This post is a part of Youth Ki Awaaz’s coverage of ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival:
By Soumya Raj:
“The world has changed and progressed in so many ways, and yet there is still so much hurt and discrimination that women have to face, through the different phases of life,” says Namita Gokhale, writer, and co-founder and co-director of one of the largest literature festivals in the country today – ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival. In the 1980’s, a time when the feminist wave in India was still garnering force, Namita Gokhale was probably one of the first writers to understand and acknowledge this.
Her first book, “Paro: Dreams of Passion,” was published that year. Its truthfulness and sexual candour introduced the audience of the time to view women in a new light and created quite a scandal.
One wonders about the kind of reception it would get, if launched in 2015; in a time where feminist conversations are fast coming to the forefront. She is quick to address this query, “My debut novel, ‘Paro – Dreams of Passion’ has remained in print for the last thirty years now. It is fun to see that successive generations of readers continue to appreciate the humour and relate to the characters. Just as you cannot step into the same river twice, you cannot write the same novel again! So it’s fruitless to discuss how I might have written Paro today. ‘Priya: In Incredible Indyaa’ picked up some memorable characters from my earlier novel Paro and placed them in the present. It had a different voice, pace and preoccupation altogether.”
The women in her stories, far from being submissive and uncommon for the time, broke the endemic tradition of the “damsel in distress”. For instance, her first book has two female protagonists, Paro and Priya, discovering their own sexual liberty in between the spaces of work and domesticity. It addresses issues of voyeurism, multiple marriages, various sexual partners and is pretty explicit in its sexual content – matters considered taboo in the 80s, maybe even today. Her other books too, like “Shakuntala” or “A Himalayan Love Story” speak of erotically charged women whose desires are congested within the artificial constructs of the society, struggling to escape. Namita was clearly way ahead of her time with her understanding of the expression of her characters. She never minced her words, nor pruned her imagination. It is because of this very earthiness that her stories remain relatable even today. There is a lot more debate on women and their issues now, as the writer herself says, “Women are individually strong but socially vulnerable, and this is the conflict that fuels much current narrative.”
We come across several contemporary authors breaking these conventional moulds that have been holding us back as a society – the very same that trigger the precipitous narratives recognizing the rising need for better representation of our cultural heritage and women. Through their words, they are doing away with the regressing rituals that reduce the representation of women as merely being objectified, and often, just an aid to the hero of the story. While she doesn’t like to comment on other authors, she feels that “there are so many brilliant people from different generations breaking moulds and writing in new and startling voices, especially in the Indian languages.”
The ambience of the literature festival held each year in Jaipur, with its eclectic mix of speakers and guests, is conducive to liberal ideologies and avant-garde writing. The proud founder of the event herself mentions, “There is something in the air!”
JLF with the intellectual temperament of its milieu has made it hard for many aficionados of the written word to resist a unique opportunity such as this. Truly, the event is all-embracing and kaleidoscopic. “The magic of the lit-fest comes from a collective dreaming, from the energy of readers and writers, and thinkers, trying to break free of so many levels of complacency and prejudice to try and think for themselves.” gushes Namita.
The idea of the fest is for us, the readers and writers, to interact with our idols, our inspirations and the crème de la crème. Perhaps this is why aspiring writers flock to JLF for motivation, agrees Namita, adding, “One learns humility from the great practitioners of the craft, and the audiences get a sense of the detachment and discipline required to be a great writer.”
There have been countless fresh minds attending the festival year after year since 2006. What’s going to be the big draw this year then? “The Zee Jaipur Literature festival 2015 is proud and honoured to host Sir V S Naipaul and celebrate fifty years of the publication of ‘A House for Mr. Biswas’. And there are as ever many incredibly talented writers from across India, South Asia, and the world.”
Even though she has founded the JLF, this is not the first literary event she has attended or been associated with. She has been to numerous festivals, “all equally brilliant”, around South Asia. Namita, back from the Guwahati Literature Festival, praises it for being “a multi-vocal event with English, Asamiya, Khasi, and other languages of the North East finding voice along with Hindi, Urdu, and Bangla.” She believes that our multilingualism as a country “is what gives each festival its unique flavour.” Besides these, she mentions a few other events, too like “Mountain Echoes”, the Bhutan Literature Festival, “a uniquely inspiring and joyous annual event” and the Patna Literature Festival, “which is highly intelligent and full of political and social consciousness”, she tells us.
So what are her favourite moments from the festival over the years, one can’t help but ask. “Roberto Calasso on Indian Myth with Devdutt Pattnaik, Muneeza Shamsie on her father Faiz Ahmed Faiz, with Javed Akhtar and Ali Sethi and Shabana singing his nazms. The session called ‘Imagine’ with readings and enactments to speak for women’s rights after the horrific Nirbhaya tragedy. The Bulle Shah readings, with music…” It is impossible to list out all, she says, there have been so many.
JLF has housed all these wonderful, memorable moments within the glorious halls of Diggi Palace. The sun-kissed lawns, the high ceilings, walls and windows accentuated with colourful glasswork, and the grand arches with the surreal comfort of Rajasthani hospitality – have all cast their spell on the visitors, guests, speakers, and also Namita. Her favourite spot within the JLF venue? “The beautiful and serene Durbar Hall, where it all began…” Perhaps there is a story there, but maybe for another time.
The ZEE Jaipur Literature opens this Wednesday, the 21st of January and shall go on in the majestic Diggi House, Jaipur, till January 25. Workshops, readings, talks and more with some of the best literary minds shall be interspersed with musical performances in the day as well as the evening, featuring Rajasthani folk musicians, artistes like Tanuja Desai Hidier & Gaurav Vaz, Jeet Thayil (Still Dirty), Sonam Kalra, Midival Punditz and Vocal Raasta.