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The 2013 SAARC Festival of Literature

Tuesday, March 19th, 2013
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Or
A weekend with the South Asian Association for Regional Cohabitation

In
Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal, the Cymbal of Eternal Love

The first inkling I had that the SAARC Festival of Literature was not quite what a gathering of self-proclaimed “mad dreamers” suggested was on the bus from Delhi to Agra. A veteran of several editions gave way to my questioning and conceded it wasn’t “serious”. The second was when I pushed my way through the scrum at the Grand Hotel’s reception to find, to my chagrin, that delegates had been paired off, two a bed. Was this about fostering good neighbourly relations? The third reminder came when the next morning, the obligatory Sufi performer began, “Since this is a Sufi festival…” Festival Directrice Ajeet Cour, best known for 1985’s Khanabadosh, corrected him, “This is not a Sufi festival!”

Then what was it? Cour began proceedings with a paean to Mother Nature, the theme of the meet. “We are sharing a civilisational journey,” she said, and it was all I could do to stop myself from sniping “and beds!” “He’s a wonderful man,” one of the organizers had said in reference to the Indian poet I was to share a double bed with. “I’m sure he is,” I replied, “but don’t you have twin beds?”

Certainly art has a historic responsibility in urging us towards some sort of sustainable future. But in the jumble of jargon-strewn academic papers and torrents of parlous poetry that followed, I could not see history in the making. The only history was personal – that between those venerables hugging each other with variations on “Wonderful to see you again!”

Declining to inflict my adolescent poetry upon the august conference, I read out a short story about a young journalist frustrated, among other things, by the futility of climate change conferences. The message was not lost on Arpana Caur, who later explained how she and her mother had been actively involved in the preservation of forests. “Well I was mostly referring to the big international conferences,” I clarified, meaning the giant environmental meets that let out more hot air than that they aim to contain. “Yes, like Jaipur,” she said, comparing her conference favourably to the most successful literature festival in the world.

I won’t say networking, in of itself, is to be spurned. My roommate turned out to be a fine poet, and I was glad to have made his acquaintance. But such revelations were far and few between, and perhaps limited to the cultural broadenings of those yet very green, such as the Afghan delegation of twenty-somethings who trooped about in close formation and only on the last evening eased off to shake their collective booty at the close of a cultural performance. One stayed on stage to gush, “I am so happy, happy to dance, because in Afghanistan it is not allowed for women to dance…” I turned to the elderly Afghan journalist seated behind me, and laughed, “Very modern, eh?” He had no acquaintance of his young compatriots, and clearly did not know what to make of them. “If the Taliban saw them,” he ventured, “they would kill them!”

I did not stay to see the Taj Mahal, fearing that the sight of the mausoleum might spark an insupportable tsunami of romantic tosh on the part of the 8 nations in attendance. I took refuge, instead, back in Delhi’s Connaught Place, where I purchased books enough to last me months on a tropical island, and certainly enough to efface the drear of the poetic purgatory I’d been put through. SAARC, as usual, left no mark.

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