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Lucknow has been the hub of mushaira, Dasstaangoi and kavi sammelan for centuries, but as times change, rituals and traditions also get recreated and rejuvenated according to the prevailing zeitgeist. In a unique collaboration, the first of its kind, writers, poets, translators and scriptwriters from different parts of India and Asia assembled in Lucknow in the first weekend of April to celebrate writing from South Asia and Southeast Asia.
This first edition of the SRMU Kitaab Literary Festival was jointly organized by Kitaab International Pte. Ltd., Singapore and Shri Ramaswaroop Memorial University (SRMU), Lucknow and was held on the 7th and 8th of April, 2018 at the SRMU campus.
Building bridges between Asian writers and readers
Festival Director Zafar Anjum, the festival’s patron A K Singh, Vice Chancellor of SRMU, Chancellor Pankaj Agarwal, Pro Chancellor Pooja Agarwal, and the faculty of SRMU led by Dr. B.M. Dixit, inaugurated the festival. ‘The aim of this festival ties up with the aim of Kitaab—to create bridges and dialogue between Asian writers and global readers and to bring literature to the grassroots,’ said Anjum in his welcome address.
Agarwal applauded SRMU’s collaboration with Kitaab. He said that Kitaab is an esteemed organisation that offers a promising worldwide platform to both budding and established authors, editors and publishers. Extending from the areas of literary fiction and translation to filmmaking (together with Filmwallas, founded by Zafar Anjum), Kitaab caters to all genres in English and other South Asian languages.
The festival featured more than 20 writers in English, Hindi and Urdu from India, Singapore and Malaysia. Well-known and award-winning writers such as Sudeep Sen, Rahman Abbas, Yogesh Praveen, Dr. Surya Prasad Dixit, Isa Kamari, Dr. Rakhshanda Jalil, Dr. Malachi Edwin Vethamani and Novoneel Chakraborty top lined the festival. Theatre and film actor Shishir Sharma, who was present to talk about his journey in the world of acting, presented the film, More Chai Please, Singapore’s first Urdu short film.
The film, shot in Singapore and presented by Filmwallas, tells the story of a couple with the plot spanning Singapore and Lucknow. The film’s writer and producer Sunita Lad Bhamray and its director Zafar Anjum were present during a special screening of the film on the second day of the festival.
The other major highlight of the festival was the launch of Tawassul, a Malay novel by Singaporean novelist Isa Kamari, translated into Urdu by Rubina Siddiqui. It is the first work of Singaporean literature to be translated into Urdu. Award-winning Urdu novelist, Rahman Abbas who has also helped oversee the edits, hailed this avant-garde work of fiction and told the audience that the book’s Hindi edition was in the works.
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By Mitali Chakravarty
Kampong — scene by Lim Cheng Hoe
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
Burnt Norton, TS Eliot
When I walk down the Singapura River and see the statue of Sir Stamford Raffles look down at me from the pedestal near Victoria theatre, I feel I know the man well, not because I have ever met him but because Isa Kamari, the celebrated ASEAN writer, brought him to life in his novel, 1819.
Downtown and around Singapore, one can get glimpses of the history of the island in architecture, sculpture and art. These can be directly related to the stories written by some of the local writers. The multi-faceted Isa Kamari is one such writer who holds me spellbound, taking me on a journey of exploration to the past to help infer the present. Isa – winner of the S.E.A. Write Award (2006), the Cultural Medallion Award, the highest award conferred on writers and artists in Singapore (2007), and the Anugerah Tun Seri Lanang, the highest Malay literary award (2009) – has written all his novels in Malay. Most of them have been translated into English. The translations continue to have the fluidity of his own style, of which we get a glimpse in his first English Novella, Tweet, his maiden venture into writing in English.
His writing is intense and makes one empathise with the past and present as he deftly shuttles between different periods of history, weaving it into the current fabric of the island. You live and emote with the characters – feel sorry for the Malays, the Bugis (seafaring folk from Sulawesi) and animosity towards the British rulers who manipulated the islanders by indulging them in opium and fanning their differences, following the policy of divide and rule, the favourite policy of the Raj to maintain power across its colonies, the effects of which are still evident in countries like India and Pakistan.
Isa takes us on a historic adventure through time in his novel 1819 to a past where Singapore was won by the British in a tussle for power with the Dutch, who had earlier ruled it ‘as a part of Riau’. In those days, it was often referred to as Pulau Ujong or Temasek. The island was nominally ruled by the Sultan of Johor, who was controlled by the Dutch in Indonesia, and the Bugis. At that time the borders of countries were fluid and adapted to the ruler’s needs. Johor and Singapore were part of the kingdom of Riau. It was the British who finally made sure with a treaty in 1824 that the Dutch and the locals would have no say in the administration or trade of Singapore. The British would hold the sole power.
Taking advantage of the local ruling classes’ love for a life of ease, the new rulers introduced opium and encouraged them to indulge. In a daze of opium, the Bugis and the Malay handed over the island to Raffles. Raffles, the ‘official founder’ of Singapore, signed the papers to take over the island from the local Malays. The British created different colonies for different factions of Muslims, like the Bugis, Malays and the Arabs. As the historic character of the first resident of Singapore, Farquhar, gives out in the novel, the British would ‘split and rule’ the kingdom so that they could gain ascendancy over the country and the region.
Gaurav Agnihotri was apoplectic with anger. The editor-in-chief of the News Tonight Network (NTN) paced up and down his office, as his deputy editor and production in charge quailed in their seats at the conference table in the corner. The bank of televisions that covered an entire wall was showing what was playing on all the other news channels. By now, every news network had managed to get their OB vans into AIIMS and was broadcasting from there. The only channel whose reporter on the spot was calling in on the phone was NTN. Apparently, there was some glitch in the network, which the technicians were working to fix.
‘Just how long is it going to take?’ Gaurav asked yet again, his voice quivering with fury. ‘It’s been ten minutes since they’ve been working on it. That’s a lifetime on live television!’
There was no answer from the men quailing in the corner. They were used to Agnihotri’s wild rage, but this temper tantrum was in a different league altogether. Gaurav stopped his pacing suddenly and switched on the sound of the television beaming AITNN’s feed to the world. Manisha Patel, her immaculately highlighted hair swishing gently around her shoulders, was looking suitably solemn as she did her piece to camera: ‘The Prime Minister has been rushed into surgery. Our sources inside AIIMS tell us that the PM’s condition is stable but serious. The senior leadership of the party has already arrived at the hospital as have Birendra Pratap’s two sons, Karan and Arjun.’
Gaurav felt that familiar mix of anger and admiration wash over him as he watched Manisha on the screen. How did she manage it? How did she succeed in getting in front of the story no matter what? And why was it that every minister who trooped into AIIMS was first stopping by to pay homage at her shrine, taking questions they clearly had no answer to. As he watched Manisha go into sympathetic-listener mode, Gaurav’s mind flashed back to the time that both of them had started as lowly reporters at Doordarshan (DD) News. Coming up against the tired old bureaucracy in charge of DD News, they had bonded over bread pakoras and masala chai in the office canteen, swapping war stories and comparing battle wounds. And then, with a speed that was both astonishing and inevitable in equal measure, they had found themselves in bed, caught up in a passion that took both of them by surprise. Of course, it hadn’t lasted. How could it? They were both Alphas. Both had been competing for the same stories. And neither was willing to back off or compromise. The end had been brutal, with each turning on the other viciously. They hadn’t exchanged as much as a ‘hello’ since then. And now, a decade later, Gaurav felt that old bitterness corrode his insides, as he saw Manisha performing what he derisively referred to as her Oprah Winfrey number.
Her hazel eyes looked suspiciously moist, her voice quivered ever so slightly, as she kept the nation updated with the latest on the Prime Minister’s condition. Of course, there was more emotion than facts in her account. But that was what worked in such situations. And Gaurav had to grudgingly concede that she had got the tone just right: a mix of calm and disquiet underpinned by a layer of barely-suppressed hysteria. The door opened and his production manager rushed in. The link had been fixed. Gaurav straightened his tie and took one last look in the mirror that hung opposite his desk. His salt-and-pepper curls were tousled as artlessly as his hairstylist could manage. The subtle application of bronzer had given his somewhat pudgy face contours it did not, in fact, possess.
Slipping on his rimless glasses (he didn’t really need them but he thought they gave him a suitably ‘intellectual’ look) he headed into the studio, mulling just how he could distinguish his coverage from Manisha’s. By the time he had taken his place behind his desk and been miked, Gaurav knew exactly how he was going to play this. The Prime Minister of India was in surgery, suspended between life and death. The doctors weren’t saying very much about his condition. But the truth was clear to anyone with one and a half brain cells. Birendra Pratap had been targeted in some way at the rally as he went into the crowd. A healthy man like him didn’t just collapse for no reason. There had to be foul play. And if there had been foul play there was only one suspect: Pakistan. India’s perennial enemy number one. The country that had vowed to inflict a thousand cuts on India by using terror as an instrument of state policy. Clearly, it had now decided to up the ante with a direct attack on the Prime Minister himself.
The cameraman counted down, ‘Three, two, one…’ as NTN came back from a break. Gaurav took a deep breath, looked straight into camera, his eyes already bloodshot, his mouth an angry line, and started: ‘This is a sad day in the history of our nation. Our Prime Minister is in hospital, the target of a diabolical attack.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, don’t be misled by all these so-called liberal journalists who are talking about how he has had a stroke or a heart attack. We at NTN are here to tell you the truth: Birendra Pratap was the victim of a cowardly assassination attempt. Somebody has tried to take the life of the Indian Prime Minister. And the finger of suspicion points directly at Pakistan.’
By Anita A Thomas
‘Writing about Indonesia’ predicates a knowledge of the country, and the panel discussion hosted by Books Actually on March 22nd presented interesting viewpoints from Singapore-based author Shivaji Das (also humanitarian, photographer and management consultant) and award-winning Indonesian author Okky Madasari, currently writer-in-residence at the International Writing Program, University of Iowa.
While both panellists spoke of (and write about) Indonesia from individual perspectives and experiences, their sentiments were similar – socially conscious, politically cognisant, concerned with the effects of nationalism, populism and patriotism, the increasing polarities between communities, the plight of the lesser-known groups and people on the fringes, the marginalised and the displaced.
Geography undoubtedly underpins Mr. Das’s understanding of Indonesia and all its variegated dissimilarities. The density and sheer diversity of people and experiences from across the archipelago have found a place and recognition in the pages of his Stories of the Other. His appreciation embraces it all – the physicality of the mountains, seas, forests, rivers and calderas, the pervasive humidity, the ubiquitous odour of merokok (Malay for cigarette), the buzz of urban areas with the aroma of sausages, rows of Betawi dolls and loud music in the streets and cafes; the sulphur mines of the Kawah Ijen caldera/ volcano and the incomparable electric-blue fire streaming down its sides (visible at night), funeral rites in far-flung islands, Makassar with its prostitutes, sailors, sea, ships, trucks, dandut music and scantily clad women.
Ms. Madasari’s writing – shaped by her experience of being a woman in a patriarchal society dominated by gender inequality, and compounded by the situational conflicts of minority groups, human rights and women’s rights – uses fiction to focus on individual stories that reveal the larger picture; stories about life, humans and conflict in society. Her books reflect her conviction that fiction can influence perspectives and that literature is an agent of change, as the act of writing or reading becomes, in itself, a political activity.
Mr Das found demographics and geography a block to literary research. With no access to a body of literature, writers like him have to depend on oral history in localised languages beyond the island of Java.
Ms Madasari was vocal about Indonesia’s underlying issues needing to be written about with courage and sensitivity, as a citizen and a human being. She spoke of the need for women to stop being ‘objects of consumerism’ and become ‘subjects’ inspiring other women to make their own choices, without having to justify those choices.
Both panelists agreed that Indonesia today is almost a country of strangers unto itself. Geography, demographics and intra-island migration has given rise to minority groups seeking identity and community. Religion, an anchor for those seeking to ‘belong’, has led to overt and intense religiosity. It was posited that Indonesia’s current problems stem from the Suharto regime, noted for protectionism through collusion, power and nepotism. Decades later, the system, culture and habits have not changed and repression and intimidation continue the tyranny of the majority and the legacy of colonialism. Indonesia has the ‘great capacity’ to forget and carry on with a smile, noted one panelist.
Errant stewardship of the environment, intense nationalism, provincialism, parochialism and frustration with traditional political groups; inequalities in education and opportunities, the need to discourse values, culture, knowledge and ideas – all these call for awareness and demand a society of writers, artists and activists to rise above current popular chick-lit and religious themes to influence and bring about change. It was noted that newer Indonesian writers largely aspiring to the book-to-film route, write within the context of a ‘city’ reflective of western cities and not representative of other parts of Indonesia like Aceh, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Papua, Flores or Lombok.