GALF 2018: Stories of Crossings

While some of the finest stories emerging from GALF 2018 were those from home, rooted in Indian experiences, thought and tradition, there were yet other delightful tales that deserve to be told separately. For these are stories of crossings; of writers making physical and metaphorical journeys across time and space, and of ordinary people who through history have traversed distances and borders – both real and imaginary.

Fountain in courtyard
The fount of wisdom to be found in stories from journeys

Allow me to tell you of some of these fascinating journeys in this, the second of two posts about the Goa Arts and Literature Festival 2018.

I would like to start with David Gilmour, eminent British historian, who released his latest book, The British in India: Three Centuries of Ambition and Experience, at the Festival in conversation with Mr. Yatin Kakodkar, businessman and president of the International Centre Goa. The book attempts to tell the story of the British Raj in India, through the lives of British individuals who travelled to India and lived here. It took the biographer of Kipling and Lord Curzon 30 years of research and delving deep into archives to find about these people and write about their lives here. Gilmour said during his conversation that the book chronicles their lives in India and that from the earliest adventurers who came here to make money, to the missionaries whom the East India Company initially prevented, the book tries to cover people from different walks of life.

David Gilmour
David Gilmour (right) in conversation with Yatin Kakodkar

When asked about his own views on the British Empire in India, he said that it should have ended after World War I, when India should have been given dominion status and full independence perhaps by 1930. And what did he think India gained from it, if anything, on balance? Gilmour believes that it is perhaps our Indian administrative system that might have benefitted the most from the experience. Comparisons with Shashi Tharoor’s book were unavoidable, but Gilmour deflected them by saying politely that Tharoor is a fine person but not a historian, while his own work is a social history based on three decades of research. You can read William Dalrymple’s review of it in The Guardian here. I couldn’t help but think that perhaps the book’s title might be a little misleading, inviting unfair comparisons: “Three centuries of ambition… ” suggests political and economic designs on India, whereas the book is a social history told through individuals’ lives.

The next conversation that involves journeys from our own neighbourhood was that between noted author, Manjushree Thapa and Anurag Basnet, Managing Editor at Speaking Tiger Books. Manjushree’s journeys are many; she travels physically frequently between her native place, Nepal and Canada, where she has made her new home in Toronto. While she does the bulk of her writing in English, she travels between two tongues, Nepali and English. She also journeys between genres, writing both fiction and non-fiction.

Manjushree Thapa and Anurag Basnet
Manjushree (right) discussing her literary journeys with Anurag Basnet

She spoke of how she started out her literary life with travel writing and her first book was about travels set in Nepal. She said the changes she observed in Nepal after 1990 when Nepal became a democracy had impacted every aspect of life in the country; people’s rights and the whole country’s sense of self had changed. Forget Kathmandu, the book that put Manjushree in the limelight was written after the Royal massacre in Nepal which everyone in Nepal found bewildering. She said that her fiction writing is almost always set in a political context with the focus on the individual and that her doing an MFA course in the US helped hone her style. Over the years, she says she finds that her individual stories are getting more personal and inward-looking and they’re also becoming increasingly female.

A lovely personal touch in their entire conversation was when Manjushree told Anurag that she took on the daunting task of translating Indra Bahadur Rai’s classic novel, There’s a Carnival Today, only when she knew for sure that Anurag was going to be the editor on the project, because she could then be sure that the particular East Nepali nuances of the language, which spill over into the Darjeeling region of India, would be understood perfectly.

Manjushree may be a Canadian citizen, but she still feels deep and strong connections with her homeland, Nepal, and that is where all her non-fiction work which require research and a reportage style, will continue to bring her.

K Madavane and Antara Dev Sen
K Madavane (left) chatting with Antara Dev Sen

Speaking of writing in different languages, we have already seen how Shanta Gokhale manages to straddle the two worlds. In another conversation between playwright and dramatist, K Madavane and Antara Dev Sen, Editor of The Little Magazine, we discover an author who writes in a language quite alien to most of us. K Madavane grew up in the Union Territory of Pondicherry, so French is his lingua franca. He is a Tamilian, who writes in French, speaks Tamil at home and directs his plays in Hindi. Talk about crossings. And while his plays deal with the subject of death, he is best known for his Mahabharata of Women. He told us of this ancient legend that exists in Tamil Nadu of the young woman as ancestor; it is a story handed down the ages of a woman being burned after two brothers overhear a conversation between her and a plant in a garden which they mistake to be a conversation with her lover. He says there are several such ancient legends in the telling of what he calls the “Backyard Mahabharata” which women have told each other though the ages and which is quite different from the canonical Mahabharata.

Speaking of telling each other stories, how can we not discuss ancient legends and stories told in the West as well, many of which Max Rodenbeck believes are probably the earliest examples of fake news. South Asia Bureau Chief of The Economist, Max Rodenbeck engaged in an interesting conversation with Pratik Kanjilal, Literary Editor and columnist at the Indian Express and Naresh Fernandes, Editor of Scroll, an online newspaper.

Max Rodenbeck
Max Rodenbeck (extreme right) with Pratik Kanjilal and Naresh Fernandes

Max Rodenbeck said that fake news is not just employed by the lower classes but by the elites as well. And he attempted to draw a difference between fake news and news that gets accentuated or even exaggerated because of a phenomenon that he calls “bandwagoning”, when every news organization starts reporting the same news again and again to the extent that you start to believe it is true. The most prominent example of bandwagoning, in his reckoning, was the Iraq and weapons of mass destruction story. In the age of the internet and digital technology, he thought that narrow-casting and micro-casting had exacerbated the dangers of fake news, as has been borne out in the targeting of Facebook users by alleged Russian hackers and meddlers during the US elections. So, everyone was in agreement that fact-checking needs to improve and citizens need to become more aware and responsible with the use of social media and the news that they share.

However, there are some kinds of news that are hard to argue with. Facts of history borne out by people’s experiences and the wisdom that that kind of knowledge brings us. Which leads me to two interesting conversations that were about museums.

First off, Mallika Ahluwalia’s fantastic presentation on the Partition Museum in Amritsar that records the worst kinds of journeys undertaken by millions of this country’s people. A Harvard Business School alumnus and a former McKinsey executive as well as someone who has worked in the field of health policy in India, Mallika decided to make the Partition Museum her passion project, as she puts it, because the personal stories within her own family were compelling enough. Three of her four grandparents were involved in the partition experience, as only those who experienced it and survived it to tell the horrors will know.

Mallika Ahluwalia
Mallika Ahluwalia talking about her Partition Museum

She says the Partition Museum is the country’s first such and is on par with the world’s best museums that seek to tell the definitive story of change in a country’s history, whether it be the Holocaust Museums in many countries or the Hiroshima Museum in Japan and several others. From stories of survivors told in their own voices to donations of objects and the few possessions from their lives that they were left with, to photographs from archives and official documents from the period, it helps visitors understand the bitter experience and the history of a divided nation better. It helps us make the journey across the divide in a different time and space, but it helps us understand our shared history and past.

The second museum discussed at GALF 2018 is closer home. In fact, it is based in Goa and is due to open in the summer of 2019. It is a completely different kind of museum, dealing with history but through the study of costumes and cultures of a different time in Goa. Moda Goa Museum and Research Centre is the brainchild of one of India’s best-known fashion designers, Wendell Rodricks.

Wendell Rodricks
Wendell Rodricks telling us about the wonders of Moda Goa

It all started with him researching a particular dress of Goan women called the Pano Bhauji, and how did the idea occur to him? Mario Miranda, one of India’s well-known cartoonists and a Goan himself asked him to research this so that another eminent Goan, Mario Cabral Esa could write a book about it. Ten years and two fashion residencies later – at New York and Lisbon – Wendell Rodricks decided to turn his own ancestral home in Goa into India’s first costume design museum. It has the blessings of India’s textile and culture ministries and with the help of donations from several private individuals as well as use of archival maps and history, it tells the story of journeys made by several peoples to the region of Goa, all of whom influenced Goan culture and attire. From Jews and Parsis in the 8th and 9th centuries, to the Bijapur Muslim rulers, the Portuguese and the British, Goan costume and culture has been touched by them all.

Perhaps, by the time the next edition of GALF is held in Goa next year, a visit to Moda Goa would be on every traveler’s itinerary.

And finally, I have saved the best or the most extraordinary story at any rate, for the last. This is the story of Sita Valles, a young daughter of Goan parents, who is a qualified doctor, but gets involved in the politics of Angola and dies fighting for the liberation of Angola. Her story has been pieced together after years of research from whatever fragments of information are available, by a Portuguese journalist called Leonor Figueredo in a book called Sita Valles A Revolutionary Until Death and has only now been translated into English by David Smith, an American translator and writer based in Houston, Texas.

David Smith and Federick Noronha
David Smith (extreme left) with Suhila Sawant and Frederick Noronha (right)

David was in conversation with Suhila Sawant Mendes, a professor of History at Goa University and Frederick Noronha, an editor and publisher. David believes that Sita Valles was an extraordinary woman whose story couldn’t be told until now because of the unavailability of much information about her and the highly factionalised politics even of the liberation movement that she was part of.

Needless to say, I bought the book at the Festival, because I was so intrigued by this woman’s journey across lands, ideologies and regimes. I also bought a book each, of Shashi Deshpande and Shanta Gokhale, to read.

Books for me to savour the spirit of GALF 2018 a little longer

The Goa Arts and Literature Festival was a veritable treat for me. I hope you enjoyed reading about it. I now eagerly await the Xth edition next year.

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