Delivering her inaugural speech on 21 January, at the Jaipur Literary Festival 2016, Diggi Palace, Booker Prize winner author, Margaret Atwood enamoured all and sundry with her wry humour. Atwood diffused across the pavilion of Front Lawn, thick with a colourful crowd clinging attentively on to each of her words, the strength of writing as an “optimistic act”.“In an age that persecutes deviants, you can yet lose your life for being the possessor of a dangerous or unacceptable story. Words are powerful, which means that words can also be fatal,” she said.
Returning to India on her fourth visit after 27 years, Atwood was perceptibly excited about being part of the literary carnival. “To have been invited to give the keynote here, I must either be very important or very old; and I suspect that it is the latter,” she jested. She marvelled at the rapid changes in the kinds of forum where literature and art is celebrated and briefly traced the gradual development of literary fests in Australia and Canada since the 1960s when the concept had yet not flourished in India. “In those days they [poets] were almost required to be drunk if they were men. It was considered romantic,” she said in her characteristic cascading tone.
Atwood gently touched upon a number of issues in her well-carved speech, from stories as potent tools bringing to the light the conditions of the oppressed to the fate of literature in a world obsessed with internet. “All over the world, writing has been the means whereby light is shed on darkness, whether the darkness of oppressive regimes, of lives lived in poverty, of the oppression of women as a gender or of discrimination of so many kinds. There are many darknesses, but there are also many voices,” she paused without sounding like any moral propagandist. Atwood lightens the sombre mood her powerful oratory created by humouring that literary festivals are happy occasions and has proliferated so widely because “writers are cheap dates.”
That literature cannot wither away despite the amount of time internet guzzles from our lives, Atwood was positive about. “Human beings are story-tellers, we are narrative creatures.We have an articulate grammar and words to express such concepts as ‘once upon a time’.We revise the stories of our lives as we age. The romantic tragedy when you are 19 becomes a funny anecdote by the time you are 45 and then 30 years later you can’t remember the name,” the author amused. Challenging the claim that reading is a dying practice, Atwood, who supports digitization of books, said “Reading is, I believe, increasing. Platforms may be changing, but thanks to the internet, reading has become more possible for more people than in any other time in history.”
She concluded her address with an encouraging note to aspiring writers, something that many in the crowd were waiting for with bated breath. “Every act of writing presupposes a reader, even if your own secret journal. If you have publication on your mind, then you are looking at the vast ocean of readers into which we are throwing our tiny bottle of stories.” All in the hope that somebody someday would read it and understand it.