LITERATURE FESTIVALS

How the Seemanchal Literary Festival drew me out of my happy bubble, a first for a litfest

Notes from an English-Indian writer fumbling and learning in Kishanganj, Bihar.

Before I leave for Kishanganj, Bihar, friends and family have made a hundred comments. “A literary festival in a village in Bihar?” “Is it safe?” “How cool”.

I fly from Bangalore to Kolkata, and then Kolkata to Bagdogra, and arrive at 4 pm on a Wednesday. The sun is hazy-bright and in the middle of the sky. Our host Sarfaraz stands at the arrivals gate. He is here to accompany us from the airport on the two-hour drive to Kishanganj.

The Seemanchal International Literary Festival started as an individual dream, and then, as the founder himself said “was realised because it was a collective dream”. Singapore-based Zafar Anjum might have many accomplishments and books to his name, but Anjum’s roots are in Kishanganj. A boy from a large family who studied at the Urdu-medium Insaan school.

Anjum was acutely aware of two realities: literary fests are held primarily in elite big cities, and almost exclusively engage an elite audience. But literature wasn’t created to stay on the shelves of the bourgeois. The infinite power of writing and its potential to amplify ambition and social equality needed to be celebrated everywhere. The plain truth is this, very few would take up such a quixotic cause.

We pass Islampur, the last small town in West Bengal before we hit Bihar. In the car we discuss demonetisation with our hosts. Farmers have had their livelihood torn away from their hands, the middleman has already started making money from the sheer desperation of its community. Lines of 250 people swarm the banks around Kishanganj. Our driver adds, “Aurr dehaat ka halath tho pucho hi mut. (Don’t even get us started on the condition of the villages)”.

Photo credit: Seemanchal Literary Festival
Photo credit: Seemanchal Literary Festival

Kishanganj is located less than 10 kilometers from the Bangladesh border, and 50 kilometers from Nepal. It also happens to be a four-hour drive from Darjeeling. Urdu and Hindi reign here and 67% of its population is Muslim. For once, I am the odd stumbling urbanite grasping for advanced Hindi and Urdu words, and finally resort to my lame Hinglish.

But a financial crisis doesn’t take away from the spirit and excitement of a literary festival taking place for the first time in this small town. Kishanganj is alive, bright, and welcoming. We have a packed schedule for the next two days – panels with Urdu writers, Hindi writers, journalists, poets and publishers. We’ll be discussing humanity through literature, gender in writing, identity politics, publishing, contemporary Hindi literature, and launching two books by Kitaab among other things.

This is no elite fancy-pants fest with cosmopolitan swag, this is a place where we understand the privilege we come with. A place so tremendous in its generosity and energy that we fumble to reciprocate adequately. The festival takes place at Zafar Anjum’s alma mater, the Insaan School, founded by the late Dr Syed Hasan.

The school happens to be celebrating its 50th year anniversary. The students sit through panels, and ask starkly aware questions. Most of them haven’t travelled elsewhere, and study in Urdu, but they still come and talk to us confidently in English.

In between panels I am busy asking locals to teach me new Urdu words. A group of students approach me. Their teacher asks me to tell the students how they can learn English fluently. I mumble. A series of prosaic tips follow.

What I want to say remains unsaid. I want to apologise to them. To tell them, it’s our fault that two per cent of the country has threatened their future by demanding that a certain kind of English must be learned. Just two per cent of us who ask them to devalue their gorgeous ability to speak a language so profound in its expression and history. I want to tell them how limiting the English language really is, how capitalistic its motivations are. But this is not the answer the teacher or the students are looking for.

Photo credit: Seemanchal Literary Festival
Photo credit: Seemanchal Literary Festival

We had Ziya Us Salam, deputy editor of The Hindu Frontline, discussing identity and nationalism on the first panel, which explored humanity and its relationship to literature. He urged young minds to be a voice of dissent, especially when it came to protesting against a single narrative of nationalism. We also had Urdu novelist Rahman Abbas talk about writing in context to personal freedom and social movement.

The issue of nationalism now rolls in my stomach, making me nauseous. At this moment it’s making my “dissent” posts and commentary on social media almost innocuous and naive. For here they were, right with me, the people of our country being increasingly sidelined from our nation’s narrative.

Here were hundreds of Muslim students, raging with zeal, compassion and energy wanting to make their lives better, wanting to make India, their land, better.

As we sing the national anthem, I think about my adventures on social media, wanting to teleport every bigot I had argued with about inclusivity to this very moment. To witness the national anthem being sung by a town filled with Muslims, who sang in earnest, with young ambition, and excitement. Who sang despite being “otherised” by talking heads, words they might not even be reading as they go on with their everyday life in our country.

Photo credit: Seemanchal Literary Festival
Photo credit: Seemanchal Literary Festival

Abha Iyengar, Jayanthi Sankar, and I are on a gender panel moderated by Nazia Hasan, a professor at Aligarh University. We’re deconstructing the word “feminism”, trying our best to illustrate its simplicity. We have questions from two girls, neither of whom can be more than 15. They ask a simple question. “You’ve been talking about equal rights and finding passion, that’s all good, we want that too, but what do we do when our parents inevitably make sure we’re married by 18?”

Our privilege makes us fidget. What’s a good answer here? We attempt responses: Once you’ve made up your mind, one can do anything. Talk to supportive people around you. Start talking to your parents early about your future and your dreams. Good enough answers, but clearly removed from their reality.

Us, the talking feminists, will go back to the city, and these girls will still have their dreams. And here is the power of the word. The power of platform. Seemanchal International Literary festival allowed two worlds mix, to learn from each other, to be overwhelmed by the knowledge that our everyday life does not end on our streets. It shook us all: students, teachers, city, small-town writers, English writers: our worlds co-exist, there is so much more, isn’t that a wonderful thing?

Over the course of two days, we discuss thematically the power writers have to create movements. In the past we’ve had the Progressive Writers’ movement, and the rise of Sartre and the other existentialists. We question if we’re ever going to have another movement like this again. This is certainly a time for it. When the nation is creating a one-dimensional narrative of what it means to be Indian, when freedom of speech, identity, and a financial crisis are at our doorsteps, how do we as writers create words to honour our freedom? How do we write to celebrate the spectacular dancing diversity that India is?

Photo credit: Seemanchal Literary Festival
Photo credit: Seemanchal Literary Festival

In the evening before dinner, Akhtarul Iman, former MLA of Kochadhaman, comes to speak to us. As a social activist, he knows the intricacies of his land, its social and economical pitfalls, and asks us to draw more attention to the potential of Bihar in our writerly capacity. We learn that most of the crops grown in the state are what we city folk like to call “organic”. They use no pesticides, yet, but not fully aware of the economic possibilities that this label can bring to the region.

Bihar has been a dry state for a bit, so there is no talk of any kind of alcohol during the festival. Something that doesn’t bother me at all, but I do carry the “smoking writer” stereotype with me. I find a spot to light up with a few other writers who keep me company.

I offer a cigarette to a guest writer from Patna. He speaks a level of Hindi that makes my head spin. Anant is from Patna, and has devoted the last eight years of his life to researching and educating people about the Hindi writer Phanishwar Renu. He sings songs to me, songs he has composed about Renu, and shares anecdotal facts about Phanishwar’s life.

Here is Anant, a literary man, one who has given his life for the love of a writer, and yet no one in the Indian English speaking world will know of him, much less ever discuss. I worry about the bridges we have to make, and then actually cross. I want to empty his head, pour out his knowledge, and let my brain soak in it.

Photo credit: Seemanchal Literary Festival
Photo credit: Seemanchal Literary Festival

On the last day, we huddle around the stage, Anjum making the closing remarks. Children come with our books and ask for autographs, we smile and wish them the best. The temperature has dropped, our shawls are pulled tighter. My mind has moved around a dozen perspectives today, and I am still barely aware of them.

On the way back to the airport, I talk to Shahid and his friend Anwar who drive me back through Islampur, towards Bagdogra airport. They are angry and saddened by the state of affairs after demonetisation. “We were prepared for a leader to keep the hearts of the poor in mind, we were not prepared for this.” They ask me to come again, to bring friends, and promise me drives to Nepal and Darjeeling.

Photo credit: Seemanchal Literary Festival
Photo credit: Seemanchal Literary Festival

On the flight back towards cosmopolitan Bangalore, I can’t help but grieve for the inevitable loss to come. The act of going back, the opportunity of seeing and then leaving, knowing fully well that the city will coax me back into my pretty bubble, allow me to write, work, walk on the streets, debate on social media, and take my dogs for a run on Sunday at the park.

Perhaps, at the very least, we must accept where we come from, then rise to every occasion to know where others come from as well. We must create new ways to take their journeys with us. And then, we must write freely, knowing that all our experiences are so very different, and they are all the same.

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