“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,” said Canadian author Margaret Atwood, delivering the keynote address on day one of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) 2016 on Thursday. A Booker prize winner, Atwood is the highlight of this year’s JLF, along with Stephen Fry and 2015 Man Booker Prize winner Marlon James.
Terming writing as an “optimistic act”, Atwood said, “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.”
The inaugural session at Diggi Palace opened with a performance by classical vocalist Gaayatri Kaundinya, followed with a drum performance by Nathulal Solanki and band. Welcoming the authors, Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje said, “It is not about somebody shaking my hand; it is about me being able to shake somebody’s hand who, I know, has done some wonderful and amazing things.”
Festival co-director William Dalrymple recounted the beginnings of the fest 10 years ago with an anecdote on how he gave a lecture “for which 50 people turned up, of which 10 were Japanese tourists who got lost looking for Amer Fort,” while the footfalls this year are heading for “a third of a million.”
Meanwhile, returning to India for a fourth visit and 27 years later, Atwood laced her address with wry humour: “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.”
Atwood spoke on a range of subjects: from the origins of the literary festival movement over six decades ago to comic cons, from Shakespeare’s “afterlife in Bengali” to multiple dimensions of India which made English the lingua franca — where two citizens, who don’t speak each other’s native language, can speak in a third.
She also contested the claim that the act of reading is diminishing: “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.”
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