Introductory remarks by one of the two curators of the Pondy Lit Fest 2019.
It gives me great pleasure to welcome you to the 2019 Pondicherry literature festival, where, over the next three days, we plan to learn, unlearn, fight, make-up, strike new friendships, reinforce old ones, discuss, debate, and then go back with a new resolve, to change our India and ourselves in no small measure.
At the outset I would like to thank my fellow-curator Kanchan da, and the organisers Alo Pal, Partha da, and Ajit Dutta. You know, as the Bengal governor would probably vouch for it, working with one Bengali is stressful enough; working with three can be traumatic. But I am pleased to report, that as far as my teammates are concerned, beneath their hard as a Bengali roshogolla exterior beats a heart that is as soft as Mysorepak, the Tamilian delicacy.
A special thanks also to the hundreds who have registered for the festival and have come from all parts of India just to attend and participate. You, and not the speakers, or the curators, or the organisers, make a festival what it is. In this context, a couple comes to mind. No relation of mine, but can I please request the Ranganathans to stand up? They have travelled all the way from Bangalore just to attend the PLF. A big round of applause for them. Wonderful couple. Wonderful surname.
This year's edition of the PLF is bigger and better. We have more sessions and more speakers; more topics, and more debates. The sessions have been curated with points and counter-points in mind. That is because every coin has two sides unless it is minted by the communists, in which case you have bearded old men on both sides.
The debates will be rich and argumentative. We are especially pleased to introduce what we call the soapbox sessions. They involve a speaker jumping onto a soapbox and rousing the audience with his or her monologue. We are distributing a few whistles to make this session more interesting. A gentle heckling would be encouraged, although abusive language, rushing at the speaker, and punching him off the rostrum will not be allowed. This is a literary festival, not the Lok Sabha.
The other pleasing addition to the Literary Festival, we believe, is injection of a heavy dose of science and scientific debates.
We hope to dispel the myth that science does not matter to society, that it is best that it is confined to small, dingy labs in the back and beyond, that art is not science and that science is not art. We hope to discuss everything on the table; candidly and unreservedly. Politics and Religion and Art and Science. Especially science. And here I would like to expand a little, if I may, on the one attribute of science that is often overlooked – the endowment of humility.
If religion is self-dominating, science is self-deprecating. If religion tells you life has a purpose, science tells you Life has no purpose. We are a conspiracy hatched by thunder and lightning and water and ammonia and hydrogen and methane and dust. Amino-acetonitrile met water and formed an amino-acid four billion years ago; a sperm met an egg and produced a baby yesterday. All random, all Harry and Sally; need not have happened; very easily did not. The theory of evolution is not a theory anymore; it is an axiom. Let religion and its mesmerising literature not fool you into believing you were created by someone who wasn’t a product of the RNA world in the first place. Genome-sequencing, sexual-PCR, ribozymes, and proto-cells provide irrefutable proof of a common origin of all life-forms and their subsequent branching-out because of Darwinian principles of survival and adaptation. Evolution governs our every breath, our every move; evolution is the reason why we live and why we die. Evolution, sadly, is also misunderstood. Many believe it has done its job, which was to perch man on the top of the biological pyramid.
The combined efforts of the human imagination have endowed inter-galactic aliens with two eyes, two ears, one nose, four limbs, and one brain. Yes. We think evolution peaked with us. An alien worthy of being our adversary has to look and think like us. Of course, it does. After all, we are the masters of this universe. We sit atop the tree of life and all what we survey from that vantage is beneath us, crawling and writhing and inept and unintelligent and wanting to be us.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
We, the people, are but a bunch of living and breathing cells. We don’t sit atop the tree of life; we barely manage to hang on to one of its hundred-odd branches. We are a cog in this giant throbbing machine called Evolution. Only a cog.
The modern Tree of Life is humbling to stare at. It tells us that we are just one of the millions of animals in an Animal Farm. Such an idea was blasphemous barely a century ago. Imagine telling all those continent-conquering SOBs that their bodies had more bacteria than human cells, that bugs complete us, that humans survive only because of an exquisite friendship we have struck with the rest of the living beings; that no one is Napoleon in this Animal Farm.
And for those who insist that a line be drawn to separate the Arts and the Sciences, we have sessions that hope to dispel this myth, too. What does Music do – does it cure a disease; is it a vaccine? When it comes down to it, Science is but Art. Was it to emphasise this understanding, or just an accident of literary flair, that the 1965 Nobel Prize Citation for RB Woodward read: “For his outstanding achievements in the art of organic synthesis”?
Is it Yakshini, the Hindu goddess guarding Kuber’s wealth, or is it the B-form of DNA? The beauty of science lies in the eyes of the artist.
Lastly, I would like to touch upon something contentious and controversial, and what this year's festival would hopefully reinforce.
All of us here in the audience – composed overwhelmingly of the Right and the non-Left – know that we have fought with each other at some point of time. Indeed, it is one of the principal laments of the Right that the Right fights among itself. To be sure, those who say this, say this immediately after having had a fight. But I contend that this is good. We are all here together, aren’t we?
It is the Left and not the Right that cannot take criticism from among its own. The Right works on Darwinian principles and fighting for supremacy of ideas comes naturally – a fundamental and glorious reason why there can never be a Right-wing ecosystem.
To build a Right-wing Ecosystem would be to replicate a Left-wing ecosystem. Nothing could be more tragic. Ecosystems are tribes; sooner or later they demand their pound of flesh. Slowly, they sow ideas of brotherhood and dependence in an intellectual who has just joined them and then begins the slide. If India is to encourage the growth of intellectualism, it must understand that ecosystems, as we know them, are to be discouraged. It must understand the role of a patron. You can support a musician by organising a concert for him, but you can’t ask him to perform your mediocre creation. And this is what all ecosystems do. They turn into herds, and their members into little lambs, afraid to speak their minds, fearful of the consequences, scared that the flow of cash or kind might ebb. Ecosystems conceal and guard mediocrity, then promote and help it prosper. Instead, the Right must now cultivate nonconformists and dissenters among its own fold.
Over these past five years, not a day has gone by when the Left – that holds a monopoly on the media narrative in India – principally through inbreeding and entrenched mediocrity and a collectivised belief in loony tomes – not a day has gone by when the Left hasn’t indulged in wanton propaganda, selectivism, scare-mongering, Hinduphobia, shameless hypocrisy, and the institutionalisation of false-equivalence. From spreading misinformation and fake-news, to pillorying institutions like the Supreme Court and the Armed Forces, nothing was left to chance. The intellectuals have turned into pretenders.
And the pretenders have turned into potters. They have made sure the soft clay that gets baked ultimately into wisdom and sagacity is now the clay of untold misery and mediocrity. But it wasn't always like that, no it wasn't.
The clay is special. It is the same clay that suckled the glorious vedas that fed us, whose richness reflected silently the greatness of its people; whose texture echoed unity in diversity, whose fragrance recalled Bankim and Bharati and Vivekananda and Ambedkar and CV Raman, whose blood birthed Shivaji and Subhas Chandra Bose and the great revolutionaries. It is the same clay.
It is that same clay that trundles down our mountains and is washed over by the sin-obliterating waters of our holy rivers, and while they wait, to receive that same clay, receive it in their trembling hands at Gangasagar before it is lost forever in the vast oceans of apathy, while they wait, we have work to do, to make sure they receive this clay and then shape it into a new India, a great India.
Thank you. Jai Hind!
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