The world’s climate crisis was a central theme at this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival, with several sessions focusing on the national, regional, and global effects of the Earth’s warming.
The internationally acclaimed composer, environmentalist, and professor Ricky Kej performed on the music stage on the first night. He told Changing Times that artists need to be making art not just for entertainment, but also for driving home messages about climate change.
“Until the general population’s behaviour changes, the politicians are not going to change,” Kej said.
Speakers talked about drought, late monsoons, and unprecedented floods in India, the disappearance of wildlife species, and the health impacts of climate change.
Another main theme at JLF 2020 was artificial intelligence and creativity. Brexit was the subject of one session, and the final debate was about social media. After a one-hour debate, the audience voted against the proposition that social media has divided society.
The monk and author Om Swami gave an enlightening presentation entitled “Random Acts of Kindness”.
The world, he said, “is better off with non-religious kind people than with religious fanatics”. He says he wishes that religion “had the same humility as science does”.
Om Swami says his biggest challenge is retaining a smile in the face of suffering.
The author of Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert, enchanted the audience with tales of her life and writing. She spoke about being “driven to the divine by suffering”. Her relationship with creativity, she said, was the only one she’d had that was not fraught with drama, trauma, chaos, and pain.
Gilbert says she has the soul of a very serious writer, “but the personality of an airline hostess or an aerobics instructor”.
There was humour from writer and broadcaster Howard Jacobson, whose latest novel, Live a Little, is about two nonagenarians who meet in a cemetery and fall in love, and there were tales of infidelity and sexual addiction from the Franco-Moroccan journalist, author, and activist Leïla Slimani.
In a session about women and work, the Indian-born British chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author Asma Khan said restaurants need to be ranked as to how they treat their staff, not by Michelin stars. “I don’t want to eat the food of a Michelin star kitchen if I know that, behind that kitchen door, there’s toxic abuse of weaker people.”
In the hospitality industry, Khan says, the rota system and the militarist form of hierarchy in the kitchen have been designed to exclude women.
Khan has set up a rota system in her restaurant that suits women with children and ensures that women are not travelling long distances late at night.
There is no reason, she says, why a chef’s hours should be “from darkness to darkness”.
Khan said cooking helped her break out of the loneliness of her life in cold, grey Cambridge. “Food became my identity; food became my way home,” she said.
The renowned cookery book author and prize-winning actress, Madhur Jaffrey (pictured left), was also at Jaipur this year. She talked about writing her memoir, and said she had a new acting project in the pipeline, but declined to give details. Jaffrey is elegant and still looks youthful at 86.
There was a total footfall of about 450,000 over the five days of this year’s festival, and JLF 2020 hosted more than 500 speakers and performers from about 30 countries, including Australia, Myanmar, China, Canada, Mauritius, Nepal, Oman, Portugal, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, the United Arab Emirates and Nigeria.
The environmental battle
On the last day of the festival, in a session entitled “Climate Emergency”, novelist, entrepreneur, and journalist Namita Waikar talked about a fisherwoman who told her there are now fish species she no longer sees, except on the Discovery Channel. Inland communities are finding increasing numbers of dead fish in their catch, Waikar said.
“There are communities in Tamil Nadu where seaweed farmers, who dive into the seas, find that the seaweeds are going down in numbers and that affects their livelihood, and they would eventually have to find alternate professions,” she added.
The chief executive officer of the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme in India, Apoorva Oza, said that, over the past ten years, the onset of the monsoon has been delayed by about five to ten days and its departure has been delayed by almost one and a half months. In India, the last rains are now in mid-October, when crops are ready for harvesting.
In a session on the second day of the festival, Martin Goodman, who co-wrote a book entitled Client Earth, spoke about the pioneering environmental law charity of the same name, which has offices in London, Brussels, Warsaw, Berlin, and Beijing.
You never win an environmental legal battle, Goodman says. “You have to keep winning it. You have to keep going back again and again and again.”
Goodman told the story of lawyers and local people stopping the construction of 34 coal-fired power plants in Poland.
“Science is the grammar of the law,” Goodman told the Jaipur audience. “The science says that the worst thing for climate change is coal-fired power plants.”
Poland, he added, has the last remaining primeval forest in Europe, pristine waterways, and great agricultural systems
China, Goodman said, was the hopeful story of his book. A total 48,000 environmental cases were brought in 2018 and, in more than 90 percent of them, the plaintiff won.
MP Jairam Ramesh, who chairs the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment and Forests, told the Jaipur audience that when he was environment minister and talked about climate change people thought he was crazy and should be focusing on other more urgent priorities.
“Today I think more people are concerned about climate change because the frequency of floods has increased, because of the uncertainty of the Indian monsoon, because people are recognising that the Himalayan glaciers are under retreat.”
People living on the coast are increasingly feeling vulnerable to the rise in sea levels, Ramesh says.
“I think you have to educate the governments that choices have to be made. And these are politically very difficult choices: to tell a government ‘Don’t build a six-lane highway now or don’t open up a coal mine now’.”
India, Ramesh says, has the most progressive laws for environmental protection, but their enforcement has been very weak. Institutions that were set up in the 1970s have atrophied over the years and need to be refurbished, he says.
“It’s not lack of awareness in India. It’s not lack of sensitivity. But it’s demographic pressures as well as developmental challenges which very often lead us to make choices which put stress on the environment,” Ramesh said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has emerged as the big champion of solar energy, Ramesh said. “He’s talking of India making the big leap into renewables, so these are good signs, but there is a gap between what you say internationally and what you do domestically.
“I think this government has done very well internationally, but, domestically, its enforcement of laws leaves a lot to be desired because its clear priority is ease of doing business, not enforcement of environmental laws.”
Ramesh is hoping that there will be a “mobile telephony type revolution” for energy storage. Five or ten years from now, with advances in energy storage, renewables will become far more attractive, he says.
Author and environmentalist David Wallace-Wells also spoke about the disjuncture between rhetoric at the international level and domestic action and said this was not just true of successive governments in India, but across the world.
“We see it when Emmanuel Macron attacks Jair Bolsonaro for burning the Amazon, and yet has failed to pass a carbon tax. We see it when Justin Trudeau declares a climate emergency in Canada and then, the very next day, approves a new oil pipeline.”
Half of all of the emissions that have ever been produced in the entire history of humanity from the burning of fossil fuels have come in just the past thirty years, Wallace-Wells says.
He told the Jaipur audience that, according to some economists, if we don’t change course, global GDP could, by the end of the century, be 30 percent smaller than it would be without climate change.
“The same amount of land that we’re using today to produce all of our grain could, by the end of the century, only be producing half as much. And no matter where you look, every aspect of human life is affected to some degree or other.
“Climate change affects cognitive performance. It affects rates of schizophrenia and autism and ADHD; it affects premature birth and low birth weight. There’s no aspect of life that will be unaffected by this.”
The planet, Wallace-Wells says is hotter than it has ever been at any point in human history. “I’ve seen the planet go from seeming stability to the brink of catastrophe in my own lifetime. And I will also see what response we make and what kind of future we can secure for ourselves and our children.”
In a separate session, “Uninhabitable Earth”, which is the title of his best-selling book, Wallace-Wells said that India was expected to be the hardest hit by climate change, having to withstand up to a quarter of all global climate damages in the rest of this century, which is considerably more than Bangladesh or Australia.
It’s been estimated, Wallace-Wells says, that, at two degrees of global warning, there could be as many as 200 million climate refugees.
Both Wallace-Wells and Ricky Kej say they are encouraged by the energy and commitment of young climate change protesters like Greta Thunberg.
Climate change expert Navroz K. Dubash told the Jaipur audience that, according to a recent study, most of south Mumbai will be underwater by 2050 if sea levels continue to rise.
Pressing the alarm bell is really important, Navroz says, and has led to mobilisation, and important legislative changes in countries like the UK. However, he says, stories of alarm also induce paralysis among citizens and at the level of policy making.
“Even as the alarm and the awareness grows so has the defensive pushback,” he said.
We need multiple narratives in the climate debate, Navroz says. “We need another story that says ‘How do we manage to meet our development needs while also transitioning to a low-carbon future?’.”
In a session entitled “Flood and Fury”, journalist Krupe Ge, who is the author of Rivers Remember about the 2015 Chennai floods, spoke of three months’ worth of rain deluging the city in one night.
Jairam Ramesh spoke out against the linking of rivers in India. Interfering with the natural flow of rivers is “deeply, deeply anti-environmental”, Ramesh says.
In the “Climate Emergency” session, reformist, solar energy innovator, and educationist Sonam Wangchuk said that in the Himalayas, and particularly in Ladakh, glaciers are melting away. Because of that, in springtime, water shortages are turning into droughts and are followed, in autumn, by flash floods.
Wangchuk says spiritual leaders need to upgrade their messages about non-violence to include the causes and effects of climate change.
“What could be more violent than losing 52 percent of the wildlife in fifty years? What could be more violent than seven to ten million people dying every year out of air pollution alone,” he said.
“We have to upgrade religion to include violence to nature; we have to upgrade democracy.”
There should be seats reserved in parliament and in panchayats (local assemblies) for nature representatives, Wangchuk says.
Writer, educator, and filmmaker Shubhangi Swarup, who writes “ecological fiction”, said that artists should take a lot of the blame for the current crisis. We shouldn’t be writing about nature with a limited “cause-and-effect” focus, she says.
“The way we tell our stories is fundamentally skewed. We need to stop telling human-centric stories about climate change. Our stories, Swarup says, have become “self-obsessed and obnoxious”.
Swarup wants us to have an appreciation of the Universe. Her storytelling gives voice to nature in all its aspects and she considers political borders to be ridiculous when we are speaking about solving global problems.
“One of the problems is we tell our stories with a big fat border right in between. Nature’s the same on both sides.”
Swarup wants to see Gross Domestic Product (GDP) replaced by Green Domestic Product.
The presentation by Om Swami began and ended with him chanting. He spoke not just about spirituality, but also about the realities of life in India and the world in general.
To applause, he said: “At this time, after more than seventy years of independence, we don’t need division. We don’t need all this politics. It is not doing the country good. It is distracting us from the real missions. We need growth, we need employment, we need medicare, we need better education.
“We have to put up with this debauched lifestyle of all these politicians who live in absolute luxury when our common peoples are suffering.”
Anything that brings Indians together or makes people kinder and any initiative that makes the lives of ordinary citizens better is worth considering, Om Swami said. “Anything to the contrary should be shot down to the ground.”
Om Swami described casteism is a “cancerous limb” that India is dragging around and is costing the country everything. It is, he says, “the cause of all division in this country”.
The amount of disparity between the very rich and the very poor has grown to unimaginable proportions, Om Swami told the Jaipur audience. “One or two percent of the people control 98 percent of the wealth.”
Om Swami, who has written 14 books, says there is more anxiety today than there’s ever been. On social media, people compare themselves with others, he says, and when one compares oneself with others, one is setting oneself up for guaranteed misery. Privileged life brings anxiety, Om Swami says.
We need to be careful what we feed our minds with, Om Swami told the Jaipur audience.
“If I am going to feed it with distressing literature, with negative literature, with the kind of literature that aggravates my suffering, then, when I’m in my quiet moments, the same thing will keep playing back in my head. I always say, to know how peaceful you are within, spend some time with yourself, become the solitude.”
Om Swami talked about the liberation of realising how many things you don’t need. Impermanence, he says, is at the root of detachment.
“Everything is going to disappear one day. If I can keep that mindfulness, detachment comes naturally.”
Om Swami doesn’t advocate renouncing “the joys of life”. Life, he says, is to be lived fully, but we need to remember that “other than your karma, nothing is going to last”.
His definition of God, he says, is “the inexplicable essence of all beautiful things in the world”.
Brexit and the politics of pain
Irish columnist Fintan O’Toole, who has written a book entitled Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain, talked eloquently and outspokenly about Britain’s departure from the European Union. He calls it an “act of self-harm” and says maybe there’s a “final zombie stage of empire”.
O’Toole told the Jaipur audience that Brexit was a “a revolt against imaginary oppression”, a “nationalist revolution without a nation”, and “a populist revolution without a people”.
Brexit, O’Toole says, is like putting a big “kick here” target on a brick wall. “If you kick the wall, it feels very satisfying, but you also break your own foot,” he said.
“And of course, it does not address any of the questions of social inequality and exclusion. It’s a very clever way of a ruling class saying, ‘the problem is over there’.”
Who is going to be to blame for all of the things that people are very angry about when the European Union is gone? O’Toole asks.
In his book, O’Toole makes a surprising, largely tongue-in-cheek reference to the erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey. He told the Jaipur audience: “What you get with the Brexit mentality is a drama of submission and domination.”
Brexit affects Ireland really badly, O’Toole says, and that makes him angry. “I was shouting at the television during all of the big debates on Brexit, saying: ‘When are you going to talk about Ireland? When are you going to talk about the border? When are you going to talk about the very, very carefully constructed peace process in Northern Ireland?’.
“And of course, the answer to that question was never.”
It’s English nationalism that will produce a united Ireland, and probably an independent Scotland, O’Toole says.
O’Toole points out that, in the 2019 election, 53 percent of people in the United Kingdom voted for parties that were promising a second referendum. “The idea that the whole place is now united behind Brexit is just nonsense. It’s just not true. The generational divide is very profound and very sad.”
After Eat, Pray, Love
On Day 1 of the festival, Elizabeth Gilbert was in conversation with the editor-in-chief of Bloomsbury, Alexandra Pringle.
Gilbert spoke with honesty and humour. She spoke about shame, describing it as a brutal sensation that makes you lock yourself behind doors.
She said that she wrote her latest novel, City of Girls, two months after her partner died. “It saved my life. I had been researching the book for years. And then she got sick and I set the book aside for 18 months to take care of her through her death.
“It was a way for me to rebalance, literally, the forces of darkness and light.
“I decided to write the lightest, happiest, most sensuous, most fun, most joyful, exuberant book that would go down like a tray of champagne cocktails as a way of bringing myself back into life.”
Talking about her first divorce, which preceded the journey that inspired the book Eat, Pray, Love, she said that she had been “fraught with shame” at the collapse of her marriage.
“Instead of having children I had a nervous breakdown, because I actually had chosen the wrong path,” she said. “As nice as that life looked on the outside, it didn’t suit me remotely on the inside, and it made me physically, emotionally, and spiritually ill, to the point where I had a choice to either leave or die.”
Gilbert gave the audience some data about marriage, which is something she says she simply does not like.
“The sociological statistics of what marriage does to women are extremely depressing,” she said.
“There is not a single level of sociological data at which a single woman does not outperform a married woman. Single women live longer, they’re healthier, they’re less likely to commit suicide, they’re less likely to become addicts, they’re less likely to be murdered, they have more wealth. They weigh less.”
Heartbreakingly, Gilbert says, the reverse is exactly true for men. “There’s nothing a man can do better for his life than to get married to a woman,” she said.
“Married men are less likely to be depressed, less likely to be suicidal, they make more money, they rise higher in their careers, they are less likely to die in a car accident. Every single thing is better for them and the women pay it and so it’s really a direct exchange of female energy to benefit male energy.”
Talking about her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Gilbert says her relationship with creativity is very simple; “I love it and I believe that it loves me in return. I serve it and it serves me in return. I go into it with infinite trust. I believe that it wants to work through me, and I trust that and I relax into it, and it shows me what to do and I do it.”
In Big Magic, Gilbert wanted to introduce the possibility that we don’t have to abide by the cultural stereotypes that say artistry is only made through suffering, pain, loss and angst “and that you’re not a serious artist unless you’re dying for your work”.
Gilbert has never believed that that’s necessary. “I think that’s a really modern idea. I think it’s a European idea. I think it’s a nineteenth-century German romantic idea. I think it’s a very male idea.
“I think it’s a very narcissistic idea. I don’t think that that’s where most art in the history of the world was ever made. I think it was made by people who did it because it brought them great joy to do it.”
Art, Gilbert says, is making something more beautiful than it needs to be. “I actually do not believe that we can be emotionally or spiritually healthy without creating at some level.”
Gilbert is a great advocate of curiosity. A really interesting artistic life, she says, is one that is not driven by passion “but by the trail of breadcrumbs, birdseed, and little tiny clues that equal the curiosity-driven life”.
She loves engaging with people. “I took to social media like a duck to water because it just gets to expand the circle of the number of people who I get to engage with and I want to engage with.”
For Gilbert, City of Girls is a celebration of a liberation. “The most difficult book that I ever had to write, or will ever have to write was the book that came after Eat, Pray, Love.
“Something had to come after Eat, Pray, Love, and it was not going to be easy no matter what it was because, all of a sudden, there were literally millions of people with their eyes on me waiting for me to give them something great again.”
Eat, Pray, Love made Gilbert financially independent and she wanted to honour that freedom by doing something really difficult and expensive, so she spent four years travelling around the world, doing research for The Signature of All Things, which is about a nineteenth-century female botanist, who discovers what Darwin discovers, but is not recognised for that.
“I didn’t have to have a day job. I didn’t have to have a patron. I got to have the money to do the work that I’ve always wanted to do. And I felt like the only way that I could honour all of those women who came before me and who exist in this moment who do not have that kind of freedom of artistic expression was to do the most difficult, challenging, ambitious work that I could possibly do, the kind of work that men have always been able to do.”
Talking about City of Girls, Gilbert said she had always wanted to write a novel about a promiscuous woman whose life is not destroyed by her sexual adventures. “This is a nearly impossible novel to find in the canon of Western civilisation,” she said.
“I also wanted to point out that promiscuous, wild women have been with us from the beginning of time.”
Doing her research, Gilbert spent time with show girls who were in their nineties or even in their hundreds, “who had lived the most unapologetically sensuous lives, including one woman who was 96 and had never been married.”
That woman, Norma Amigo, was John Wayne’s girlfriend for a while and was a showgirl at the Swan Club in New York. “She’s still stunning in her nineties. Never had kids. Her family was still angry at her for living an unconventional life.”
City of Girls is a celebration of the “subtlety and the complexity of female sexual desire”, Gilbert says.
“Female sexual desire is also a force that the world has never known what to do with. Female sexual desire is biological; it’s dark, and, by dark, I don’t mean simple. I mean, ancient, pre-civilised.”
City of Girls, Gilbert says, is a book about agency, about women behaving badly, and about women doing things they later regret because they hurt people. “Women are also capable of making decisions around sex and intimacy and desire that cause pain to other people. We are not only victims, we can also hurt other humans,” she said.
Where does fiction come from?
On Day 3, Gilbert was joined in a discussion about where fiction comes from by Howard Jacobson, the novelist Avni Doshi, and Leïla Slimani, who won the Prix Goncourt for her second novel, Chanson douce, and is the author of the non-fiction book Sexe et mensonges about the sexual life of Moroccan women.
There was fun repartee between Gilbert and Jacobson over Gilbert’s way of preparing to write her books. Gilbert researches heavily and says she is a macro-planner. “I’ve got shoe boxes filled with index cards separated by character by scene.
“The shoe boxes are a way that I get my courage to actually sit down and feel like I’ve prepared enough, but, in the end, I really believe that ideas come to us because they want to be made manifest.”
Jacobson jumped in to say Gilbert had given him a great idea for a new novel called The Shoe Box, the tragic story of a failed author who buys some expensive shoes to get the box he thinks will help him to write.
“The years go by and nothing ever gets in the shoe box … finally people come to his room and he’s shrivelled to nothing and there’s nothing written on the typewriter and there’s just a few bones in the shoe box.”
Jacobson says his “literary education” was very long. He was a student, then a teacher of literature. He is very self-effacing, and also very honest.
He says authors have to abandon any idea of who they are and their ambitions to be a particular kind of writer. “In my experience, you only start writing when you don’t know what you’re doing, and you don’t recognise who you are.”
Jacobson also talks about shame. In a separate session about Live a Little, he told the audience: “I think shame is what makes you a writer.”
He explained that one of the main characters in Live a Little, Beryl, keeps forgetting and the other, Shimi, can only remember and has spent his life being ashamed.
Beryl is clever and sarcastic and fearless, Jacobson says, and she says anything she likes. He says the most exciting thing in writing Live a Little was just to have the characters “talking, and talking, and talking”.
Shimi is a part-time fortune teller who is still ashamed about the time, when he was a boy, that he dressed up in his mother’s underwear.
The story of Beryl and Shimi is “love without the physical stuff”, Jacobson says. The body, he says, is overrated. He says he has written about the way people fall in love through conversation.
“Eroticism through conversation is actually much more erotic than eroticism through the body.”
Words and sex don’t go together very well, Jacobson says. “Sex makes words look foolish. and words make sex look absurd, really.”
Jacobson talked about his admiration for older people. “We’re living through a very interesting period in which we’re not only living longer, but, if health allows, we’re living more intelligently.
“The most intelligent people I know are in their nineties. My best friend in England will be 101 in a few months’ time. He’s fully alive; physically not well. That’s part of it. If you can allow your body to decay, you can concentrate on your mind.”
Jacobson says that writing earths him to the world. “When you write, you discover, you make contact with, a you that you didn’t know was there.”
He says that all the great writers are funny. You cannot write about humanity without the resource that we know as comedy, he says.
Jacobson says that he dreamed for many years of being a writer. “I finally, out of desperation, just sat down and wrote and wrote and wrote every day for about two years about how horrible my life was, how ridiculous my life was.
“It was a satiric novel … I got published. It meant I had to leave the institution I was teaching at because I was so rude about everybody. And then that was it. I was just turfed into the world and had to earn a living then as a novelist.”
Jacobson says he has no desire to write likeable characters. Talking about Beryl, he says he doesn’t want readers to like her; he just wants them to feel who she is.
“I don’t think you should like characters in literature. It happens that you do, but it’s not an obligation,” Jacobson said. “The great characters in literature we don’t like.”
Slimani (pictured left) told the Jaipur audience that she was an admirer of the life of writers. “I used to read about Baudelaire and Dostoyevsky and all those men who had so much passion and were drug addicts, and they drank so much and they travelled all over the world, and they were bad people and they were scandalous and impolite, and I wanted to be like them.”
Jacobson, who had audiences in fits of laughter numerous times, is more enamoured of Jane Austen, who he says is the sexiest writer in the English language.
In a separate session about her novel Adèle (Dans le jardin de l’ogre in French), Slimani said she writes about her fears, about all the things that make her anxious, and she feels less lonely.
She said she sees the reader as “someone who is holding my hand and walking with me, someone who maybe can understand me in a world where we are all alone”.
Adèle lives in Paris. She’s a wife and mother. Her husband is a very successful doctor. The couple are well respected. They have a beautiful flat in a lovely area, and they exchange beautiful gifts during Christmas from Hermès. Adèle, however, has a secret life. She has numerous lovers.
“She meets men and women everywhere, anywhere,” Slimani said. “She doesn’t want to fall in love. She doesn’t want to have a new story with someone; she just wants to have sex with people.
“She’s completely addicted to sex … she tries to stop as an alcoholic would try to stop drinking or a drug addict stop taking drugs and she can’t stop because she’s an addict.”
Slimani says she is fascinated by addiction. “For me, she said, “it’s the moment when you lose the freedom to say no. I was fascinated by that, and by the fact that it’s like a circle.
“You have a temptation and you try to convince yourself that you will resist. You don’t resist so you hate yourself and the more you hate yourself the less you resist, and that’s like a circle and you feel that it will never end.
“That’s something where I suppose that you feel very lonely. And that’s the thing that defines Adèle the most, that she’s a very lonely person and she’s completely unable to ask for help. She can’t say ‘I have a problem, please help me’. She’s always lying. She’s always hiding.”
Slimani is also fascinated by Paris. She says that, when she arrived there from Morocco at the age of 17, she discovered that the city has two faces: a beautiful, bourgeois, glamourous face, and one that is much more dark.
“If you are a tourist and you’re walking on the Quai de Seine and you’re looking at Paris and the Tour Eiffel you imagine that it’s like a fairy tale and that living in this city must be so wonderful. But when you know Paris a little bit, you discover that Paris is also a very violent city, a very poor city. There is a lot of misery in Paris, a lot of brutality, and also a lot of loneliness.”
Paris, though, is “a wonderful city for a woman who wants to invent herself”, Slimani says.
Slimani says secrets are very important. “I think that everyone should have the right to have a secret. I am always very afraid when people speak about transparency and the fact that you have to say everything, what you do, who you are.
“I think that having secrets is very, very important, and having having the right to lie. Everyone should have the right to lie and to have another life, and especially women. We should never never stick to this idea that we should be transparent and everyone should look in your soul.”
Slimani talked about writing a violent scene in which Adèle is having sex with two sex workers. “It’s very, very, very difficult to write sex scenes … you have the pornographic vocabulary and this is not what I wanted to use or you have a very glamorous, very erotic vocabulary and it was not the kind of atmosphere I wanted to build or to convey.
“So I needed to find my own way of describing sex as Adèle is experiencing it. So I decided to describe it in a very clinical way. I was imagining that I was behind a glass and I was looking at Adèle with those two people and just describing, never judging, never saying what she’s feeling inside, just describing how it is happening.”
Slimani’s publisher told her that, if she wanted to write such a scene, she couldn’t hide anything. He told her that if she didn’t want readers to be afraid, she shouldn’t be afraid. She had to be very sincere. Writing Adèle, Slimani says, she learned how important it was to be honest “and to go as far as you can”.
Slimani says she wanted to save Adèle, to give her a chance. “I want people to look at this kind of woman, even if in real life, they would probably point a finger at her and say ‘Look at this slut’.”
For Slimani, we are all ambivalent and ambiguous. “You don’t love your husband every day and you don’t love him all the time. You love your children; of course you love them all the time, but sometimes you are bored. Sometimes you don’t want to be with them. And sometimes you want to get out of the house and be someone else maybe for an hour or half an hour. Sometimes you just want to have a break from the motherhood.”
Certain reviewers have commented on how unlikeable Adèle is. Slimani says that, for many women, the idea of being likeable is a trap. Men are not that worried about being likeable, she says. “We, as women, we should do exactly the same.”
On the front line
The “Frontline” session at Jaipur opened visitors’ eyes to the traumas and dangers of war reporting.
Christina Lamb became a foreign correspondent after getting an invitation to the wedding of the Pakistani politician Benazir Bhutto, who later became the country’s prime minister. Lamb had been working in TV in Birmingham as an intern and, after going to Karachi, she never went back.
She talked about the time when three horrific incidents happened one after another in one year and she thought of giving up reporting on conflict, not least as she had a child. Firstly, she was nearly killed in a Taliban ambush, then she was in Benazir Bhutto’s bus when it was blown up, then she was in a hotel that was attacked by a suicide bomber.
Lamb started to feel her luck was running out. When she returned to London after the bombing of Bhutto’s bus she went to a dinner for a human rights lawyer from Zimbabwe.
“I had literally the night before, after the bus bombing, woken up in the morning with bits of flesh on my pillow because so many people around me had been killed.”
The lawyer urged her to continue reporting.
Lamb says that one of the most traumatic places she has spent time in is Zimbabwe, where Mugabe was torturing and killing and starving his own people, “entirely so that he could stay in power”.
Lindsey Hilsum talked about how, in the 1980s, when she was the stringer for the BBC in Nairobi, she would drive out to the airport with a cassette recording of her radio report and go up to the British Airways queue and ask if someone would take it to London.
Hilsum also talked about being in northeastern Syria last October and November. The Syrian Kurds had successfully fought against the Islamic state and had lost 11,000 of their own people. Suddenly President Trump decided that he was withdrawing America’s support.
“What that meant was that the Turks, who are the big enemy of the Talibs, could invade across the border from Turkey, which they did, and start trying to ethically cleanse that border area.
“We were entirely reliant on our local fixer and driver for understanding what was where … and what was safe and what was not safe.
“We felt this tremendous guilt … I’d never been in a betrayal that felt worse than this. These people had fought and lost so much for a battle which was on behalf of all of us. I will never forget the driver and the fixer just crying as we left; we were all crying.”
Hilsum told the audience that about a quarter and a third of war correspondents suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Norwegian journalist and author Åsne Seierstad told of a time in Baghdad when a rocket fell on a market and she saw indescribable horrors. She also recalls being at morgue after a rocket attack and hearing the screams of the relatives of a 12-year-old boy whose head had been blown apart.
Rights of the child
Poet Lemn Sissay gave a vibrant performance on Day 4 of JLF along with Simon Armitage, Forrest Gander, and Manal Younus.
Sissay, who is also a playwright and broadcaster, told Changing Times that when his mother arrived in England from Ethiopia in 1967 she discovered that she was pregnant by the person who had accompanied her on the journey.
She was sent to a home for unmarried mothers in Wigan, where the other mothers were mostly Irish.
“It was the Liverpool Board of Moral Welfare who were in collusion with the social services to wrest me from my mother who would not sign the adoption papers,” Sissay said.
“They gave me to foster parents, which is what she wanted for while she was studying. But they would not let her know where I was, and they renamed me illegally.”
Sissay’s foster parents later placed him in a children’s home. From the ages of 12 to 17, Sissay was held in four children’s homes.
He describes the story of his mother, and of other women like her, as stories of women being subjected to “state and church narcissism”.
There has been an assumption, Sissay says, that a child in a children’s home is intrinsically naughty.
“If you judge a child based on whether he is good or bad, that’s like emotional fascism, because children are good and bad all the time. And that prejudice which is put on children who are in care emanates from the prejudice towards their mothers.”
Children should be allowed to be bad, Sissay says. That, he says, is “the beauty of childhood”.
There is, Sissay says, an “institutional hatred” of children in care.
“The underlying premise that a child in care is a threat to all the well-being of society, it’s not been solved. There are no children’s homes anymore, which means there are no places to gather evidence. So the abuse is now happening in foster care.”
Sissay talks about children who were impregnated by a foster parent. “One in particular is now taking the government to court because she has a child as a young adult by the foster father, and she got him to admit it. And she recorded it.”
Artists have a responsibility to fight for change, “and to find what we need to change”, Sissay says. “And it has to be personal.” Sissay says that some of the things he is doing to help children, he is doing them for himself.
“I find myself invigorated, and tired sometimes, by the action of making change. It is exhausting, but it gives to me as well.
“I don’t really see myself as an activist because I can only see what I don’t do.”
Sissay is the patron of the theatre company 20 Stories High, based in Toxteth, Liverpool, which produces performances that have been described as “gritty, rebellious, authentic, original, challenging, lyrical, tender, anarchic, political, and funny”.
The company involves working class and culturally diverse young people and emerging artists, and brings new audiences into theatre venues and takes theatre out into communities locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally.
In 2017, Sissay used his position as chancellor of the University of Manchester to launch a new bursary with the aim of increasing the numbers of black men taking up careers in law and criminal justice.
He says that his success has come in spite of what happened to him, not because of it.
He uses the expression “no next of skin” and says people might understand the effect of that if they noted down over a day or two every time they thought about a family member.
“We become so invisible to our family because they are our family. They’re so close to us that it’s very difficult to see how many times we actually refer to them in our mind. And imagine that not being there. That’s the best way to understand no next of skin.”
Sissay is in contact with his mother now, but says it is complicated for her. “She had the loss of me when she was 21. She had to build up against that so that she could build a life and then she has the trauma of me returning, saying I’d like to know.
“It’s a really complicated, psychological Pandora’s box which I present her with.”
Shashi on Shashi
The erudite MP and author, and festival regular, Shashi Tharoor was as popular as ever. He took part in numerous sessions including one entitled “Shashi on Shashi” and one about cricket.
Tharoor said: “If a North Indian, Hindutva-inclined, bigoted majority manages to perpetuate the political control and political longevity of this lot, I really do worry about the future of India and creative constitutional solutions will not be found to save this country.”
Hindutva, Tharoor says, is a political ideology. “Hinduism is actually very different from Hindutva. In fact I consider the Hindutva ideology to be anti-Hindu.”
Hindutva, Tharoor says, “is like the chauvinism of the British football hooligan”.
Tharoor told the audience that he was a bit of an introvert as a child, “the kind of guy who would go for social evenings with my parents with a book in my hand and sit in a corner and read”. It was Tharoor’s father who forced him into a certain level of extroversion. He pushed Tharoor into debates and speech contests as a young person and wrote his speeches for him when Tharoor was just eight years old.
Tharoor started writing when he was very young. “I was an asthmatic kid, so I was confined to bed a lot, unable to breathe,” he said, “and those were the days before inhalers had been invented so you took some very strong pills to dilate your bronchoids.
“You couldn’t sleep. Your heart was racing away at 2,000 beats a minute and you were essentially confined to both being awake and in bed and unable to go out and play with your friends.
“And so all I had were books, so books were my escape, books were my entertainment, and books were my education. There was no TV in India in those days.”
Tharoor said that, up to now, Indians have celebrated diversity, but today, for the first time, “there are social divisions being promoted by the government”.
He said: “A lot of what the BJP is winning votes on in the north, it’s losing them votes in the south.
“The same sort of bigotry, intolerance of Muslims, negative readings of history, even rewritings of history, all of that simply does not only not resonate in the south, it actually causes offence in the south in places where our sense of our history is not the same as theirs.”
The Belt and Road Initiative
There was a session about China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative, which involves infrastructure development and investments in 152 countries and international organisations in Asia, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and the Americas.
The speakers focused almost solely on economic issues and didn’t touch at all on the many environmental concerns that exist about the projects. One question from the audience about climate change was not answered.
In conversation with Shashi Tharoor in a session entitled “The New World Disorder and the Indian Imperative”, the vice-president of the Observer Research Foundation and co-founder of the Raisina Dialogue, Samir Saran, talked about China’s tech plans.
“They will control the global value chains,” Saran said. “They will control your behaviour, they will control your choices, they will control how you date and how you eat, all through their technology platforms; that is insidious.”
Saran said the Chinese see the digital element of the Belt and Road Initiative as one of their most important strategic tools. “They are coding the next 100 years of every society through their technology,” he said.
In a session about big tech and the cyber future, Marcus du Sautoy, who has written six books including The Creativity Code: How AI Is Learning to Write, Paint and Think, said we are now producing more data in two days than from the beginning of time to 2003.
Author John Lanchester said he was particularly concerned about China and the state’s plan for machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI). “It’s imaging a world in which these new techniques are used for complete surveillance, complete control.”
China, Lanchester told the audience, has a computer system called Skynet, which processes 1.4 billion faces and is linked to a police computer that tracks people’s movements.
Du Sautoy pointed to the positive role of AI, and how data can be used for good, for navigation and by health services.
“In the UK, the National Health Service has a huge amount of data. And of course, we’re all worried about that data being used somehow by insurance companies to rack up our premiums because they know things about us … But there have been amazing discoveries in being able to treat diseases because of that huge database.
“You can do things at scale now in the medical profession that that one doctor or one researcher can’t do. So I think there are extraordinary benefits.”
Data must be properly anonymised, however, Du Sautoy says.
He added: “We were giving labour away for a few people to become very rich in the industrial revolution, the Victorian times. Now, we’re giving our data away.
“We think we’re getting services for free. No, we are paying for those services by giving our data, but nobody realises what a bad exchange rate we’re getting. So there are a lot of calls to regain our data, own our data, and somehow unionise ourselves as data users.”
Lanchester says Facebook is completely amoral; a company that is “without a moral compass”. He wants to see a break-up Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram.
“I would separate Google from YouTube. And I would bring about portability of data. You own your own data. When you create this stream of digital data you actually have ownership rights to it.”
He also thinks there should be a temporary ban on facial recognition, because he thinks it’s “a frightening technology”.
‘Has social media divided society?’
In the final debate, author and columnist Nilanjana S. Roy said social media was an extraordinarily polluted environment. “We are drowning in a sea of lies, of fake news, and of the kind of abuse that people have just had to get used to,” she said.
She also said that social media had tremendous potential for good. “It can bring diverse communities together,” she said. “It can also bring us together to stand up as individuals against politically motivated hate.”
Journalist Faye D’Souza spoke about planned, targetted attacks on social media. “You are in an infrastructure that allows it,” she said. “I have never had someone walk up to me in person and tell me I should be raped.”
Rana Ayyub, who is the author of the Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up, which is about the 2002 Gujarat riots, knows all too well how vicious social media trolls can be. She was subjected to fake and photoshopped tweets and an obscene video with her face morphed into it, which was spread on WhatsApp groups and was shared on her Facebook page and posted on Twitter.
People messaged Ayyub with sexually explicit comments, asking for sexual favours, and threatening her.
Trolls posted her phone number and the address of her house online. She says she was subjected to an “online lynch mob”.
Ayyub told the Jaipur audience that she ended up in hospital for two days. “I couldn’t breathe; I couldn’t eat for two days because every response to every tweet featured that porn video.”
John Lanchester said social media has given a new megaphone to the forces in society that want to widen the gap between people.
Professor, author, and editor Makarand R. Paranjape said we need to be critically aware of fake intimacy and the “protection” of anonymity. But social media, he said, “can be a great unifier”.
He says that there is an attempt on social media to divide us, but we can resist it. There is no reason to succumb to it, he says.
“Social media actually does something to your brain,” Paranjape said. “It gives you a dopamine rush. This has been well studied and documented. And you get addicted to it. The first thing you want to do when you get up in the morning is to check your Twitter account, or your Facebook, and find out what people are thinking about what you said, or what you didn’t say.
“I think we are all united in becoming addicts. So what’s really, really important is to avoid or be critically aware of the fake intimacy that social media affords and yet, at the same time, gives you the protection of real anonymity so that the worst in you can surface.”
Marcus du Sautoy says it is not social media that is causing divisions in society. “It’s very easy to blame social media. A lot of the divisions are nothing to do with social media. The Brexit debate was not influenced by people being told what to think on social media. It was influenced by the terrible austerity that our government had brought on our country.”
Du Sautoy says that we need to celebrate “the amazing power that social media has to connect communities across the world and actually bring community and society together”.
On Twitter, Nilanjana Roy commended journalist and activist Ruchira Gupta for beginning her session by expressing solidarity with young protestors against the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act, who were briefly detained by police on the fourth day of the festival.
“Most of us learned about this only later; the protestors should have been given space, not roughly removed,” Nilanjana Roy tweeted.
At the opening of the13th edition of the festival, Sanjoy K. Roy said literature can push back against the spreading “narrative of hatred”. We all must speak with one voice and with empathy for one another, he said.
The Jaipur Literature Festival gives a voice to writers of every genre and the span of topics covered is remarkable.
The event is the largest literature festival in the world and it is free for those who register by given date. There are six stages in the Pink City’s Diggi Palace, and music performances at the Clarks Amer hotel. This year there were even yoga sessions before the Morning Music.
JLF is an unparalleled extravaganza of words and music, and of thought and debate, and fans already have next year’s festival dates marked in their diaries.
‘The public is losing its denial streak’
David Wallace-Wells told Changing Times that, even in Australia, where the media is dominated by climate scepticism, more and more journalists are covering the story more responsibly.
“From my perspective, it’s never enough. They’re never being direct enough about the connections. They’re never being direct enough about what we need to do, and how urgent the crisis is.”
In England, Wallace-Wells points out, a conservative parliament declared a climate emergency committed to zero carbon by 2050. “That’s not fast enough for my taste,” Wallace-Wells said, “but it’s much faster than anything they would have considered a few years ago.
The British government failed to deliver a plan to implement its pledge, but it is, at least in theory, committed to that programme.
“In Denmark, Finland and Norway, they’ve made even more ambitious pledges, committing to zero carbon by 2030, or 2035, which as far as I’m concerned is so fast it may not even be possible.
“And again, it’s just a pledge and very few pledges in the entire history of climate action have been fulfilled, so I’m sceptical of judging those countries or rewarding them or applauding them just for making the pledge. Nevertheless, having that pledge is better than not having that pledge.”
Wallace-Wells is concerned that, in a future that is defined by more and more natural disasters and extreme weather, the public will develop a growing sense of resource scarcity and a zero-sum view of global politics where there’s competition between nations rather than cooperation, and there will be more leaders like Scott Morrison, Donald Trump, and Jair Bolsonaro.
The number of climate-change deniers is shrinking, Wallace-Wells says. “Even in the US, 70 to 80 percent of people believe that climate change is real and concerning.”
That percentage has dramatically increased in recent years, Wallace-Wells says, because people cannot ignore the extreme weather that has hit Western Europe and the US.
“Those climate change impacts have hit the global south now for a few decades, but they’re just beginning to show up in Western Europe and the US, and, as a result, the public is losing its denial streak.”
What particularly concerns Wallace-Wells is that the number of people who want to take dramatic action about climate change is relatively small.
“It’s growing quite rapidly, but it’s still something like 30 percent of people in the US, not 60 or 70 percent. That, to me, is more concerning than outright denial; this sort of climate complacency.”
Faster action, Wallace-Wells says, will be better for the world economically, even in the short term. “But that hasn’t yet really filtered up into the perspective of our leaders, which is one reason I think we’ve had such slow climate action.”
The fossil fuel industry is villainous, especially in its funding of climate denial, Wallace-Wells says, but pointing to deniers and the fossil fuel companies lets others off the hook.
It’s not just a problem of seventy companies or CEOs, or particular politicians, he says.
“It’s the problem of our entire culture, our entire civilisation, which has been built on cheap power produced by the burning of fossil fuels.
“If we want to continue to live prosperously in the ways that we’ve become accustomed to we need a dramatic reimagination of how we produce that power and how we produce that material.”
Wallace-Wells says that, in order to stabilise the planet’s climate at any temperature level, “even a quite hellish temperature level”, requires not just reducing our emissions.
“It requires us to zero out emissions. If, in 2050, or 2075, we’ve cut our emissions to 10 percent of what they are today, but we’re still producing that 10 percent, we’re still going to be warming the planet further.
“I don’t think you can get anywhere close to zero through individual action, even at a mass level.”
Individual action can’t produce new electricity grids or build new public transportation systems, Wallace-Wells says. “It can’t make investment in R&D, not in the hundreds of millions of dollars or billions of dollars, which is the scale that we need.
“All of those transformations that are necessary to secure a relatively liveable, relatively prosperous future for ourselves can only come through large-scale policy change.
“Ultimately, individual change is only a waystation or a stepping stone to policy change, which is the only thing that can bring about changes of the scale that we need.”
It’s important to make the connections between public health issues and climate change, Wallace-Wells says.
‘The mass consciousness of people needs to change’
Ricky Kej is a Grammy award winner and a Kindness Ambassador for UNESCO’s MGIEP (Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development).
For his album Shanti Samsara, which was launched at the United Nations COP21 climate change conference in Paris, Kej collaborated with more than five hundred musicians from more than forty countries.
For Kej, the most important thing in tackling the climate crisis is behavioural change.
“We always are waiting for somebody else to make a difference,” he told Changing Times. “We’re waiting for governments to make a difference. We’re waiting for NGOs, corporations, and inter-governmental bodies to make a difference.
“The only way to bring about massive change right now is through behavioural change because, at the end of the day, it’s the habits that need to change. Right now, all of us are just consuming too much and too much of everything. The mass consciousness of people needs to change.”
Kej also says we need to change the way that we function as democracies. We need to elect the right people, he says, and start rewarding leaders for doing the right thing. “We need to let them know that if you do things for the environment, you’re going to get reelected.”
The arts play a very important role in conveying messages about the climate crisis, Kej says. “Music is not just a powerful language for communicating a message, but also for retaining that message deep into the head of a listener.”
It’s easier in Western countries for people to be environmentally conscious than in a country like India, where more than 300 million people are living below the poverty line, Kej says. People are tackling hunger, sexual violence, gender inequality, and job shortages. In remote villages, people don’t have electricity, or sewage systems. They are still trying to survive.
“In a country like India, or any developing nation all over the world, one cannot have a solely environmental agenda, it needs to be an overall development agenda.”
The people who are most affected by climate change are not the ones at fault, Kej says.
Key started an education programme in schools in India called “My Earth Songs”. There are 27 songs, written by Kej, that are based on the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). One is about sharing, and tackling poverty, one is about not wasting food, and one is about the rhinoceros. One teaches children what a carbon footprint is. All the songs are written like nursery rhymes, in very simple language.
The songs, in English, are in 4.9 million textbooks across India. They have been translated into multiple Indian languages and it is hoped that, by 2022, they will be in about 11 million textbooks.
There are schools in Nigeria, South Africa, and Australia that have started adopting the songs.
There are three major climate change challenges, Kej says. One is education, the second is economics, and the third is alternatives. “Alternatives is a huge, huge problem,” Kej said.
“We have always believed that everything was infinite. But now, all of a sudden, we realise that the atmosphere is super thin. We realise that water resources are very limited.”
Everyone is aware that there are environmental problems, Kej says, and now “it’s just about pushing people towards action”.
Kej says that, without exception, it’s the fossil fuel industry that is funding scientists who argue that climate change doesn’t exist.
“It’s sometimes very important, rather than shaming people into action, to actually make people fall in love with the natural world and hopefully, through that love, we will find it within ourselves to conserve, to protect, and to sustain.”
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