Goa had some unusual visitors this winter. Not tourists, but some of the finest writers from India and from across the world congregated in this wonderful coastal state to talk about, well, literature and storytelling.

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The International Centre Goa, venue for GALF 2018

I count myself among the lucky and the privileged to have been able to attend the IXth edition of the Goa Arts and Literature Festival (GALF) held over two and a half days at the International Centre Goa, who are also the chief organisers of this Festival. Thanks to them and several other sponsors we were able to listen to some very fine authors talk about writing, what it means to them, how and where they look for inspiration and most importantly, how they muster up the courage to speak out in an environment of fear and oppression.

In fact, one of the main aims of GALF is to bring writers together to discuss writing and to celebrate and discuss the lives of those on the margins of society. This year, there was a fitting opening to the Festival in the form of Shashi Deshpande, one of India’s finest authors who hails from this very region of India bordering Goa, Karnataka and Maharashtra.

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Shashi Deshpande delivering her keynote address

In her keynote address, “Not So Equal”, she set the stage for the event by speaking about Article 14 of the Fundamental Rights guaranteed to us by the Indian Constitution which promises equality to all and how it has come under severe threat from the politics of the times. She talked about the most alarming trend of growing intolerance and violence in our society and how mobocracy, vote-bank politics and the temple issue seem to have taken over the public discourse at least until next year’s parliamentary elections. She also spoke about women’s issues, especially Sabarimala, and said that by preventing women of menstruating age from entering the Sabarimala temple, men are imposing their misogyny on God.

Her speech was followed by Jerry Pinto’s talk, A Life in Words in a Time of Fear, where he stressed the need to take risks and why words and writers are so feared. He said that in the wake of several writers and rationalists like Kalburgi, Pansare, Dhabolkar and Lankesh being murdered, it was even more important to keep writing and hoping that the world will see sense and will listen even when there may be no agreement.

Over the next two days, we were kept enthralled by the views, experiences and ideas that these fine writers continued to share with us. The first day of GALF opened with Shashi Deshpande continuing where she had left off the previous evening during the inauguration. She was in conversation with another fine writer, childhood friend and fellow Padma Shri awardee, Maria Aurora Couto and released her new book, a memoir called Listen to Me. She spoke of her father’s influences on her intellectually and yet how vehemently she disagreed with him on the formation of linguistic states that her father was championing at the time. She talked of how women writing is often considered a hobby, whereas for men it is work.

Shashi and Maria Aurora
Shashi Deshpande (left) in conversation with Maria Aurora Couto

She spoke of how her childhood years in Dharwar, a highly regarded centre of education and classical music in Karnataka, but close to Goa and Maharashtra where the quality of education, the atmosphere of the place and friends like Maria had shaped her rational and cosmopolitan outlook. Shashi Deshpande also spoke of how she decided to intervene after the murders of Pansare and several others when there was no official statement of condemnation from the Sahitya Akademi: she wrote a letter of protest and resigned from the organization, considered India’s most prestigious literary organization.

Another eminent and feisty writer, translator and art critic who took the stage in two separate sessions was Shanta Gokhale. In her conversation with Abhay Sardesai, the editor of India’s foremost art magazine, ART India, Shanta Gokhale was asked how she placed herself at the intersection of time and space in Mumbai and whether she could see a way of reclaiming the spirit of the ‘80s and ‘90s, a time of much change in India. She said she preferred to “live in the moment” as it were. She talked of how she took to bilingual writing thanks to the encouragement of Nissim Ezekiel, an Indian Jew and Mumbai’s most loved poet. She spoke of how her writing was informed by Marathi theatre and also about her translations of Dalit poetry. When it came to her columns, which are mostly criticism, she said she has her strategy and subterfuges which allow her to say what she wants to say without raising the hackles of those in power.

Ram Guha releasing Shanta Gokhale's book
Ram Guha releasing Shanta Gokhale’s new book, while Jerry Pinto (extreme left) and Arundhati Subramanian (extreme right) look on

During her conversation with poet, Arundhati Subramanian and Jerry Pinto, an author, Ramchandra Guha was invited on stage to release Shanta’s recent book, Engaged Observer, a collection of several of her writings over the years. In response to a question from Arundhati about whether she wished she wasn’t always an observer but also a participant, Shanta said she saw being engaged as being an active participant in creating and writing and that while she was writing, she was also an observer and a commentator. She doesn’t see a contradiction between being engaged and being an observer, but rather thinks that the two tend to feed into each other.

Later, on the first day of the Festival, we heard more stories from home, those rooted in Indian thought and tradition. Ram Guha was in conversation with British historian, David Gilmour about his recent 1000-page tome about Mahatma Gandhi. It began with David asking Ram what he thought of writing biographies. Ram said the first ever biography he wrote, that of Verrier Elwin, was a huge struggle for him. He thought that being a Hindu, trained in Economics and Sociology, and a Marxist in his world view 30 years ago, all made the task of writing a history of a period with a particular focus on an individual, extremely difficult. That book took several drafts and edits before publication, but the biographies that followed were much easier for him.

Ram Guha with David Gilmour
Ramchandra Guha discussing his latest book on Gandhi with David Gilmour (right)

The rest of the conversation revolved around Gandhi’s views on race and caste. Ram Guha spoke about how Gandhi’s views on both were highly questionable to begin with, but how he changed them as time went along and later rejected both. His views on religious pluralism and those against untouchability were, however, deep and consistent over time.

When the discussion moved to Gandhi’s personal life, Ram Guha thought that Gandhi’s views on women, especially his treatment of his wife, Kasturba, and his overbearing domination and bullying of his eldest son were unfathomable and indefensible.

When discussing caste in the current climate, it is not possible to leave out Perumal Murugan who has been in the eye of a storm regarding freedom of expression and creative liberties. The acclaimed author, teacher and scholar of Tamil literature was in conversation with Salil Tripathi and Samar Halarnkar, the head of PEN India, with Kannan Sundaram providing assistance as interpreter and translator. The topic, as you might have guessed, was Flashpoint 2018: Freedom of Expression.

Mr. Murugan said that because it has become impossible to write about caste in India, he has stopped writing about caste-related issues. Despite the judge ruling in his favour in the recent court case, he says he has removed all references to caste in his writings and has changed the names of villages and towns as well. He says in the current climate prevailing in the state of Tamil Nadu, every caste wants to be and indeed thinks of itself as the ruling caste. And he adds that an issue or flashpoint no longer stays local, but flares into a larger regional or statewide issue.

Perumal Murugan
Perumal Murugan (second from right) and Kannan Sundaram (extreme right) in conversation with Salil Tripathi and Samar Halarnkar (extreme left)

Mr Murugan believes that the only way to respond to these threats is through education. He thinks that the targeting of Carnatic musicians who try to bring in references or influences from Muslim or Christian traditions into their music is rampant and is another example of the lack of freedom of expression. After all is said and done, however, Mr. Murugan says that readers respond well and sympathise with writers who are targeted. One can only hope that that is a positive sign for the future.

And finally, when discussing caste discrimination in India, how can we not discuss the importance of Ambedkar. The highlights of both days’ sessions were two excellent Ambedkar Memorial Lectures, delivered by Martin Macwan and Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd.

While Martin Macwan’s lecture was on the Growing Relevance of Dr. Ambedkar’s Thought in India Today, he spoke of his experiences growing up in Gujarat and visiting villages, where he discovered first-hand, the extent of caste discrimination and a kind of ‘untouchability’ practised even to this day. Dalits are still served water in separate glasses. They are still expected to “wash” themselves before meeting with a high-ranking official or politician. He gave us a few statistics of a large survey that his Navsarjan Trust has conducted across the villages of Gujarat to show how Ambedkar’s thoughts are relevant even today and that equality and justice are still unattained dreams for Dalits and Untouchables. His work, especially on the eradication of manual scavenging – a practice that continues despite India’s Swachh Bharat programme – is pioneering.

Martin Macwan
Martin Macwan on The Growing Relevance of Ambedkar’s Thought in India Today

Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd was in his element delivering the finalé lecture to close the Festival. He spoke on Ambedkar, Sardar Patel and the Shudras. He spoke extempore for over an hour, tracing the development of India’s caste system from the days of the Rig Veda and the injustices of it. Dr Ilaiah argues that while Ambedkar studied and wrote extensively on the subject, was a legal expert, and during the course of his debates and arguments with Gandhi, was able to develop a cogent argument for the equality of Dalits and Untouchables, Sardar Patel neither studied nor wrote about the issue in any great detail, even though he was a Shudra (one of India’s lowest castes). In fact, his caste was never discussed within the Indian National Congress. Therefore, Dr Ilaiah thinks that Patel’s idea of nationalism which doesn’t count the Shudras in the narrative, is flawed.

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Dr. Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd delivering the final Ambedkar Memorial Lecture

Dr Ilaiah also gave the audience an insight into the reason why he has added Shepherd to his name: his forebears had practiced shepherding as an occupation for generations. He urges all Shudras and Dalits to now add their family occupation to their last name – and in English – to signify their social standing and to emphasise what he calls dignity of labour.

There were long digressions in the speech, but the main thrust of his lecture was that if the Dalits and the Shudras are to be truly emancipated, they must be given an English medium education because there is no pan-Indian language except English. It is also the language of progress that will help us compete with the world, especially with China. In fact, Dr. Ilaiah believes that all Government run schools in India should be turned into English medium schools. He also thinks that dignity of labour must be taught from an early age to our children.

Authors' books on sale
Author-speakers’ books on sale in the International Centre lawns

And so, the Festival came to a close to the sound of rapturous applause. And to the hope that the marginalized will see a better future in India someday soon.

However, there were several other stories told during the Festival that will be taken up in my next post. Please read on, for stories from GALF 2018 that are bridges between cultures, journeys between lands and ideas that cross time.

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