Voices from Chaos
This year's Singapore Writers Festival brings in different voices from the Indian Subcontinent
Between the opening (23 October) and closing (November 1) of the festival, scores of writers from across the world held forth on literature and writing. The star of the festival was clearly the fantasy writer Neil Gaiman who attracted long queues for autographs. His session was held exclusively in Victoria Theatre and all the tickets were pre-booked.
The theme of this year's festival was 'Undercovers'. Of course, this theme lends itself to myriad semantic possibilities. But personally speaking, 'Chaos' would have been a better choice. Indeed 'Chaos' was one of the themes of a discussion that included writers from the sub-continent, namely, novelists Mohammad Hanif (A Case of Exploding Mangoes), Elmo Jayawardena (Sam's Story), Shashi Warrier (Hangman's Journal) and Ahmede Hussain (Editor, The New Anthem). The discussion was moderated by the Hong Kong-based Manreet Sodhi Someshwar, the articulate and charismatic author of The Long Walk Home.
Except for Captain Elmo, all these writers were new to me. I had exchanged emails with Ahmede before but that was like two years ago. I had met Hanif several years ago when he was with the BBC's London office. I tried to remind him of our meeting that he vaguely seemed to remember. Or was he being polite? I don't know. Anyway, I did not want to press on it, as it was a brief professional encounter. I was glad I could meet him again, that too in a new avatar, I told him.
Looking at the titles on display, one of the themes that strongly emerges is that of political power, violence and tyranny. While Elmo's Sam's Story (republished in India by Penguin) deals with the futility of ethnic conflict and war, Hanif's A Case of Exploding Mangoes deals with the life of a dictator and state repression. Manreet focuses on the violence in Punjab in The Long Walk Home and Warrier's recent books study the human condition in the Indo-Pak conflict zone, Kashmir. Ahmede, in his first anthology of short stories from many new and well-known sub-continental writers, collects voices that again raise issues of conflicts and fundamentalism of all stripes, among other themes.
During Hanif's session, most people were curious about the daily life in Pakistan. How quotidian was it? Hanif satisfied people's queries with his quintessential humour. People in Karachi still went out for dinner with family and friends, he said. Their discussion would range from fashion shows to the next possible bomb blast. He said that the 24-hour news cycle had made the things worse. Journalists are excited when there are terrible stories to tell but they feel crestfallen when it is quiet for a few days. Hanif, who lived in London for about a decade, now permanently lives in Karachi. I wish for more peace, more normality, he said.
Hanif said that he was suspicious of lists such as the top 10 most dangerous places in the world and the top 10 most beautiful people in the world. These lists keep changing, he said.
Should writers become activists, I asked the 'Chaos' panel. I had Arundhati Roy in mind when I asked this question. I don't feel any moral responsibility, said Ahmede. "I see, I don't touch," is his motto. Hanif said that writers are generally self-centred people who care more about a turn of phrase than an actual cause. But I do what I can, he said. Warrier was also of the same opinion. It was only Captain Elmo who said that he was actively engaged in charity work in Sri Lanka.
Someone from the audience asked if chaos was necessary for creativity. This question came in various forms in different foray: Singapore, despite being an advanced country with all kinds of material comforts, does not produce much literature, whereas the sub-continent, despite the chaos and fracas, creates world-class literature. Why is that so? According to Warrier, the problem is essentially arithmetical. India alone has more than a billion people while Singapore has about 5 million people. So, a billion people naturally produce more writers. Also, there are many regional languages in India, which support the culture of reading and writing. Print runs of vernacular titles go in the range of 20,000 to 200,000 whereas novels in English become bestsellers when they sell more than 5,000 copies.
According to Hanif, chaos does not necessarily help create great literature. The Swedes still manage to get out some decent novels, he said. Prosperity is good for writers, Hanif said. I would rather settle for a mediocre novel in a less chaotic situation than a great novel in a chaotic and violent set up, he said. One could understand where Hanif was coming from. Father of an 11-year old son, the safety and security of his family must be most prominent for him. I found both Hanif and Ahmede ruthlessly honest--only Hanif is more humorous and Ahmede a bit more philosophical.
On and off stage, Elmo voiced his concern about the difficulties that first time writers face in finding publishers. A first time writer's failure (in getting published) discourages many other would-be writers, he argued. He also lamented about the greed of publishers who sold books with marked up prices, taking them farther from the reach of ordinary readers. He wants the gram sellers in Sri Lanka to become booksellers!
Though my interactions with the writers were personally enlightening, I came home depressed because I have a feeling that the chaos would not end anytime soon. Did people between the two Great Wars feel the same? Only, we don't have the Camus and Sartres of our age to explain the chaos to us. The world is becoming more violent and life more absurd by the day and there are no heroes to look up to in the post-modern anarchy. It is a difficult challenge for any writer to make sense of the world that we live in. I only wish more power to the pen of writers like Hanif, Manreet, Elmo and Warrier and Ahmede.
Zafar Anjum is the editor of Writers Connect and Kitaab.org.
(R) thedailystar.net 2009