Vijay Seshadri, Amitav Ghosh and Amardeep Singh from left to right
I attended S.A.W.C.C.’s (south Asian women's creative collaborative) kickstart to their weekend program of Mixed Messages. The readings were by Amitav Ghosh, from his recent non fiction book Incendiary Circumstances, Vijay Seshadri from his book Long Meadow: Poems. It was moderated by Amardeep Singh, Professor of English at Lehigh University. Sara Suleri was supposed to be their as well, but did not show.
The program started with a reading by Amitav and Vijay. Amitav read his obituary to Agha Shahid Ali, titled “The Ghat Of The Only World” and read out one of my favorite poems by him. I think I like it so much because it reminds me of Faiz’s poetry. This poem is about Kashmir and the relationship of Kashmiri Pandits (Hindus) with Kashmiri Muslims.
At a certain point I lost track of you.
You needed me. You needed to perfect me:
In your absence you polished me into the enemy.
Your history gets in the way of my memory.
I am everything you lost. You can’t forgive me.
I am everything you lost. Your perfect enemy.
Your memory gets in the way of my memory....
There is nothing to forgive. You won’t forgive me.
I hid my pain even from myself; I revealed my pain only to myself.
There is everything to forgive. You can’t forgive me.
If only somehow you could have been mine,
what would not have been possible in the world?
They then had a discussion, led ably by Amardeep who asked them about forms of writing and how they selected them.
Vijay felt forms were culturally determined and were specific to each culture. He gave an example of the Ghazal, which he said originated in Moorish Spain ( I think that’s incorrect) and had a deep tradition in Islam. Forms adapt to circumstances and ones that are irrelevant are discarded.
Amitav felt form was free flowing in a novel. But he felt free to explore non-fiction and essays as well. He was not limited by form.
The second question was on the role of events and how they shaped a writer. Was it a responsibility of a writer to write?
Amitav said he came of age in Calcutta, which had a strong leftist tradition. He was shaped politically by the anti-Sikh riots after Indira Gandhi’s death in 1984. He belonged to a group P.U.C.L (peoples union for civil liberties) and they prepared a white paper on who the guilty were during the 1984 riots. At the time of preparation Mr. Ghosh felt that it was useless to write when so many people were suffering. But a few years later that document was able to indict a lot of the criminals and politicians responsible for the riots. The distinction between action and contemplation for writers is spurious. He also gave another example, where he had written an article for outlook magazine, criticizing a company Sahara, who were planning to commercialize the Sunderbans. His article was read by the chief minister of Bengal, and the company was not granted permission to build and develop the area.
Vijay agreed with Amitav and felt the Dandi march was a political act of defiance by Gandhi. Writers cannot ignore the real power of literature to shape events. For instance Poets against the War in Vietnam galvanized the start of the political movement against the war in America, in the 1960's. What is beyond writing he said? Naxalites or to act in a destructive and nihilistic way.
The third question dealt with the issue of identity, Indian or American?
Vijay thought that India and America had a dialectical relationship. Current situation for him is that India is being seen in an interesting and compelling way by the U.S. The U.S. was being run by an adolescent leader, and an adolescent government with infantile polices.
Amitav had arrived in the US only 13 years ago, and he found the U.S. a pleasurable discovery. But after Sept 11th, 2001 he felt America is not what he thought it to be. He gave an example of the New Yorker editor David Remnick, who wanted to add a by line to his article on why the U.S. should not be in Iraq. The by line was irrelevant and misrepresented what he was trying to say about empires. He felt in India you know stupidity when you see it, here in the US there was a plain lack of common sense. He felt a country that’s known defeat, like India is able to be more realistic of its abilities and is wiser than the US. He felt the dialogue in India was much more informed, eloquent, articulate and aware of ground realities than here.
Role of Women
Vijay felt India had made a space for women.
Amitav felt that in China, there was much greater participation by women in the economy, they were truck drivers, shop keepers, mechanics. Unlike India where women are quite segregated from such professions. He felt where 50% of the population did not actively participate in the workforce, it would hinder the growth of the economy. Although he was aware of the contradiction that in India a woman can rise to the top political positions probably easier than in China.
Someone from the audience asked Vijay why his endings were not more activist?
He responded by looking at Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Canter bridge and said the book was based on false climaxes, and then things carrying on as before. He preferred to be in a state where dilemmas are not resolvable. He regards them as processes, much larger than himself. He wants to get to the stage of irresolution, a place that will free him from contradictions. (That so Sarah Lawrence, most of the teachers think like that their). He gave an example of Flaubert, who in the morning put a comma in his poem and in the evening took it out, and that was his day of poetry!.
Someone else asked about the role of lingering violence, that challenges the notion of cosmopolitanism in India
Vijay spoke about a polyglot open relationship with the dark side.
Amitav felt that question of non violence is always posed in the face of violence. He mentioned the peace marches that occur spontaneously after a riot. 50% of role models in India are Muslim. He felt Indians lived their dream life through people who were not like them, not of the same religion.
Another audience member asked Mr. Ghosh about a change in style of his books towards more romanticism.
He said he writes books that he wants to read. It creates a sense of freedom for him. For instance Glass Palace was about an obscure topic in Burma. But he felt like Heisneberg, who said that everything is interesting, if you look at it with deep attention.
When asked why Mr. Ghosh does not write on America.
He honestly responded by saying the America did not interest him. He sees it as an empty neutral space, which gives him the opportunity to continue writing. The Indian global migration experience as indentured servants, which he compared to the 18th century African slave migrations, was what interested him and he focused on in his writings. People thought that this migration was scandalous and a source of shame, but he thought it had a rich history and was an ennobling experience for him.