The Painted and the Tainted

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JLF 2014 (From left) Joseph O’Neill, Rivka Galchen, Philip Hensher and Vikram Chandra
JLF 2014 (From left) Joseph O’Neill, Rivka Galchen, Philip Hensher and Vikram Chandra

If you live in a metropolitan city, chances are your calendar is dotted with festivals, not of the religious kind but the cultural. Don’t tell me you don’t have a list of events such as the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), the Tata Literature Live — Mumbai, the Hindustan Times Kala Ghoda Festival or the Comic Con India that you attended or wished to attend.

Most lit fests started out catering to intellectuals but thanks to gracious sponsorships, have been made free for all. Having caught the fancy of the wider middle class, most often they are crammed with people. This January, in one such packed session at the JLF, the acclaimed writer Jerry Pinto said something that provoked most of us to think. “We are sitting in the ‘Google’ Mughal Tent discussing how crucial the freedom of expression is,” Pinto said animatedly. “Who reads all your mails? Google! Who scans your private data and buying behavior? Google! And here, under its roof, we are discussing how free we should feel while saying whatever we want.”

A fortnight later, on 8 February, I was at another such event. Organised by India’s reputed daily, The Hindu’s Lit for Life (LFL) was held at the Siri Fort Auditorium in New Delhi, after its successful three-day stint at Chennai in mid-January. The guest list was embellished with names of noted luminaries — writers Rana Dasgupta and Sam Miller, archaeological conservationist Ratish Nanda, Olympian Mary Kom (who didn’t turn up), and politician Shazia Ilmi among others. Entry, like for every other literary festival nowadays, was free. Sponsorship must have come easy, after all The Hindu is a big brand, I thought. The ambience resembled a giant Victorian painting, with series of lights, large flexboards, colourful flyers, and a bevy of pretty faces all around, many anguished at not being able to find a seat despite having registered. The beautifully designed logo of the event was aptly shaped as a fountain pen. However there was something below it that disturbed me the moment I saw it. It read, ‘Powered by VIT University.’

Last October, Vellore Institute of Technology (VIT) University, the associate sponsor of the festival, had suppressed the core value that writing champions — freedom of expression. Besides, it failed to do justice to what the female speakers of the event like Mary Kom and Shazia Ilmi symbolise — gender equality and women empowerment. Less than five months ago, in a bid to silence criticism of its campus rules, VIT Vellore had sent two female students home. Their crime: they questioned the gender-discriminatory rules imposed upon female students by the college authorities.

Ironically, The Hindu was one of the only newspapers to report the incident.

As per the rules, female students at VIT need to be back at their hostels by 8 pm (and to campus by 5 pm!), besides showing a fax from their parents to officials granting permission for every outing, however small. The outings cannot exceed two hours during weekdays and four hours on weekends. These rules hold for seven days a week, but only for the girls. Boys don’t have to seek parental permission and can stay out till late (their in-times being 9.30 pm on weekdays and 11.30 pm on weekends). Last October, when one agitated female student went to the authorities with her complaint, The Hindu reports, “her effort [went] futile and her arguments were ridiculed. Following the conversation, she and another student initiated an online survey to help students register their dissent.” Authorities termed this an act of defiance. The duo was sent home after making them delete the offending posts. Citing safety reasons, the authorities brushed aside the debate concerning the larger issue of gender favouritism and choking one’s freedom of speech. The administration didn’t stop there but sacked Dr Theodore Moallem, an American professor working in the university at that time, who had extended his support to these students.

In an age where the Dean of another institution, the Harvard Business School, apologised in public for the school’s treatment of women, VIT’s continued bias is jarring. Shaken by the university’s handling of the issue, I checked the VIT website for its mottos. It didn’t surprise me when I found the core value of the university to be expressed thus, “No discrimination based on race, language, caste, creed or role.” That gender is conveniently omitted from this statement, in a way, lends credence to the double standards that the students have been subjected to. There are over 17,000 students at VIT University, mostly in the age group of 18-23; if they are capable of deciding the government of the country, they can surely decide when to go to bed. If safety is as big a concern, there are other less extreme options for making the campus safer such as recruiting more security guards, installing more lights on campus and having a uniform curfew for both genders. A VIT sophomore who unsurprisingly chose to remain anonymous said, “Right at the beginning, we were made to sign an agreement stating that any of our actions that count as defamation for the university will directly lead to our rustication. We signed up for being submissive and conformist as well.”

This brings me to what the dramatist Maya Krishna Rao said at The Hindu Lit for Life: literature’s role is to provoke, to ask uncomfortable questions, to be the voice of dissent against anything that’s unfair. That she was speaking about it at an event powered by an institution that stifled the very same things, ended up making the entire setup look like a farce.

The irony in a decked up literary festival and its blemished sponsors doesn’t hold true just for The Hindu event, but cuts across to other festivals too. DSC Ltd — the sponsor of a major literary award at the Jaipur Lit Fest (JLF) — was allegedly awarded 23 per cent higher rates in the bidding process of the scam-ridden Commonwealth Games. Shell and Coca Cola — the erstwhile sponsors of the JLF — are infamous for environmental degradation. Uniformly, all these festivals have had sessions wherein writers and artists raised issues ranging from free speech, gender equality, environmental conservation to corruption, under the patronage of these sullied sponsors — I’m sure there are cleaner sponsors available. Even if there aren’t, I don’t think a lover of literature would mind paying a minimal entry price for the ticket, say Rupees 100, like what the Comic Con charges. He would get his money’s worth, for he would not have to fight for a seat or breathing space. Making it accessible for all is a noble motive, but if it comes at the cost of making it claustrophobic for the attendees, it’s not worth one bit.

As I’m writing this, I receive an invite for yet another literary festival, this one to be held on 22-23 February at the World Book Fair, New Delhi. Called the Himalayan Lit Hive 2014, it promises speakers like Karishma Kapoor, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, and even MTV’s Raghu Ram (for a lit fest, really?), besides some acclaimed and popular writers like Hussain Zaidi, Anand Neelkantan and Ravinder Singh.

The organisers claim this to be “the mother of all events”. The entry is free. I am worried.

Harsh Snehanshu is a Young India fellow and an author. The views expressed here are his own.)

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