There is a phrase in Hindi, “bada jaanwar” (large animal), which the writer has heard used to great effect in certain artistic circles. Everywhere one turns, there are large beasts of emotion, of ambition, of transport, of technology.
On the morning of the second day of the Jaipur Literature Festival, she encounters the large beasts of human thought – religion, politics, values, and classics.
She walks in late to the curiously named session, ‘God as a Political Philosopher – Dalit Perspectives on Buddhism’. It is very hard to make sense of what is being said, but everything sounds large and hoofy. It is a restive bull of a discussion, and it makes her nervous. Ajay Navaria is starting to say something about conversions in “only one particular community” and that one could also accomplish the same thing – Freeing modern Hinduism of caste? Belief in a spiritual force rather than a pantheon with cruel rules? What? – by moving back towards Vedic era Hinduism. Or perhaps, this is not what he is trying to say.
The writer cannot wrestle with this particular thought. There’s more to chew on. Kancha Ilaiah has said that things might have been different if we had had Buddhist democracy rather than Hindu democracy. Javed Akhtar, who is in the audience, raises a ripple of laughter and a smattering of applause when he compares the freedom to choose a religion to suicide – “If you are bent on committing suicide, how does it matter what method you choose?”
Patrick French is on his feet, trying to somehow wrap up the discussion. Suhel Seth, also in the audience, is urgently trying to speak and will not be denied. He is gesticulating, hand raised first and then he himself stands up. Someone sitting up on stage protests and tells Seth that he gets enough time on TV to have his say.
Later, the writer encounters another large animal – the peddling of values. The sponsors put out a video that is pegged to ‘values’ between sessions. She cannot tell what these values are, and how much their purchase. Javed Akhtar cannot resist carrying forward his point about religion. He points out that religiosity in any society is inversely proportional to human values, and justice.
Seth takes the mic takes and offers a neat line about the government denying visas to Pakistani visitors; something about the JLF being a place of minds without borders rather than mindless borders. Standing behind the writer, a woman laughs and says, “Well! Suhel Seth has given his sound byte.”
The writer lingers to hear Akhtar expand on ‘Bollywood and the National Narrative’. Socialism and rebellion, vigilantes and extra-constitutional forces, the cynicism that will not allow us to be angry for too long. He speaks of how hard it is to build villains into the national narrative, now that the national ambition is money. Large, large beasts of mind and tongue.
The writer slips away to the session where they’re talking about classics. She arrives in time to hear Tom Holland refer to computers as classics. Later, Elif Batuman says that one of her favourite classics is Anna Karenina, that her twitter handle is Banana Karenina, that she has not yet watched the new movie based on the novel, but that Banana Republic has launched a new clothing line based on the character. Batuman manages to weave all of this, and her response to all of it, into a sentence that ends with the image of poor Karenina’s head being severed.
This bewildered writer looks longingly at the stall selling banana bread. She ought to have had a sturdier breakfast. The day is a bull with horns and it must be taken.