Archive for January 25th, 2012

January 25, 2012

People from literature

I’ve been at the Jaipur Literature Festival this week. I won’t be doing any sort of comprehensive piece on it, and my twitter followers are probably sick of my #JLF updates. But I think I’ll be using it as the starting point for a few other pieces, beginning with this one.

I attended two particularly good sessions on the Monday. The first was a discussion about adaptation, featuring Tom Stoppard, Richard Flanagan, Vishal Bharadwaj and Lionel Shriver, and moderated by Girish Karnad.

At the end of the panel when the floor was opened to questions, a woman stood up and addressed Vishal Bharadwaj. Bharadwaj had been speaking about his experiences with adapting Shakespeare to Bollywood (Macbeth and Othello to Maqbool and Omkara) – this woman said that “as a person from literature” she had disapproved of his adaptation of Macbeth and felt that it should not have been allowed.

Naturally I quoted this on twitter; Prayaag Akbar used it as the starting point for this humourous take on the festival and Angad Chowdhry suggested that “person from literature” (and subsequently  “person from the Internet” and other variations) be turned into a t-shirt. Prayaag and a couple of my other twitter followers suggested jokingly that “person from literature” might well mean a rogue character from a book roaming through the festival, trolling the panels. There’s a short story in there.

The second panel, “The Afropolitans”, featured Teju Cole and Ben Okri and was moderated by Taiye Selasi. “The Afropolitans” took its name from an essay on identity by Selasi – naturally the question “where are you from?” was discussed at some length during the session. Selasi suggested at some point that when so many of us have trouble answering that question (I’m a St Lucian-born, various-parts-of-England-bred Delhiite at the moment), perhaps we should stop asking it. Teju Cole said that he was from “a short story in the middle of Dubliners”; “Araby”. It only occurred to me a couple of days later that Cole was saying that he was a person from literature as well; if “where are you from?” is a question about identity, for many of us particular books (and movies, and other cultural products) are as valid an answer as countries and languages.

So I was born, I suppose, in Bashful the Clumsy Bear by Pat Posner, the first book I learnt how to read, or in a book whose title my family no longer remembers about dogs named Tippy and Trinket.I spent some of my teenage years with Antonia Forest, struggling through just how much of selfhood is performance, and my first crush that ended in heartbreak was The Owl Service. I opened Gormenghast in a school library and it was “oh. Oh”, and that was a coming home of sorts.  I cannot read Derek Walcott without crying and that ties into the geographical version of my identity too, and the birthplace I left before I could remember it.

All of this requires at least as long an answer as the purely cartographical version, and I can’t imagine Teju Cole would ever be satisfied with just “Araby”. And it clearly isn’t what the woman in the audience meant, but if someone were to make those t-shirts next year I think I would get one.