Come September, Srinagar shall transmogrify into Jaipur. The Directors of the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival and Teamwork Productions will descend upon Kashmir to organize an ‘apolitical dialogue’ concerning literature. Makes one reflect, if only in self-amusement, how does one de-link art and literature from politics? And how do you hyphenate the two in a space as political as Kashmir.
News stories from India say the gala literary event will be spread over a couple of days in Srinagar and invites are currently being printed to be dashed off to prominent Kashmiri writers and several Indian authors from the celeb-set. Reports go as far as to suggest that Salman Rushdie will come, which may quite frankly be plain attention-seeking. Blasphemers seldom walk into battlegrounds.
Sanjoy Roy, producer of the fest states that, "The Harud festival will be a great addition to our existing literary and arts festivals in India. It is a privilege to be creating this program with the backdrop of Kashmir and its legacy of literature which has a history of over 2,500 years. We strongly believe that India's multi cultural ethos needs to resonate across the world."
It is astonishing to note that while the organizers scramble about to provide a platform to writers, they choose to either forgo or overpass the silenced tragedy of Kashmir. Is this an effort to mock at the muffled dissent that is so commonplace in Kashmir? When Kashmiris, by and large, cannot express themselves freely, how can a literary fest engage them in a meaningful way?
Talking of a literary tradition that dates back two millennia and attempting to kick-start an apolitical cultural dialogue in Kashmir is akin to lobbing a joke grenade at an audience that is too terrified to laugh. How can one talk about the freedom of speech under the sun when some poor kid is tortured to death at night? Why can’t people be allowed to express condolences, leave alone ideas? Unless the expression is truly free in all forms, how can one celebrate writing and arts?
From times immemorial literature and politics have informed each other. Plato, the great Athenian philosopher wrote Protagoras to use conversation between characters only to make political statements. As Olga Tokarcruz, one of post war Europe’s finest essayist’s writes, ‘There is no literature that can remain nonpolitical in this broad sense of the word, apart from romance novels or pulp fiction, of course. Quality literature, literature that wants to achieve something, is always political.’
Not surprisingly comparisons will be drawn with the Palestinian Literary festival (PalFest). Indeed Harud is going to be nothing like that. The PalFest, that seeks to assert the power of culture over the culture of power, to paraphrase the Late Edward Said, was shut down in 2009 by Israelis in East Jerusalem, prompting the British columnist and writer Jeremy Harding to remark that all cultural events which take place in areas of contention have political undertones. "Talking about what literature is and what it means in a fraught political situation is the most honest thing we can do,” he added.
One may forgive Times of India, once a wonderful newspaper, now reduced to shallow yellow journalism, for headlining Harud as ‘Kashmir Valley turns a page, starts a literature fest’. A celeb-set of authors dissecting oral traditions of Kashmir and band-pather et al, complete with a musical jig by amateur artists – with drums and guitars and microphones – playing to a young crowd swaying to them indeed makes great headlines. But it also sends out a message. There is normalcy. While there isn’t any. What is on display is invented normalcy, or semi-normalcy, if you may.
Kashmir is a place where the crises of legitimacy stares you in the face. There are important questions to be answered. Who will be excluded? Will the seditious Arundhati Roy qualify as a speaker, given the apolitical theme of the fest? Will Fatima Bhutto explain culture to young Kashmiris in her American accented English? The White House spokesperson pronounces Pakistan better than her.
If one were to scratch beneath the glossy image – the lush lawns, imposing mountain backdrop, artsy types in Fab India Kurtas, the tourist brochure Dal, good-looking people, famous authors’ with misty Kehwa cups in front of them, Farooq Abdullah's collection of exotic shawls, coffee house perennials – you get the real picture. It is somewhat odd and sadly does not make good headlines. Parents waiting for their jailed children. War orphans with eyes welled up, another Eid without their folks. Mass graves. Section 144.
Every man's memory is his private literature, Aldous Huxley, said one evening. Our memories, over many Haruds, are brimmed over with injustice.