I attended The Hindu Lit for Life 2018 last year, which was interesting. This year too I am attending, not in full so my post this time will be extremely brief.

Disclaimer: This post is from my recollection and the notes I took, I attended only a few sessions, some even in parts, the notes are not verbatim nor complete and how I understood them. They don’t necessarily represent my views – my knowledge of the topics discussed are limited.


The Hindu Lit for Life 2019 – Day 1

The first talk was by Mr Arun Shourie, former Editor of Indian Express and former Minister in the Government of India. He was talking about the growing intolerance in the country, which he feels is centrally planned and executed locally (decentralised) and follows no ideology – power and total domination is the only aim.

(From Left) – Mukund Padmanabhan , Arun Shourie, and, N Ram

The next talk I attended was on “Beyond Indian English: A time for bhashas“. This panel comprised of notable Indian Language writers who have had their books translated to English. They talked on their journey and why English seems to be the way to reach the whole country, but restricted to a limited populace, and, reaching readers outside India is still very difficult for Indian language writers from India. The writer who translates a book has to be primarily well-versed in the target language (say English), more than his/her proficiency in the original (say Local Indian language) – that is the only way to bring out the soul of the book and the idioms appropriately.

Urvashi Butalia in conversation with J Devika, Kannan Sundaram and Vivek Shanbhag

Next was a discussion between Yasser Usman and Vaasanthi on “The Real and the Mystique: Unravelling the hidden layers”.

Yasser Usman is the author of three bestselling biographies – Rajesh Khanna: The Untold Story of India’s First Superstar, Rekha: The Untold Story and Sanjay Dutt: The Crazy Untold Story of Bollywood’s Bad Boy. Vaasanthi is a freelance journalist and has authored biographies of Tamil Nadu’s former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa: A Portrait (2012) and Amma: A Journey from a Movie Star to a Political Queen (2016).

Yasser shared how he knew little about Rajesh Khanna before he wrote his biography and on his first encounter with the superstar. Vaasanthi spoke on the difficulty of writing biographies of people – it is equally difficult to write about those who had a iron curtain around them like Dr Jayalalithaa, and to write about those who had plenty written about them like Dr M Karunanidhi.

Yasser Usman in conversation with Vaasanthi

On the panel “Fetters on Creative Expression: Art and the politics of dissent”, T M Krishna, noted singer, activist and author, says that the critics learned to dissent from the oppressed who didn’t have a voice and he stressed on the need to have more people on stages like this from the disadvantaged class.

Kamini Mahadevan, T M Krishna, Chandan Gowda and Githa Hariharan

Audrey Truschke – The Myth and Reality of Emperor Aurangzeb (the book) – An illustrated lecture. She is Assistant Professor of South Asian History at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey. 

She talked about how Aurangzeb is poorly understood in modern imagination as an Islamophobic, bloodthirsty ruler who was brutal against the Hindus and Hindu temples – while some of it was true, he had another side too, where he did give grants to The Hindu temples. He was more interested in power than a strong religious ideology, which he followed when convenient for him – he did overthrow his father which was against Islamic tradition and for years his gifts to Mecca was rejected – he did attack a fellow Muslim ruler and held siege for months. The temples he demolished should be in the order of tens, say 15 and unlikely to be the 60,000 or so figure that goes around – and often times when he did destroy a temple it was for political reasons and to punish the upper-class/Brahmins/rulers there.

Our idea of Aurangzeb stems from the early work of British historians, from the books like The History of India, as Told by Its Own Historians: The Muhammadan Period by Henry Miers Elliot, John Dowson, which were written to the portray earlier rulers of India to be barbaric, so as to soften the feel of colonial rule of India.

She says when rulers fear of historians like her, who are talking about what happened 300 years ago, there is something wrong. When you fear, you seek to control it. For a ‘rude’ question on what qualifies her, a westerner (American) who killed millions of Red-Indians to write about Mughal India, she eloquently and professionally
answered – she is a qualified historian, trained in the discipline, she knows Sanskrit and Persian, two important languages in the court of the Mughals in India and she has read on the subject for decades.

I felt the talk could’ve covered more on Aurangzeb, instead half-way through it became more of Ms Audrey’s journey becoming tougher with the Nationalist trolling her, she needing armed guards around, while these are unfortunate and should be condemned, they should’ve been discussed in a separate talk as it was stealing the focus from Aurangzeb.

Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth by Audrey Truschke

The Hindu Lit for Life 2019 – Day 2

Mr Rajmohan Gandhi was talking about his new book Modern South India, in conversation with Nirmala Lakshman. He says that North India has to be told more about South India and this book is an attempt, the job is made easy for him as his mother (he is the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and Rajaji) hails from Tamil Nadu, so he has an understanding of the region and its differences from the rest of the country. Equality as an idea existed in South India for a long time and it was more open to the outside world as it has a long coastline with trades happening with the middle east, south-east Asia and the rest of the world.

Some quotes from his talk: ‘Never does land mean the sand and clay, but its people The South’s contribution to the rest of India is their notion of solidarity. ‘, ‘I was moving forward in time, but sideward in space’, ‘I’ve stayed outside the South for most my life, and it probably saved me from my alignment to a certain state..’, ‘The British didn’t divide and rule. We divided and they ruled‘, ‘Not only must a child be taught Regional and National history but also World history. Then humanity has won’, and, ‘We may lament it, we may regret it, but we have to learn to accept our past… From an immediate past, we must imagine a much more distant past’.

The Hindu Lit for Life 2019 – Day 3

Why can’t India and Pakistan Be Friends” was a brilliant talk (he has written a book on the same name) by Mr Husain Haqqani in conversation with Suhasini Haider. Mr Haqqani is a writer and former ambassador of Pakistan to the United States. He presented very balanced views that are well articulated, yet felt a bit (over) simplified. We need more of these thoughts from both countries.

He started with how Pakistan was formed, it coming into existence with 19% of British India’s population, 13% of land but with 33% of its army, when such a large army was there, you needed an enemy. India too didn’t help by not being magnanimous. The India-Pakistan relationship is like a divorce between a married couple gone wrong, both parties feel cheated/aggrieved, the future is not made by thinking why it happened but by accepting the divorce and moving on. When the founder of Pakistan Mr Jinnah was asked before the partition on the relationship he wishes will be there between the two nations, he is supposed to have said it should be like the one between Canada and the USA – the longest International border yet with no check posts. Before the Partition, the Indian subcontinent was the most integrated, from Kabul to Dhaka, a single communication system and so on. Today the two nations are the least connected. When the two nations are connected heavily, with open borders, the painful issues like Kashmir don’t matter.

Pakistan has a country has been there only for 70 years, but the people of the two nations, are part of Indian Civilisation for 5000 years sharing beliefs, language, food, race and culture. There are no (centuries of) historic or long-held animosity between our two nations, they are just 70 years old and cultivated. To resolve or negotiate between the two nations, the teams from both sides should have more of Non-Punjabis – Punjabis because of their shared history across the border and the fact they lost the most due to partition are emotional and carry baggage, whereas the other regions of Pakistan carry little of this. Every time the leader(s) change at either side, the media at both sides go crazy with hopes of a breakthrough – it isn’t going to be happening just like that, it needs a lot of hard work at both sides.

“Indian civilisation is not a Hindu or a Muslim civilisation. Negotiation means meeting half way, there should be one. In my vision there’ll be an open border, students studying, patients treated in each other’s country”, “Both countries know very little about each other. There are no resident correspondents at either sides.”, and, “Many countries have had difficulties in the past. We cannot undo the partition but we can be more amicable.”,

If you want to fight, you look for a dozen reasons to fight. If you want friendship, that alone is good enough reason for friendship

Husain Haqqani
Husain Haqqani – Why can’t we just be friends?

Nobel Prize Winner Mr Venki Ramakrishnan on “Decoding Our Genes” talked about his journey from Chidambaram, to Mumbai when he was 3 years old and then to the USA to do his higher studies first on Physics and then going again to graduate college for Biology (then to Microbial Biology). Quoting from his book “Gene Machine: The Race to Decipher the secrets of the Ribosome” he talked of the development in the field to understand the role of Ribosome in DNA.

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