with selection of writers as selection of books or themes. Ensuring a judicious mixture of really known writers and really known books, with a few from aspiring writers factored in between, is the sine quo non for those responsible to host such events. Unfortunately many literary festivals are driven by presence of “vested interests” and “coteries” and only some really serve the objectives of literature and literary events.
Likewise, for many writers not so established, social media sources have become potent instruments for the display of grandeur of achievements and these writers unfortunately fall a victim to walking on the air syndrome, unmindful of the fact that these portrayals imparting joyously rapturous feelings leave momentary visual impact on viewers. Unfortunately they carry the impression that attending such functions tantamount to zenith of their literary pursuits. One is really amazed when confronted with 30 years old writers with twenty books of poetry (mostly self-published or published through non-descript publishers) to their credit. One can easily guess what these books would be like and what damage may ensue if the ilk of such writers decides the destiny of literary gatherings.
Late twentieth century was and twenty first century is going to be the age of clash of ideologies. World over many ideological battles are being fought on various fronts. Modern literature is privy to onslaught ideological differences bestowed upon human mind. Freedom of expression by thinking minds continues to be a subject of heated discussion. Literary festivals are occasions when concepts like freedom of expression with logical limitations, issues of identity, fragmentation of personality, increasing sense of isolation as culled out from literary sources, can be ruminated over.
Literary festivals too are solemn calling providing writers and artists an outer world so vital to their inner creative works. A new door gets opened or a new path is entered upon. The memories, thoughts, experiences, feelings, criticisms shared on these platforms may make some, to use Ted Hughes phrase, “luminous at the core of their mind”. Buzzing with debates and discussions, realisation of self-worth may emanate from genuine interactions here. More questions ought to be raised than answered. More doubts should get scattered to be pondered over in times to come. No piece of writing is the end of literature and therefore what is the best stays buried in unknown arenas of human unconsciousness. No brave claims should be made to improve or modify the society, for writers are least equipped to perform this assignment. They must not assign this assignment to themselves.
The objective of thinking about larger issues society is encountering should not be lost in the humdrum sound and fury of big names and big books. Oftentimes, the untidy, the weird, the oddball forms of art and literature have to be accommodated in order to give a proper and bigger representation to literary skills. To what extent differing points of view can be resolved into a coherent order of art is something these gatherings should strive for. Moments of insight should figure during discourses. Literature gives society a vantage point; it paves the way for seeing new or afresh. A sound literary festival should be able to accommodate the unruly, the unmanageable and the discordant. It must allow at least serious participants to rein in what American poet and critic Robert Pinsky calls, “inward motion of another mind”.
In absence of adequate number of men and women of letters and literary material, many literary festivals the very next day or even in the post-lunch session of the first day, succumb to less important activities like reciting of local singers locally manufactured songs or turn out to be venues for local mushairas or still worse panel discussions on themes which have nothing to do with any form of art. Chattering classes are left with no choices. The sheen is lost. Exploring the unadorned past and contemporary literature making a foray into themes like backwardness, casteism, gender discrimination and insensitiveness, regional disparities, terrorism, sexual harassment, incurable diseases, etc, will make pungent material for deliberations and thus consume significant time of events. For this organisers’ penetrating gaze should be able to sift the grain from the chaff. Making general plebeians aware of these issues should serve the objectives of a literary festival. Forging connections between writers and masses is essential for any literary festival to succeed.
Taking a clue from Kureishi’s lines, I feel tempted to recall a small anecdote before conclusion. I told one of my university mate long associated with academia in Gorakhpur about VS Naipaul’s ancestors coming from Gorakhpur. Came out a benign question, “Who is Naipaul?” I tried to quench his thirst. A more benign remark ensued and ended the conversation, “Uske jaise bahut hain yehan.” (Many like him are here.) The problem lies not with his question but his astute observation made later. When ignorance and arrogance blend, they make excellent bedfellows. Major apprehension emanates from such blending. It poses great threat to any creative ventures.
Of late, it is learnt that Gorakhpur is witnessing much desirable progress on many fronts. This should sustain literary activities. The organisers of Gorakhpur Literary Festival deserve kudos and appreciation for their seminal efforts to organise it. Coming from that place, I can guess how difficult organising it can be. All those in responsible positions should support, by all means, Gorakhpur Literary Festival. The organisers should not be overawed by “big literary festivals” in India and elsewhere nor should they mimic any of these. Any efforts at these would be narcissistically wallowing in an exercise in futility. To begin with Gorakhpur Literary Festival organisers should open its website stating clearly what its vision and mission statements are. The charter should be clearly laid out along with a brief description as to how the organisers are going to achieve the objectives and raise funds. Most importantly the website should provide facility for public to give their feedback on issues connected with activities of the festival. Transparency must not be surrendered nor any group or coterie must hog its activities. Many literary festivals wane, become dull and then pale into insignificance mainly because of lack of transparency and dominating vested interests. Notwithstanding, lovers of literature hope every such festival held in Gorakhpur will act as a stepping stone for next one: well crafted, gleaming, both lighthearted and intensely serious and enthralling. Gorakhpur Literary Festival should in due course reach out to pacifying effect of literature and should aim at achieving what Seamus Heaney wrote, “You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your own.” A great objective would be served if this literary festival succeeds, even in a very limited way, in seducing both the participating writers and audience to engage with society’s interior melee and sharpen the focus towards mitigating the melee.
(The writer was born in Gorakhpur in 1960. He did his Masters in Economics from Gorakhpur University in 1980 and joined Indian Audit & Accounts Service in 1983. Currently he is Director General in the Office of Comptroller & Auditor General of India. He is a poet writing in English with three poetry collections. His third book Shadows of the Real has been translated into Hindi and Russian. He is literary reviewer and columnist for the newspapers The Pioneer and The Daily Star. His fourth book, a semi-autobiographical: literary non-fiction, will be released next month. The views expressed in this article are his personal).