I attended the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival this past weekend–a bit of a warm-up to Jaipur. I have to say it wasn’t quite like any literature festival I’ve ever attended, well maybe the closest thing to it was the Aspen Literature Festival that I attended a few years ago. When I went, the theme was South Asia and my aunt hooked up Premasoul, a band Robin plays with, to provide the music. I got to meet Salman Rushdie and heard some drunk older ladies talking about whether Rushdie was sexy or not. This year the theme is the Middle East. Similar to Aspen, the Apeejay Festival appears to be organized and run by a coterie of rich ladies that brought a surprising element of glam to book events–Apeejay is one of those mega-families that runs a billion industries and runs the fancy Park Hotel. Of course, my idea of a literature festival comes from Litquake, which is exciting and fancy in it’s own San Francisco way, but that mostly means standing room in crowded bars. And my last experience in Kolkata, as I recently detailed, was a reading in a small room with a tea break and a gift of Bengali sweets—already a great step up from readings in SF. So, imagine my surprise when I went to see Shailja Patel—a San Francisco writing community friend and contributor to Indivisible with an amazing new book called Migritude—kick off the festival on a panel on migration at the shiny Rabindranath Tagore Center. Then later that evening, an event on Pakistani writing at The Park featured a Sufi singer—as well as an amazing (free!) dinner buffet with extensive dessert and free drinks. Robin showed up in a sweatshirt and jeans and we seemed totally under-dressed around the older ladies in their fancy saris and jewels. I think the average age for the event was around 55! How fascinating. The crowd seemed decidedly younger for a panel on the City as Muse on Saturday night—and it was a full house for a panel on Indian film back at the ICCR on Sunday. I thought I’d share some choice quotes and ideas from the panels I attended.

Migrations, Connections and Identities: Performance, political history, and migrant journeys

Professor Saugatha Bose, director of the South Asia Institute at Harvard University and the author—most recently—of A Hundred Horizons: the Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire (Harvard University Press: 2006), traced Tagore’s “global oceanic voyage” during World War I through Southeast Asia then to Japan and then onto the West Coast of North America, then again in 1927 when he traveled to Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, and then finally to the Middle East, where he connected with the writing of Hafiz and shared a meal in a Bedouin tent in Iraq. Bose pointed out some of Tagore’s famous works that came from this period, including a poem and a song. This very-distinguished historian gave a soul-stirring rendition of one of Tagore’s songs in the middle of his presentation. I wonder if he always does this or if it was a special moment for Kolkata? Totally charming.

• “There is an openly fascist climate against immigrants in Italy. The textile trade of Florence is entirely supplied by labor from China, yet these people are completely invisible in Italian culture—nobody has any mental image of Chinese people in Italy, or North Africans in Italy, yet they are there. The ways in which these people are made invisible but their labor is presented as the best of Italy—Italy design. The parallel lines of this visibility and invisibility is really the nexus of where my work comes from. {Our jobs as artists and poets] is to show the underside of the tapestry.” — Shailja Patel on her own poetic connectivity of migrant communities.

An Evening in Karachi: Pakistani Writers in Conversation

• This was definitely the most inspiring and informative session for me as a fiction writer—I really enjoyed both Shehryar Fazli’s work and Nighat Gandhi’s as well. Fahzli’s book Invitation is described on the back as “Karachi Noir” and I’ve been interested in South Asian noir for quite some time now. The passages he read were tinged with an edge of danger and forbidding and I am especially interested in journey towards complicity that the main character, a Pakistani returnee from Paris in the tumultuous 1970s, will go through. Gandhi’s short stories cut right to the bone of personal relations, and, again, I’m really excited to read the stories in the collection Ghalib at Dusk, which span across three cities: Karachi, Allahabad and Ahmedabad.

• Gandhi, who is a trained psychologist, is also writing a non-fiction book about love and sexuality in the lives of Muslim women, which sounds fantastic. Westland publisher Renuka Chatterjee insisted on setting up the questions in a way that hailed Fazli’s work as political and Gandhi’s work as a-political. But Gandhi gave a great answer.

Chatterjee: I know that you’ve said you steer clear of overtly political writing, but there is politics of gender here, politics of class – can you talk a little about your concerns as a writer?

Gandhi: I think my primary concern as a writer is to be a good writer, and to write from the heart, and if in the process of that writing, something transformative happens, then it happens. Very often, it happens for me, if it happens for the reader, then I consider myself fortunate…. To be pigeonholed into one identity, really does the disservice to the writer. I consider myself a feminist writer, I am a muslim, I am a Buddhist, I am a woman, I am a mother—all of these aspects do come into my writing. Whether any writing is political or not, maybe overtly the story [I read from], is not, but we are talking about migration, displacement, being a refugee, are those not political statements. And we are talking about love, which infuses all those identites and dislocations that we are being faced with.

• Later, Gandhi also spoke about how in her experience Pakistan is a rich, complex place that can’t be described just in terms of fundamentalism:

“No matter how many shrines the Taliban bomb, the plurality of Pakistan is not going to die. It’s about time we looked at the wonderful traditions that are alive [in Pakistan]. As a writer, I’m doing that. I’m not concerned with what the fundamentalists are doing. I’m wondering why the media is concerned with only what they are saying and not looking into these wonderful living traditions. Why is it that we only talk about beards and veiled women when it comes to Islam. It is also up to us, what we chose to focus on.” – Nighat Gandhi

City As Muse

There was a crowded panel discussing the role of the city in literature and arts, with some exciting people on it.

Manishankar Mukherjee, one of Kolkata’s most beloved writers, opened the panel with a charming grab-bag of literary tidbits about the city, saying: “We still call Calcutta the literary capitol of India. I don’t know why but we do…. Kolkata pampers the poet. Who does not know that every 2nd Bengali living in this city is a poet? That is statistically based.”

Zak O’yeah, a scandanavian mystery and travel writer, pointed out that there needs to be more literary tourism in India–and I couldn’t agree more. I mean, there’s so much to see besides the Tagore stuff — it would make an interesting book. (Hmmmm…)

Nandita Palchoudhuri asked: “What makes an artist chose a specific city? Is it familiarity or something else?” This was a pointed question for me at this moment since Kolkata has been figuring as a major muse to both Robin and I.

• Moderator Bachi Karkaria talked about Rajarhat or NewTown — a futuristic new Northern section/suburb of Kolkata — becoming the center of the city in a few years, which most people would consider horrifying. This made me wonder when arts will start coming out of that space, the suburban, futuristic space, like it has in America, especially with novels like The Ice Storm and movies like American Beauty.

Our Films … Their Films: Indian cinema then and now

• Over all this discussion was kindof a downer. The main thrust of the discussion was that the Golden Age of cinema in India is gone and now it is all based on raising money and marketing.

• Director Suman Mukhopadhyay said: “Today what is called “independent cinema” is not actually independent, it is part of a huge market… Altogether the money and the market and the media is dictating what kind of film you’re going to make. And if you are not following the “rules” as a filmmaker, then you are marginalized, and that marginalization means there is no system to get people to see your films.” But as Mukhopadhyay was talking, all I could think about was my friend Q and how his latest film GANDU has created something of a revolution in Indian media and internationally, and he and his team refuse to follow any of the rules and are using new technologies to their limits. He should have been on this panel.

Nasreen Munni Kabir said some great things about the way Bollywood films are received internationally, and how the perceived popularity abroad isn’t quite what everyone thinks it is:

“What intrigues [Western audiences] the most is the popularity of the stars and and the massive audience for Hindi films. It is the audience that interests them, more than the films. It is the number of people who love the movie stars, rather than sitting through a Sharuk Khan film or a Salman Khan film. It is the repuation … once I said to a friend of mine that Indian films have a wider audience now and he said, do you mean a “whiter” audience. I think that is the key question, in Africa, in the Middle East and much of the developing world, Indian films have been loved since the 50s, but I am very embarrassed to say that most Indian producers and Indian journalists never to any stories about Tunisian fans but they will do something about Polish fans.” – Kabir

Samit Basu was the most charming and up-beat person on the panel and the one I was most excited to see, especially since this was a Literature festival. Basu is the author of several books, along with a comic book writer, and now a script writer. I just finished his first book The Simoquin Prophecies (which was totally amazing, especially to read a sci fi/fantasy book where the characters aren’t only white and/or western–but I’ll do a longer review later) and he kind of represented the new ideas and the future of film making.

“A few months after my first book was published Chetan Bhagat published his first novel, which was the equivalent of the first big Bollywood blockbuster of Indians writing in English. In England it is said that each person believes he or she has a book within himself or herself, this was not the case in India at all, but now we’ve come to a situation in the world of publishing, where people don’t feel like they need to be educated in literature, A, which I wasn’t either, but they don’t feel like they need to be readers either or even have a working knowledge of English to write a book. We’ve reached the point where anyone can write a book … Making films is far more complicated. But in the future the technology will help you get it out there …. Your friends will fund the project, the camera will do most of the work and the internet will distribute it for you.” – Samit Basu

Now to quote the great poet Jay-Z: “I’m on to the next one, on to the next …”