Books, Conversations and Music: Celebrating South Asian literature at the JLF

Charusmita Monday 23rd May 2016 07:17 EDT

Saturday, the 21st of May witnessed the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) in its third consecutive year at Southbank, London. The festival brought together thinkers, writers, poets and balladeers, showcasing South Asia’s unique multilingual heritage. It was held in collaboration with Alchemy, Southbank Centre’s festival of South Asian Culture. JLF at Southbank perfectly captured and celebrated the spirit of the annual festival by the same name in India since the year 2006. The inaugural address was given by High Commissioner Navtej Sarna, followed by the Directors of the JLF Namita Gokhale and William Dalrymple and producer Sanjoy Roy (of Teamwork Arts).

The late afternoon session on ‘Women Writing War’ was particularly compelling with authors Shrabani Basu, Yasmin Khan and Alex von Tunzelmann in conversation with Sidin Vadukut. Once considered a subject of male scrutiny, war narratives and military history are increasingly being examined by women writers. The topics of discussion ranged from women writing about wars and their representation in war narratives, to the prejudice these women academics/ writers still face owing to their subject of interest. Shrabani Basu has written ‘For King and Another Country: Indian Soldiers on the Western Front 1914-1918’. Alex von Tunzelmann is the author of ‘Red Heat: Conspiracy, Murder, and the Cold War in the Caribbean’. Yasmin Khan has written ‘The Raj at War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War’. Sidin Vadukut is an author, blogger and columnist.

All the three authors confessed to having faced prejudice as women writing about wars. The narratives of bravery, violence, war politics, military life, battlefield and soldiers had caught their keen eye, and they explored the different layers of stories that are set within these contexts. Shrabani spoke about her story of Noor Inayat Khan’s life titled ‘Spy Princess’. What drew her, she said, were human stories – their routine, habits, access to food, and experiences. Alex exemplified one of the prejudices that women writers on war routinely face – writing only about women and children affected by wars. Women are the only ones assumed to be “caring for children in a war situation”, she said. This, she clarified, exemplified the existence of stereotypes and diluted the gravity of such issues. The representation of women as the Queens, mistresses and sex workers in war narratives has been more common than females as soldiers on the battle front or involved in the operations of war, and women researchers and authors are increasingly attempting to change that.

Both Yasmin and Shrabani spoke on how war writings have mostly catered to the high-ranking officers and medal bearers, and how this is just the tip of an iceberg. They discussed some untold stories like the fascination with the Turban outside India during wars, and how English nurses were not allowed to nurse Indian soldiers during the First World War because of this. Issues of identity for these soldiers (being either Indian or British) need a further study, according to Shrabani. The authors, most importantly, encouraged diverse perspectives on war narratives such as recruitment for the armed forces, family military traditions, prisoners of war, role of women, micro-level resistances, and the complexity of such stories.

Some of the other sessions included ‘British Asians: The Changing Face’ (on the changing attitudes and affiliations of the second and third generations of South Asian Britons), ‘The Third Gender’ (on sexual minority rights and social and personal gender roles), ‘Reading Women- Writing Women’ (Women’s narratives from India and South and Central Asia), ‘Reporting India’ (A discussion on reporting on South Asia, moderated by eminent Indian journalist Barkha Dutt), ‘Democracy at Work: An Eye on Elections’ (on the mayoral elections in the UK, ongoing state elections in India and the forthcoming US elections). Alongside these intense discussions, the festival also enjoyed the traditional Morning Ragas, Tabla takeovers (led by the world renowned Zakir Hussain), and Lokkhi Terra (Bangladeshi folk, Afro-beat and Cuban Rumba blend).

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