Press Council of India chairman, Markenday Katju's observation that Salman Rushdie is a "poor" and "sub-standard" writer generated considerable debates over the last three days. While Justice Katju was voicing his own opinion on Rushdie's writing (I remain a Rushdie fan) he raised interesting questions about the Jaipur literary festival.
'Jaipur Lit Fest' (JLF) as it is popularly called, has become a platform for India's public diplomacy and cultural diplomacy initiatives in the recent times. However, Justice Katju observed that during the festival,
"there was not enough serious discussion about indigenous literature at the festival, naming Kabir, Premchand, Sharat Chandra, Ghalib and Faiz as writers whose works could have been discussed."
Justice Katju criticised educated Indians and stated that they “suffer from the colonial inferiority complex” and have a fascination for writers (Indian origin writers) based out of London or New York. I had written a post on the CPD Blog of USC Annenberg where I talked about the potential of India' regional literature to influence global popular culture . Justice Katju's observations are significant in the context of the participation of the state in discourses in such platforms. He may not be off the mark completely. I subscribe to the Hindustan Times, which among other things, boasts of an edit team with 'evolved literary sensibilities'. The newspaper has dedicated a separate section for the Lit Fest and unfortunately most of the writers featured there happen to be the "Indian origin writer from the East Coast" or foreign writers of repute. Considering the fact that JLF is also a media spectacle it is not surprising. However we need to introspect if Indian literature stops at that and also how do we use a platform like JLF to tell India's story from a public diplomacy perspective.
Nonetheless, to be fair to Hindustan Times, I was glad to read Amit Chaudhuri's comments on the Rushdie controversy and JLF in the opinion pages today. Commenting on the very closed world of Indian liberals, Chaudhuri observed,
"Liberalism is not just a matter of solidarity, but of an openness to people, even strangers, of disparate social backgrounds, who haven't necessarily been domesticated into the mainstream, and who come together out of a shared respect for the realm of ideas. One has to admit that this isn't the case in India; that our liberals are too over-familiar with one another, and comfortably so. An idea of freedom that emerges out of a closed world, from a sense of entitlement rather than from constant intellectual striving, can experience its crises with only so much urgency."