Seventy years after the birth of two nations – India and Pakistan – Britain made its tryst with destiny, to be solitary. That legacy takes on a new avatar in the shape of Brexit with a narrow majority. Metaphorically narrow too. But London is a resilient city. It’s bridges connecting north to south between Parliament and the Globe theatre are flush with police and commuters going about their daily lives with courage, amidst druid-high heaps of commemorative flowers in memory of those stabbed at random by three radicalized men driving a rented white van at random and pushed into the wide embrace of the Thames, at random.
There is no language left for us Londoners, the collective, except to rise above the tide of grieving and carry on without feeling hopeless. Big Ben chimes a new era. The election results are unexpected too – a hung Parliament. The young voter has seized the call to the future.
The resilience of the Londoner is not solely from surviving the Luftwaffe’s air raids. Today’s young people were not even born then. I like to believe the resilience comes from London being a world city which hosts pluralities in all perspectives. So that life, like architecture’s unplanned skyline, always has room for self-expression and Literature. London hosts innumerable Literature Festivals and Prize events at its vibrant venues north and south of the Thames. No statistics please, I’m commisserating with you that all of these cannot be attended.
In the celebration of “India at 70,” stemming from the initiatives of the Indian government and the British Library, a new alliance has been formed from an old one – the India Office Library and the digitisation of its South Asian collections which is ongoing. Meanwhile, the marquee of the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival has found a place; over May 21-22 2017, it announced a new partnership with the British Library, north of the Thames with access to the University Colleges of London, as well as the London School of Economics and the School of Oriental Studies.
The inaugural address, the “Freedom to Dream,” was held here. The curiosity and wonder associated with the yearning to know, for its own cross-cultural sake and not solely for utilitarian ends, was emphasized that morning. At a time when isolation is a measure of extreme wealth as well as abject poverty, creating an irreconcilable divide which may be fuelled by assumptions about the other, London bridged the gap with Literature Festivals branded by not one but two cities in South Asia – Jaipur and Karachi. North and South of the Thames respectively.
The Directors of Jaipur Literature festival and Teamwork Arts gave London a stimulating diet, encompassing a programme of fearless debate which ranged from the reinvention of mythology in trade, travel, Partition as well as the environment, to crime fiction, the history of Empire, cinema and the nation state for the future. The importance of the Jaipur Literature Festival cannot be underestimated. It demonstrates the pulse of a diverse, pluralistic India which is nevertheless constantly under the threat of uniformization, but cheerfully addresses the truth that freedom and unity are of greater value.
The ‘Ideas of India’ panel had a great cross-cultural cast from across the country. This included Kashmiri, Nepali, Tamil as well as London metropolitan diaspora – and their cross disciplinary forms of poetry, film, journalism, fiction , economics , measured ‘India at 70’. They were confident, subtle, disturbing, revising, exchanging, investigative, spiritual, rebellious , but never dull.
The South Bank Centre, south of the Thames, was taken over by the Karachi Literature Festival, with discussions on cinema and Partition and Fashion as politics, an emerging economy, class and gender. What came through strongly was how freedom of speech and expression were revered among the participants; no one was in denial that writers and thinkers had to watch their words.
The regenerative spirit of Literature festivals from the Indian subcontinent is remarkable. Writers, poets, academics, journalists, film stars, and storytellers are active in their politics. The cross-pollination of ideas and awareness of world wide literatures are both a common platform and provide complexities and nuances that is wanting in other so-called “exclusive” Literature Festivals in London which are rather excluding in nature.
Needless to say, the subcontinent’s Literature Festivals in London are predominantly English-speaking. There is the danger that they could become clubs, but I like to believe they are like brewers’ yeast, fermenting new with old, and as each year moves in waves, spawning new talent, new ideas — a complex debate worth following through.
Literature Festivals can unwrap and articulate ideas and stories and nuances of bicultural complexities. London was a bridge over troubled waters hosting Jaipur and Karachi. There remains much more space for Partition stories as this is the Diaspora’s domain that bridges both nations, uncomfortably at first, and then a free flow addressing commonalities amidst differences, and not bound by either.
Literature Festivals have assumed heritage status and promote Interactive capabilities in an age where virtual pods dominate. They also operate without a banner touting an Agenda of peace and harmony; somehow the flow of words that stir the air and open the doors to locked imaginations never fails to exhilarate.
The river of history, current affairs and analysis for the future all make for bricks and mortar, sinews and beating heart of building bridges – this is what London seems to have lived through, time after time, since time immemorial.