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From Language Extinction to Pearls Crushed in Wine: JLF at New York

By Noor Naga

JLF at New York occured on September 20, 2018. The festival brought together acclaimed authors and thinkers at the Asia Society in New York City.


On September 20, the 2018 JLF at New York began, as all good festivals should, with percussion and strings, with arm-flapping, hand-clapping, and the stirring vocals of Zila Khan. The legendary Indian Sufi singer sat cross-legged on a carpet at center stage with a shawl to cover her bare feet from sight, and as her voice climbed and dove with passion, her entire body participated in the performance. She arched her back, reached out as though to beckon a lover, snatched invisible birds from the air, picked imaginary rice grains off the ground, sewed with one hand into the palm of the other. “My heart answers only to You,” she translated for us, holding both palms together facing up, as though begging. It was like watching a woman in communion with the divine.

When the performance was over, the audience stirred out of its trance and, as the lights came back on, they began to recognize each other. There was a palpable air of festivity and reunion, with everyone speaking at once in many languages, shuffling to sit beside those they knew or else waving and signing to each other from across the auditorium. As William Dalrymple, cofounder of the festival, recounted in his opening remarks, the Jaipur Literature Festival has grown exponentially since its inaugural event in Jaipur in 2006, when only fourteen people attended (ten of whom were Japanese tourists lost on their way to Amer, who promptly left upon realizing where they were). From these humble beginnings, the Jaipur Literature Festival has become the largest free literary festival in the world, and its producers now host events at locations beyond Jaipur, including New York, to provide a taste of the iconic festival. 

The 2018 edition at New York featured a range of discussion topics, from the consequences of colonialism and empire on best-selling author Shashi Tharoor’s Hindu faith to the potentially fatal effects of heartbreak, as described by Sandeep Jauhar. Molly Emma Aitken and Navina Haidar elaborated on the stylistic peculiarities that distinguish the miniature paintings of Rajasthan from those of contemporaneous miniatures from other parts of India. Meanwhile, literary critic and philosopher Martin Puchner described the evolution of writing itself, from five-thousand-year-old scratchings on clay in Mesopotamia to our current digital age.

Image: Navtej Sarna, Navina Haidar, and William Dalrymple. © Elsa Ruiz.

The very first panel of the festival included collaborative storytelling by William Dalrymple and Navtej Sarna on the narrative history of the Kohinoor, one of the largest cut diamonds in the world and by far the most heavily mythologized. In fact, it became clear from the panel that, after its appearance at the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, the Kohinoor’s international fame caused it to be retroactively inserted into history, such that any mention of a diamond prior to the eighteenth century was assumed to refer to the Kohinoor, and, in many cases, documents were falsified or mistranslated to reflect that error. According to Dalrymple, however, the first verifiable mention of the diamond in any source is by the biographer of Nader Shah, who mentions it being the eye of a peacock on the Peacock Throne, completed in 1635.

Navtej Sarna, acclaimed author and Indian ambassador to the United States, traced the diamond’s path through a succession of rulers, including Ranjit Singh, founder of the Sikh Empire, who used to drink mixtures of wine with crushed pearls and who died (unsurprisingly, given his diet) by stroke in 1839. According to Sarna, by this point, tales of the Kohinoor had long since whet the appetite of the British, and after their conquest of the Punjab in 1849, the youngest son of Ranjit Singh surrendered it to Queen Victoria. From there it was recut from its original 193-carat octahedral form into a 90-carat oval. It has since been worn by every successive queen, except, most notably, the present one.

Image: Preti Taneja, James Shapiro, and Gauri Viswanathan. © Elsa Ruiz.

In another panel, leading Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro spoke with author Preti Taneja about the resilience of King Lear and her own recent literary adaptation of the play into a novel, We That Are Young. Shapiro began by putting the play’s own genealogy into perspective, commenting that Shakespeare’s King Lear was itself the reworking of a twenty-year-old Elizabethan play, King Leir, and prior to that, it had existed in different literary forms for centuries. Shapiro argued that in Renaissance England the theater occupied a place of supreme relevance; apart from bear-baiting and executions, there was no competing media. What Taneja successfully achieved was to give the play new currency in the form of a novel, which Shapiro saw as more pertinent to our cultural consumption habits.

Set in modern-day New Delhi, sixty-five years after partition, We That Are Young follows the plight of Jivan Singh as he struggles to decide which of his three daughters (or illegitimate gay son) to bequeath his corporate empire to. In a country suffering so acutely from the impact of economic distress, political division, and religious nationalism, where over fifty percent of the population is under twenty-five, Shapiro felt that Taneja’s novel brings a greater urgency to Shakespeare’s thematic preoccupations with partition, patriarchy, inheritance, and the intergenerational tension between tradition and innovation. Taneja explained that although patriarchy required the pitting of daughters against each other in a competition for power and love, she wanted her novel to illuminate the bonds of sisterhood among them. According to Shapiro, this is one of the reasons she succeeded in doing what few adaptations of King Lear do: maintaining the true balance between the political and the familial drama in the play.

“No one in America talks about what it’s like to lose a language. It’s like watching a large ship sail away from you.”

In the panel “The City of Many Tongues,” Kayhan Irani, Ross Perlin, Alia Malek, and Ruchira Gupta spoke with Kanishk Tharoor about the unique position of New York City as not only a highly multilingual, cosmopolitan place, but also a capital of empire and an “engine of assimilation.” Malek began by describing how there are multiple Americas and that she identifies as a New Yorker specifically because of all the cultural contradictions allowed to coexist in this city. As an Indian immigrant who looks ethnically ambiguous, Irani recounted her adoption into the Puerto Rican community in Queens. Despite speaking fluent Spanish, as a child she asked her mother to stop speaking to her in her native Gujarati, not realizing at that age that she was effectively forfeiting her ancestral tongue in the process. “No one in America talks about what it’s like to lose a language,” Irani continued, “It’s like watching a large ship sail away from you.”

Ross Perlin, codirector of the Endangered Language Alliance, contextualized this tragedy by explaining that approximately half of the world’s seven thousand languages are predicted to disappear in the next century or two. According to him, there is recognition among linguists that we are living in a critical moment. Due to immigration and urbanization, there is a new hyperdiversity in cities like New York which, if not protected, will very quickly be lost. Ruchira also noted the importance of not romanticizing New York, which she feels is undemocratic in its acceptance of diversity, host to an overarching, monolithic “language of class.” At this, the audience erupted into spontaneous applause. “Accents divide and reveal,” Ruchira continued, such that a Harlem accent signifies something very different than a Connecticut boarding school accent; by extension, an Indian or Filipino accent is not received like a French or Australian one.

Image: Kanishk Tharoor, Kayhan Irani, Ross Perlin, Alia Malek, and Ruchira Gupta. © Elsa Ruiz.

As someone who moved here only a month ago, I was surprised by how receptive the audience was to this more critical turn in the conversation. There was an effort made by Irani and all of the other speakers to deromanticize the immigration process and emphasize the fact that most immigrants to New York are not fleeing for their lives but rather seeking to improve their socioeconomic situation. The overwhelming sense in the room was that the loss of languages was not strictly a tragedy that the machine of empire had caused the rest of the world to suffer but rather one that we are all responsible for. As a newcomer, despite the bleakness of this concluding thought, I found the agency implied in its spirit very, very heartening. After a full day of examining the stories around us—who’s telling them, where they diverge from history, how they can be repurposed for new cultures and contexts—this invitation for critical engagement is the one that stayed with me on the bus ride home and for many days afterward. 

Published Oct 10, 2018   Copyright 2018 Noor Naga

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