India

Jaipur Literature Festival goes hybrid with a multitude of online and on-ground sessions

Conversations from JLF 2022

The 15th edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival was a hybrid event, with an online programme running from March 5 to 14 and an on-ground event for five days from March 10.

This year, the festival moved from its former home at Diggi Palace to its new venue, the Clarks Amer hotel.

Five hundred speakers took part in JLF 2022. Because of Covid-19, few speakers travelled from abroad, but the festival retained its international feel, with participants from countries that included the UK, the US, Haiti, Norway, Canada, Australia, Indonesia, Ireland, Turkey, Singapore, the Netherlands, Jamaica, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Welcoming the audience at the start of the online event, festival co-director Namita Gokhale  said: “The clouds of war are gathering around our planet; even as we struggle to recover from the pandemic, we are faced by chaos and disruption.

“Through all this, the inspirations of literature, of music and poetry and the solace of our shared stories have continued to sustain us. The Jaipur Literature Festival 2022 will be immersive and experiential, a celebration of heart, mind and intellect.”

Sanjoy Roy, who is the managing director of Teamwork Arts, the company that produces JLF, said the 2021 festival, which was entirely digital, reached more than 27.5 million people across the world.

“Today you don’t need to be physically present in Jaipur, you can be a part of this celebration from the comfort of your home,” he said.

Shombi Sharp

In his inaugural address on March 10, ‘Peace, dignity and equality on a healthy planet’, the United Nations resident coordinator for India, Shombi Sharp, told the audience: “If 1.3 billion people take mindful steps each in their consumption habits, recycling, conserving energy, turning to renewables, we can generate massive collective action.”

He added: “All in India, everyone in this room, all of you online, we must commit to throwing our weight together, the whole weight together, to tackle the triple planetary crisis. Together we are an irresistible force.”

Speaking about what he called “the senseless invasion of Ukraine”, Sharp said that Russia’s action reminded everyone that, “in addition to the horrific human costs unfolding” the world’s continued dependence on fossil fuels meant greater vulnerability for all countries to external geopolitical and environmental shocks, “a vicious confluence of war, pandemic, and climate change”.

Empire of Pain

Patrick Radden Keefe (right) and Sanjoy Roy.

On the first day of JLF 2022 online, the American writer Patrick Radden Keefe talked about his book Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty, which traces the Sackler family’s role in the opioid crisis in which more than 400,000 people died in the US alone. The book won the Baillie Gifford Prize for 2021.

The Sackler family’s company, Purdue Pharma, manufactured the highly addictive prescription painkiller OxyContin and made billions of dollars from sales of the drug.

“Part of what I was trying to do in the book was tell a story not just about the opioid crisis of the last few decades but really take a deeper look at the history of the big pharma industry in the United States and the ways in which that industry, I think, has compromised a lot of public institutions, public regulators, and so forth,” Radden Keefe told Sanjoy Roy.

Radden Keefe talked about how Arthur Sackler led the field in medical advertising. He realised that the people he primarily needed to reach were not the consumers, but the doctors because the doctors were the ones who wrote the prescriptions.

“When I started studying these advertisements, I think a lot of them were quite deceptive,” Radden Keefe said. “But that was his secret weapon … he realised you want to try and persuade doctors; that’s the way you’ll make a blockbuster drug.

“His first huge success was in the tranquiliser business; these were the big drugs of the day, the so-called minor tranquilisers. The drug Valium was a drug whose marketing Arthur Sackler designed. He was the one who rolled out Valium in the United States, and it made him very, very rich.”

Within a few years of the OxyContin rollout it became clear that people were overdosing and dying, but the Sacklers continued to go full speed ahead, Radden Keefe told Roy.

“And when people raised issues, whether it was journalists or sometimes their own employees, or there were lawsuits from the outside, they fought. They said ‘We’re going to fight for this drug and fight to expand access and expand the market’, even in the face of all these messages that people were dying.”

Every step of the way, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had been pretty obliging with the Sacklers, Radden Keefe says.

Talking about the relationship between the pharmaceutical industry, certain politicians, and the FDA he said: “I think there are all kinds of ostensibly very respectable senators and congresspeople who are bought and paid for by the industry and push through things that are really not in the best interests of citizens and consumers. I don’t know that the FDA has learned its lessons.”

An army of lobbyists lobby the government, Radden Keefe says. “The mechanisms for influence peddling get more sophisticated, more robust, more pervasive,” he said.

“You have all kinds of people who are government regulators, even government prosecutors, who know that eventually they may want to leave government, they may have a mortgage to pay for their house. they may want to put their kids through college and they know that the industry is there and might have jobs for them.”

Radden Keefe sued the FDA to try and obtain emails sent by the regulator who approved OxyContin and then went to work for Purdue Pharma.

He told Roy: “I got a federal judge in New York to say that the agency had to turn over these emails to me and the FDA came back – this is just recently – and they said “Oh, we’re sorry, we don’t have any of those emails; they’ve all been lost or destroyed’.”

OxyContin, Radden Keefe points out, is stronger than morphine. He told Roy that when the Purdue Pharma executives realised that doctors were not aware of this fact, they decided to do nothing to enlighten the doctors as this would shrink the market for the drug. “It takes my breath away, the cynicism of these exchanges,” Radden Keefe said.

He explained how, just as the patent on the original drug was about to run out, nearly 15 years after the rollout in 1996, the Sacklers reformulated OxyContin to make it harder to abuse.

They told the FDA that the original drug was not safe, and was in fact quite dangerous, so the agency should prevent anyone else from producing a generic version, Radden Keefe explained.

“The FDA obliged them,” he said. “It’ll make your head spin.”

There was a point when it seemed like thousands of public and private lawsuits were going to be resolved when Purdue Pharma declared bankruptcy. However, Radden Keefe explained, a federal judge in New York reviewed the case and said the bankruptcy judge should not be able to wish away all the lawsuits and protect the Sackler family. The case is ongoing.

The Sackler family had pulled more than $10 billion out of the company over about a decade, then declared bankruptcy for the company, but not the family.

“It seemed very clear how this story would end …. with the bad guys getting away with it in the end, and this judge in New York has said ‘not too fast’,” Radden Keefe told Roy.

Radden Keefe says his intention with Empire of Pain was to write something accessible “that people who may not have any particular interest in the opioid crisis or big pharma, and the sort of business side of this story, could nevertheless find approachable, as a narrative”.

What he wanted to do, he says, was “tell a story, not so much an opioid crisis story, but a kind of rich, multi-generational family saga”.

A Netflix series called Painkiller, based on an article Radden Keefe wrote about the Sacklers in 2017, is scheduled to come out before the end of 2022 and an updated paperback edition of Empire of Pain is due out soon.

The Island of Missing Trees

Elif Shafak (right) and Nandini Nair.

Also on March 5, the award-winning British-Turkish novelist and activist Elif Shafak discussed her latest novel, The Island of Missing Trees, which has been described as “a delicate tribute to the agony of war, displacement, and undying hope”.

The novel, which moves back and forth in time and place, follows the journey of two displaced Cypriot lovers.

In a review in the Financial Times, Susie Boyt said: “The Island of Missing Trees is a strong and enthralling work; its world of superstition, natural beauty and harsh tribal loyalties becomes your world. Its dense mazes of memory make you set aside your own. It blurs the boundaries between history and natural history in profound and original ways. Oh – and one of the narrators is a fig tree.”

In conversation with the literary and culture editor of Open magazine, Nandini Nair, at JLF Shafak talked about the duality of settling down versus living a more nomadic lifestyle. She talked about the need for sisterhood and solidarity, about politics and power, about memory, about sharing food, and about language.

“I see language as a space, as a zone I enter in and I inhale rather than an instrument that I use and then set aside. So I want to be inside language.”

Shafak says one can be nomadic in relation to language. She has written books in both Turkish and English. She says that, when writing in Turkish, she used a richer language than the one used in people’s lives. She says the vocabulary of the Turkish language has shrunk over time and she loves to use both old and new words.

“My connection with English is more cerebral. My connection with Turkish is more emotional,” Shafak said. “And I realised over the years if my writing has sorrow, melancholy, longing, I find these things much easier to express in Turkish, but humour, which I love and I adore, and irony and satire, are always much easier in English.”

Shafak says that choosing to write in English was not an easy decision for her. “It was more like an intuitive thing rather than a rational decision.

“I needed another space of freedom. Being a Turkish writer is very heavy; being a woman writer in Turkey is even heavier.

“I needed a little bit of space, a little bit of distance, and writing in English, even though it was a big challenge for me, gave me that sense of freedom.”

Nair asked Shafak what she considered to be the language of love. Shafak said it was the sound and the flow of water. “What I mean by that is change. Love requires change … Love changes us and we need to allow that change to happen.”

Shafak also said that, for her, the language of love was freedom. “Love is not about possessiveness,” she told Nair. It was not about “my wife, my husband, my partner, my boyfriend or girlfriend …”

Shafak talked to Nair about Cyprus and the border that separates Christians from Muslims, and Greek Cypriots from Turkish Cypriots. “It divides across ethnic lines and religious lines at the same time,” she said.

She also talked about being brought up by two strong women: her grandmother and her mother, who was divorced. She says she got her love for written culture from her mother and, from her grandmother, she got her love for oral traditions.

“What really stayed with me is the solidarity between these two women. I’m a big believer in sisterhood and I think when and if women manage to support each other, the impact of that goes beyond generations,” Shafak said.

“Had my grandmother not supported my mother’s independence … our lives would have been completely different. So women have to support each other and I think solidarity and sisterhood is needed even more today.”

Shafak talked about the importance of sharing food and how foods travel beyond divisions.

“I honestly think food is always more than food,” she said. “It’s a way of communication.

“If we could break bread together; if we could maybe share food or water together and look each other in the eye, maybe there would be less misunderstandings and less quarrels in the world. It makes a huge difference when you can share your food with someone.”

Shafak talked about the fig tree that is central to The Island of Missing Trees, and about the botanical technique of burying fig trees during the cold of winter, which she first came across when she was a visiting scholar in the US.

Italian immigrants, and especially the older generation, kept up with the tradition of burying their fig trees, Shafak said. “They dig a trench in the ground; they push the tree, after pruning it, gently into the ground and cover it with organic material like straw or earth, and the idea is to keep the tree warm there and, when the spring comes, you unbury the tree.”

Shafak notes that the theme of burial and unburial is incredibly important if you’re telling the story of Cyprus “because there are still so many untold stories out there”.

She says we need to pay attention to oral culture “because sometimes oral culture is the keeper of memories that are erased by written culture”.

Shafak says she wants her work to bridge the worlds of written and oral culture. “I find it very important that literature should bring the periphery to the centre and rehumanise people who have been dehumanised,” she told Nair.

“If we ignore memory, if we ignore the responsibilities that come with memory, we can never grow up, we can never be mature as individuals and as communities and societies.

“Memory is a responsibility we need to learn. We need to face both the beauties but also the dark side of our own histories and we need to share the sorrow. We need to understand and become better listeners. We need more nuanced, pluralistic readings of history.”

Shafak notes that, in immigrant families, the elderly are the ones who experienced the biggest hardships and sometimes hidden traumas, but they don’t have a language to talk about these things.

She told the JLF audience: “The second generation is not that interested in the past, understandably, because they’re busy building a new life, they have to be forward looking, future oriented, they need to find their feet …

“It’s the third or the fourth generations in these families … who are asking the sharpest, strongest questions about identity, memory, their ancestors’ journeys, so you can come across young people carrying old memories, or willing to understand these old memories.”

For Shafak, novelists who deal with a large canvas of ideas cannot be apolitical.

“If you happen to be a storyteller from a broken democracy, such as Turkey, such as Brazil, and that list is actually getting longer and longer today, then I do not have the luxury of being non-political,” she said.

“ … when so much is happening outside the window, you cannot say ‘I don’t want to talk about what’s going on outside the window, I only want to talk about my poetry, I only want to talk about my fiction’.

“You can’t say that, at least about core issues such as human rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, rule of law, the loss of media freedoms; there are some core issues about which we cannot be silent.”

Shafak clarifies that she doesn’t mean that politics is her guide. She doesn’t like party or partisan politics. “We need to redefine politics … wherever there is a power imbalance, there is politics there,” she said.

“Writers have to ask political questions, but always leave the answers to the reader … Literature is our guide; the art of storytelling is our guide, but within a novel there is always politics.”

At the end of the discussion with Nair, Shafak talked about inherited pain and about the effect of trauma on trees.

“We like to think we are the centre of the universe and we are superior to all other creatures,” Shafak said. “We need to stop seeing ourselves as superior to others or at the centre of the universe and we need to understand that we’re only a small part of a very complex ecosystem, and, in that regard, I think we have a lot to learn from trees.”

There are very interesting studies, Shafak says, that show that trees that have experienced some kind of trauma like wildfire or droughts respond differently to other traumas. “Saplings that have descended from trees that have experienced trauma also respond differently,” she said.

There’s a remarkable body of work about trees and nature, Shafak says, but there is still much we haven’t discovered.

“I really think we need to pay more attention and urgently reconnect with nature and learn more from trees,” she said.

Boys Don’t Cry

On the first day of the on-ground festival, writer Meghna Pant spoke movingly to novelist, psychotherapist, and presenter Lucy Beresford about her novel Boys Don’t Cry. While the thriller has roots in the reality of Pant’s experience of domestic abuse in her first marriage, it is not a true story. Pant is now happily married and has two young daughters.

In Boys Don’t Cry, the abused woman is arrested as the prime suspect for the murder of her ex-husband.

A film company, Pocket Aces, has begun work on making a movie of the book.

Pant told Beresford that one in every three women in India was a victim of domestic abuse. “That means 200 million women,” Pant said. “Abuse doesn’t have to mean physical abuse … I think 90% of my marriage was emotional abuse. I was stripped of all my sense of self.”

The abuse that Pant suffered was “very carefully constructed”, she says. The aim was to make her believe that she wasn’t being abused.

Boys Don’t Cry took Pant 15 years to put together. “It is the first time in my life that I’ve written something that’s directly taken from my own life,” she said.

Pant told how she stayed put in an abusive marriage for five years “despite my education, despite my ‘modernity’, despite my awareness”. She didn’t even know that she was being abused, she told the audience on the  JLF Front Lawn.

“Every time I’d start writing the book I would break down because it was so overwhelming Finally, I really put it together when I was pregnant with my second child in 2019/2020.”

Meghna Pant

Pant spoke about how her husband-to-be hit her two weeks before the wedding, but she still got married. So much pressure is put on women getting married in India that they simply cannot cancel their wedding, she says.

“I keep telling people … stop wasting your money on saving for your daughter’s wedding; save it for her dreams instead, save that money and put it into a company that she wants to start, or if she wants to go to Harvard and study, or she wants to be the CEO of her own company … or pay for the down payment for her first flat.

“Invest it in things that will empower the girl, not suppress her … empower her so much that she can pay for own grandiose wedding.”

Pant talked about how an abuser will try and isolate a woman. She had herself left India and her job at NDTV and was in New York City. “I’ve always been a very straightforward person. What you see is what you get. It took me a while to even identify that these are mind games that were being played not just by the guy but also by his parents,” she said.

When Pant first wrote about domestic abuse in the magazine Femina she received thousands of messages.

“There was one actress – I’ll not name her – she called me up and said ‘Meghna, my actor husband … threw me out of a moving car’.

“A dancer messaged me on Facebook and she said ‘Meghna, my boyfriend broke my spine and I can’t dance anymore.

“It was like an outpouring of messages. Women have not been allowed to express what they’re going through.”

Pant tells a disturbing story in Boys Don’t Cry that is based on what happened to her one night when she was living in Dubai. She had started to menstruate and her husband stopped her from accessing her sanitary napkins, then allowed her to go and get them, but with a five-minute countdown.

She says it still makes her angry that she allowed someone to abuse her to such a degree; to the degree that she became suicidal.

The most important kind of love, she says, is self-love.

Pant talked to Beresford about grappling with the question of how one falls out of love.

“We can identify the exact moment we fell in love with somebody, especially somebody we choose as a life partner, but we never talk to people about how to fall out of love … is it a moment that you fall out of love with somebody or is it several moments?

“Do you take a piece of yourself out or do you take your whole self out?”

For Pant, the moment came when she started sleeping with a knife under her pillow.

She says she is now very grateful for every single moment of success or happiness that she gets. The reason she wrote Boys Don’t Cry was not just to talk about her story, she says, but to give a message of hope and redemption.

She urges people to stop making domestic abuse such a private matter. “I have not written this book so that I can wash my dirty laundry in public or air my grievances.

“I’ve written this book so we can take the conversation forward with a message of hope that you can fight back and you should fight back … Just acknowledge what you are going through; admit it to yourself … Remove yourself as far away from the perpetrator as you can, and heal yourself.”

Pant says that men who are abused are in a particularly difficult situation as they cannot talk about the abuse at all. They have been told that they are not allowed to express their emotions or show their vulnerability.

“People will make fun of them if they say that my girlfriend or my wife hit me,” Pant said. “So it’s not just women; it’s also men who are not able to talk about domestic violence and abuse in any form or shape. So let’s remove this taboo.”

Pant says feminism is not men versus women. “I don’t hate men,” she said. “The strongest role models in my life are my brother, my father, and my husband. It’s not about men versus women, but men and women versus patriarchy, a system that has been unjust to both genders.”

The Mediterranean Wall

Also on March 10, Haitian poet and novelist Louis-Philippe Dalembert, in conversation with publisher and writer Naveen Kishore, talked about his book The Mediterranean Wall, which has been described as “painting journeys of equal hardship and hope in the midst of a forbidding escape by sea”.  He spoke about “the radical uprootedness of people everywhere”.

Dalembert talked about what home means to him. “I feel home where they treat me well,” he said. “It’s not a physical place … The concept of home, it can be very, very large … Home can be everywhere for us, and identity is not just something monolithic.”

The Mediterranean Wall, which was written in French and translated by Marjolijn de Jager, is set in a dilapidated, overcrowded boat in which three women struggle to escape violence, poverty, and famine in Libya and dream of a better life in Europe.

Louis-Philippe Dalembert

Dalembert, who writes in French and Haitian-Creole, has been described as “an incisive, empathetic chronicler of the African diaspora and among the most powerful voices of his generation”.

It is Dalembert’s view that one can write about another’s experience with empathy. It’s not necessary, he says, to write only from one’s own experience. “I’ve never been white, and I’ve never been a woman, for example, and I’ve written novels where the main characters are white and are women,” he said. “You don’t have to have experienced something to write about it.”

In The Mediterranean Wall, one of the characters is a woman from Syria, Dima, who, at the beginning, doesn’t have empathy for the two other women, Semhar, who is running away from conscription in Eritrea, and Shoshana, who was driven from Nigeria by climate change and hunger.

“At the end of the novel, she had empathy because I think that human beings can progress; you can change your mind,” Dalembert said.

He notes though, that having the same experiences is not necessarily a link to friendship or to love.

Dalembert talked about how he grapples with writing in three different languages when he also speaks two others (Spanish and Italian).

If he is writing a story set, for example, in Cuba or Italy, but is writing in French, words will come to him in Spanish or Italian. And he at times needs to express in French (‘translate’ into French) an aspect of Caribbean or Creole “imagination”.

Even if you speak and write in only one language, Dalembert says, you are supposed, as a writer, to find your own language, “the language that can ‘translate’ your sensibility as a human being, as a man or as a woman”.

We are always translating when we are writing, Dalembert says.

‘Women Who Wear Only Themselves’

The award-winning author and poet Arundhathi Subramaniam spoke in four sessions at JLF 2022 and also gave a poetry reading.

“I’ve been a spiritual seeker, I think, for as long as I can remember, perhaps not in a way that I ever defined to myself; in many ways, a closet seeker for a long time. And then one day one could be in the closet no longer,” Subramaniam said in a discussion about ‘The Sacred Feminine’ with art historian, curator and author Alka Pande and the renowned academic and author Malashri Lal on March 11.

Arundhathi Subramaniam

Subramaniam, who is the author of 13 books of prose and poetry, said that, on her spiritual journey, she had not heard enough women’s voices, and particularly the voices of contemporary women. She recalled how, every time she read any account of the religious history of the Indian subcontinent, she would come across the names of male religious reformers, scriptural scholars, and institution builders, but the women were “shadowy presences always”.

Talking about her latest book, Women Who Wear Only Themselves: Conversations with Four Travellers on Sacred Journeys, Subramaniam described the four women in it as crazily diverse.

“One is in a contemplative tradition, the other is of the ecstatic tradition. One is a tantric, one is a bhakta, one is a devotee, one is an intellectual. One is a monk, the other wears blue jeans, and the third wears no clothes at all. That’s how diverse they are.

“And each one of them on a path so singular, so idiosyncratic, so compelling that I just felt grateful to be around as a listener.”

In a separate session on March 14, entitled ‘Women who wear only themselves: yoga, poetry and culture’ Subramaniam was in conversation with managing trustee at The Yuva Ekta Foundation Puneeta Roy.

Subramaniam told Roy that one of the spiritual travellers in her latest book, the writer-filmmaker Lata Mani, started out as a Marxist and a feminist. She had a car accident that plunged her into a spiritual journey.

“Tantra is her path. The Devi is her guide,” Subramaniam said. “And she now realises that her Marxism and her feminism are not antagonistic in any way to this journey. The two go together.”

Lata Mani had a cataclysmic brain injury, which should have ended life as she knew it, Subramaniam says, and it did, but that became the turning point and something else opened up.

“So I think trapdoors beneath our feet are waiting to open up. We tumble into them. They are dark; terrifying; and then there is a kind of freedom as well, and that possibility exists for every human being. All it really takes is to be willing to be surprised; human.”

Subramaniam spoke again about her “thirst” for the voices of women. In subtle ways “and sometimes not so subtle ways”, women walk the spiritual path somewhat differently to men, she said.

She says the diversity of the women in her book points to “the absolutely crazy plurality of sacred paths still available to us in this country”.

Subramaniam says the women she writes about are following their journey, improvising on their journey, and inventing their journey all at once.

“There is really no spiritual journey that can allow you to live in compartments,” she said.

Subramaniam spoke about Bhakti poetry, which is a form of poetry that began in India in the 6th century and traditionally celebrates love for, and devotion to, specific Hindu gods.

Bhakti, Subramaniam says, is not passive yearning. “Bhakti is this wild, destabilising disruptive science of the heart.”

Subramaniam said the Bhakti poets spoke to her about the fact that devotion (Bhakti) is not about servitude.

“They reminded me that surrender is not about enslavement; they reminded me that dissent is not about disloyalty. They reminded me that God or guru is not your boss, but your birthright.

“And when that became a living reality in many ways, I realised that the Bhakti poets all along, at least in the poetry, are inviting us again and again to question hierarchy.”

Subramaniam talked to Roy about consecrated practice. “It doesn’t require you to follow any belief system. It doesn’t require you to follow a particular person … It just requires you to allow that practice to ripen and deepen within you. Bhakti is a commitment to that inner journey. Bhakti it is not about uncritical surrender to any one person.

“Certainly, that is the tragedy, I think, when we speak of Bhakti in terms of allegiance to the far right, the way it’s being used today. It’s a travesty of the word Bhakti. Bhakti has nothing to do with that. Bhakti’s not about a dictator. The deity was never a dictator. The deity was always this endearingly fallible, human loving divine.”

Answering a question from Roy (pictured left) about the place of the Goddess and connecting with the divine feminine Subramaniam said that, after visiting the newly consecrated Linga Bhairavi temple at the Isha Yoga Centre, she realised that no one needed to explain the Goddess to her anymore.

“No one needed to explain to me how the Goddess is meant to be approached. There was a deep sense of recognition, joy, the sense of kinship under the skin and yet the sense of the great pride and freedom that is possible when you realise that the theism of this relationship allows you to see her as the divine mother and friend and someone whom you’re deeply connected to under the skin as well.”

Subramaniam said that, for her, the Goddess had become “that principle that engages, that gets her hands messy in the business of life, who understands the particular, who doesn’t need you to translate your predicament in any way”.

For Subramaniam, her guru was “the road map back to myself” and the Goddess was a reminder that she had never left.

The connection for Subramaniam between poetry and her spiritual journey is that neither of them is really about conclusion.

“None of them is about certainty. The connection for me between poetry and the spiritual journey is that both of them are invitations to arrive at a spirited response to uncertainty.

“They’re both about living in wonder; they’re both about living in bewilderment. They’re both about not knowing, and realising that not knowing is not cowardice; that conclusions in fact are often about cowardice.”

Subramaniam says that, when she started out as a young poet, she was excited by metaphor, rhythm and the sensuousness of language, and all that endured. “What I had not prepared myself for were the silences that are also an integral part of poetry,” she said.

Blank spaces on a page of poetry matter, Subramaniam says. “They are the source of those words in  the first place.”

DBC Pierre

DBC Pierre (left) and Jeet Thayil

The conversation between prize-winning Australian writer DBC Pierre and Indian journalist, author, and poet Jeet Thayil on the last day of JLF 2022 was a compelling exploration of ideas.

DBC Pierre’s debut novel, Vernon God Little, was the first book to win both a Booker Prize and a Whitbread award. It was published in 43 territories.

His new book, Meanwhile in Dopamine City, is the story of Lonny Cush, a sanitation worker and single parent who is trying to protect his children from what is described as the “hysterical hyper-reality of 21st century life”.

Pierre writes at night and edits the next day. “Your brainwaves change at night and I think we get better waves; we get dream waves even if you’re awake,” he told the audience on the JLF’s main stage, the Front Lawn.

“And also, the whole world around you is dreaming and the air is probably full of dreams and it could be that I sit up stealing people’s dreams and writing them down.”

He also says he doesn’t like anyone looking over his shoulder, so he has to work as if in secret. “Night time is perfect for that because not only will people not call me, but they’re asleep; they can’t even think about calling me and so I feel completely free,” he said.

Pierre, whose original name is Peter Finlay, has a clear and unflinching view of what the big-tech companies are aiming for with their use of algorithms.

“They know who you look up to, who you look down upon. If you have a fitness watch, they know your blood pressure any time of day. They know your sleep cycle. They know what your friends are saying about you. They know what you’re saying about your friends,” he said.

“The algorithm’s learning what makes you hit the button like a chicken and they’re looking to create a market of certainty where there’s no more hit and miss.”

The Facebook algorithm seeks to foster childhood mental health problems, Pierre says. “It knows where they are; it creates them; conflict and depression are much more profitable than happiness,” he told Thayil and the JLF audience.

Between this month and next, Pierre says, we will see the final step of the world turning into two simple tribes, which will then “go for each other”. It’s happening today as we speak, he said.

Responding to a question about today’s ‘cancel culture’, Pierre said: “We’re increasingly trapped inside a teapot like a budgerigar. Weirdly, at the same time as they’re talking about free speech, our speech is less free than it ever was, tomorrow will be less still, and the day after will be even less still.

“The arguments are condensing into fewer and fewer arguments.”

The only place we have left, the only corridor or backstage behind all of this, including cancel culture, is literature, Pierre says. It is, he says, the only place still not infected by money and politics.

“All the answers are in literature,” Pierre told the JLF audience. “So we need this, we need the festival, we need books, and we need all of you to stick together now more than ever.”

Pierre says that writing under a pen name gave him freedom. “If you see your family name, it comes psychologically with a lot of pressures and expectations from your family and from the world. Take that away, so you can be free.”

As an author, Pierre sets up situations with his characters in which he makes things really difficult for them, then sees what happens.

“I think that is technically our job as novelist, if we want the novel to move forward,” he said.

Pierre sees the repetitive formula in which humans take action, face resistance, enter conflict and are defeated, then reflect and gather their wits and go through the process again as a good structure for a novel.

Occasionally in this cycle, we triumph, Pierre says. “If your characters succeeded in the first chapter, that would be the end of the book,” he said.

He says it’s the central tragedy of his life that he didn’t learn to play a musical instrument. “I respond very, very strongly to music,” he told the JLF audience. “I love it. I particularly love the Indian scale.

“I think somebody has said where the language of man ends music begins. And I agree with that, that our highest form is large orchestral music.”

Pierre says that, regardless of what else has to happen in his books, they have to be rhythmic. He likes them to “click along”.

While he is writing, Pierre says, he tends to read no literature that is less than a century old so that it can’t impact him.

“What I love is that we used more language back then. Modernism gave us economy, which I also agree with. Finding the shortest possible way to transmit the message is a nice idea, but I also love painting with words … we used such a bigger vocabulary back then and it makes it a great experience.”

Thayil says he tries not to read fiction while he is writing “because it always puts white noise in your head and it interferes”. Reading poetry, and hearing the rhythms of it in your head, helps in prose writing, Thayil says, and every prose writer should read poems.

Talking about his Air India flight to Jaipur from Britain, where he currently lives, Pierre spoke about his love for Bollywood movies, and his enjoyment of Indian food, which, he says is the only cuisine he knows that survives altitude.

Climate solutions

On the last day of JLF 2022, journalist and author Simon Mundy, civil servant and writer Durga Shakti Nagpal, and Mridula Ramesh, who is the author of the critically acclaimed book, The Climate Solution: India’s Climate Change Crisis and What We Can Do About It and founder of the Sundaram Climate Institute, which focuses on waste, water solutions and education, were in conversation with Chinmay Tumbe, who is a faculty member at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad.

In a hugely informative session, the speakers talked about issues ranging from reforestation in Ethiopia, the disappearance of sea ice in Greenland, and the “sand mafia” in India’s Utter Pradesh, to the carbon footprint of food, a world without animal meat, and  the mining of cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Mundy spoke about researching his book Race for Tomorrow: Survival, Innovation and Profit on the Front Lines of the Climate Crisis.

He told the audience about an initiative in Ethiopia in which the prime minster, Abiy Ahmed Ali, has mobilised the population with the aim of planting billions of trees.

“Ethiopia used to be covered with forest and it’s just been progressively hacked away over the last century,” Mundy said. “It’s left the country far more vulnerable to extremes of both drought and flooding.”

Aforestation and reforestation need to be a crucial part of how we tackle the climate crisis, Mundy says, but we need to be careful about how we do it.

“There are obvious risks with actually disrupting very rich existing ecosystems by imposing a monoculture of trees.

“When it comes to offsetting the amount of carbon we have in the atmosphere already my personal take is that technology will have to play a role in it. I don’t think we have enough land available to plant enough trees to bring down the level of carbon to the extent that’s needed.”

Mundy spoke about visiting Qaanaaq in northern Greenland, a main settlement of the Inuit people, who have been there for for nearly 1,000 years.

“They came on dogsleds over the ice from Canada and their ancient ice hunting traditions are being rapidly eroded by the force of climate change because their whole way of life revolved around taking their dogs out on the sea ice.

“Now the sea ice is disappearing. It’s getting thinner and thinner.”

Simon Mundy

The thinning of the ice is, however, great news if you’re a mining company, Mundy points out.

“Very close to Qaanaaq there’s a London-listed small-cap mining company called Blue Jay who have started developing one of the world’s great reserves of titanium ore,” he said.

“The head of Blue Jay told me ‘Without climate change, this wouldn’t be possible. Climate change is what’s enabling us to get our boats in and out to get that titanium ore out’.”

In the capital Nuuk, Mundy met a mining minister who, Mundy says, described the situation very bluntly.

The minister told Mundy that, for the culture of Greenland, climate change was a disaster, but economically, for the country’s industry, it could be very helpful.

“That was one example of the tensions and contradictions just within one country,” Mundy said, “but you see them all over the place.

“There will be people seeking to make money from climate change, even if the consequences overall are going to be vastly more negative.”

Mundy also talked about the mining of cobalt, which is used in electric car batteries.

Cobalt is vital to the green transition, Mundy says, but most of it comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is a very troubled, poor, and corrupt country.

“A lot of the cobalt that comes from there is mined in very dangerous conditions,” Mundy said. “I went down inside one of these 40-foot-deep informal mines; you go down there barefoot; they can collapse at any time.”

Mundy says we need to make sure that, as we move towards a lower carbon economy, we also take the opportunity to change other aspects of our current economy that are not working well.

“So, as we make it lower emissions, let’s also make it fairer, generally cleaner, less exploitative.”

Mridula Ramesh (pictured below) told the Jaipur audience: “Water, in my opinion, is the lead actress of the climate change drama whereas the carbon is the executive producer.”

The production of food connects the issues of water and carbon, Ramesh said.

“One of the biggest risks to forests is the grazing,” Ramesh told the JLF audience. “Three-fourths of Indian forests are subject to grazing and, when you have that, you invite potential for conflict … and then when you have conflict you have reprisal.”

When a forest suffers disturbance, this makes it vulnerable, Ramesh says.

In India’s rural economy, Ramesh points out, livestock are a source of cash flow, for example for dairy farmers. For solutions to be found that protect the forests, this cash flow aspect has to be thought about, she says.

Nagpal says we need to bring the matter of health into the discussion about food. “Health can be of two kinds: the immediate health of your own body and mind and the long-term health of the climate,” she said. She spoke about the carbon footprint of exotic fruits that are consumed after travelling thousands of miles across the globe.

“We are having corn from America; we are having apples from New Zealand; we are having dairy products from Netherlands,” she said.

Rating restaurants and products is now very popular, Nagpal says, so why not rate food according to its impact on climate and people’s health.

Mundy talks in Race for Tomorrow about the CEO and founder of the California-based company ‘Impossible Foods’, Patrick O’Reilly Brown.

“As far as he’s concerned, there is just absolutely no need for an animal meat industry at all,” Mundy said. “So he has created this process to develop beefburgers that are actually made of plants that are indistinguishable, even to real carnivore beefburger fans, from the real thing.”

Patrick Brown’s stated mission is that he wants to destroy the US beef industry by 2035, Mundy says.

Mundy also talked about cultured meat that is being grown in bioreactors, for example by the company Aleph Farms in Israel.

“They’re actually growing not just burgers but actually whole steaks using technology that was originally pioneered in medicine … at the moment it’s very expensive, but they insist that, in the long term, it could be cheaper.”

Durga Shakti Nagpal

Nagpal told the JLF audience about her battle against the ‘sand mafia’ in Noida, which is the administrative headquarters of the Gautam Buddha Nagar district of Uttar Pradesh.

She spoke about her first civil service posting as a sub-divisional magistrate in Gautam Buddha Nagar.

“I was in my office only for three days and there was a huge flux of farmers who come to my office and they say that their crops, their fields, their farming, everything is being destroyed by way of illegal dredging of sand; their houses they are getting at risk of being flooded,” Nagpal said.

Nagpal came to understand that the Yamuna River, which flows through Noida, was very rich in silt and sand and was a huge market for the construction industry.

“When the illegal dredging of sand happens, the floodplains of the Yamuna River go lower and deeper and the river changes its course,” she said. “And when it changes its course it goes closer and closer to the farming fields where the farming is being done, and to the houses where the farmers are living.”

The authorities started conducting night-time raids and, within two weeks, they arrested more than 120 people. They collected royalties to the value of 800 million rupees (about 10.5 million dollars).

The Supreme Court and the National Green Tribunal then pitched in, Nagpal says, and there was a concerted effort, and sustained momentum, in the battle to stop illegal sand mining. It was not limited to farmers anymore.


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