Excerpt: 'How to Read in Indian' by Nilanjana S. Roy


Neemrana Fort-Palace

From The Caravan:

Outside the heavy wooden gates that guard the Neemrana Fort-Palace against unwanted day visitors, local villagers and the curious, a dusty, winding path leads back to the highway. In 2003, this path was no more than a narrow lane, so narrow that two vehicles could not pass side-by-side, and to find it blocked by the carcass of a dead pig brought a caravan of writers to an unexpected halt.

The writers had been brought to Neemrana by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and a team of enthusiasts that included Namita Gokhale—now one of the directors of the Jaipur Literature Festival—who felt that India needed a festival of its own. Delhi, in particular, and India, in general, had been no stranger to such events in the past. The grand mushairas of the Mughals were so splendid, so challenging and so famous that Mirza Farhatullah Baig could create an imaginary Last Mushaira of poets from across the country, with imaginary sawaal-jawaabs, in the court of the last Mughal, Bahadur Shah Zafar.

The tradition continued, as Nirad C Chaudhuri recorded in 1937:

I had a joyous feeling at the prospect of going to the conference at Patna. Such gatherings were a typical cultural recreation of the Bengalis working and settled outside Bengal, the expatriate Bengalis as they were called: the Bengali Diaspora, who never forgot their Zion in Calcutta. Thus in every important city or town in northern India there was a cultural club to keep alive the traditions of Calcutta life. Patna was a big city, the capital of Bihar and Orissa, and it also had a large Bengali population… The sessions of the conference were very well attended, actually in hundreds. In India lectures always attract very large audiences, however abstruse the subjects.

One of the big questions at any gathering of this sort is a simple but unsettling one: What does this curiosity mean? The audience at Neemrana was missing—the idea was to allow writers to spend time with each other, undisturbed by the voices of the masses. They would return to Delhi and spend another two days discussing versions of the topics they had already discussed, this time with the public in respectful attendance.

The book launches and festivals of 21st-century Delhi were not precisely the kind of “cultural recreation” Chaudhuri had spoken of, which had its roots in the tradition of the adda, the teahouse discussions for which cities like Kolkata and Mumbai had once been famous. Book launches were symbolic displays of an author’s importance, often displays of status and power, in a city ruled by the need for both; they were, geographically, held almost exclusively in South Delhi, and areas like Pitampura, Badarpur, Shahdara and Shalimar Bagh lay well outside the charmed circles of the India Habitat Centre and Aqua at The Park.

As the writer Amit Chaudhuri said, Delhi’s incestuousness had infected literary circles as well; the capital, notoriously an insider’s city, had bred a culture where everyone in publishing knew everyone in the media and everyone on the writer’s circuit. It was the joint-family approach to literature, and while it had an upside—a newcomer could find his or her feet quite quickly, transitioning to insider status in less than a year—it was also, in many ways, damaging, masking a hollowness that showed in the shrinking spaces for book reviews, or for real literary debates as opposed to manufactured controversies and warmed-over gossip.

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