Dispatches from Bhopal
The Bhopal book fair was a melody of books, conversations, pictures and poetry
'Murder at Moonlight Café' by Ishavasyam Das, 'Bhopal Nama: writing a city' by Vertul Singh, 'When I Met Myself' by Shreyans Dixit, 'Pre Independence India: memories' edited by Subodh and Sfoorti Mathur, '3 S and Our Health' by Raghuraj Rajendran and 'Millennial Tales' by the twelve-year-old twins Bhavya and Navya Singh were launched by the Doon educated, youngest Minister in India, Jaywardan Singh in the Valedictory session of the three day festival of literature and the arts. There were intense discussions on books, conversations on issues as varied as the future of work to the census of tigers, lectures on Yoga and Madhubani paintings and yes, poetry recitation which threw light on the dilemma of existence, besides an exhibition of photographs from the Wild by India's best lensmen, the Bedi brothers, Rajesh and Naresh.
Let me share with my readers, snippets from the sessions that I was able to attend, for as is the case with most festivals, one has to pick and chose from parallel offerings. What it also teaches you is that a good life is one in which you have to make a conscious choice from a variety of options, all almost equally tempting. Well, the first was a session on the North East by Gill, an extremely sensitive account of an intricate story of the interplay of ethnicity, identity, development, migration and the quest for survival. Those of us who are well ensconced in their zones of comfort will perhaps find it difficult to understand or appreciate what it means to live in a place you do not/cannot belong. And the sense of belonging is not the same thing as a legal entitlement. It's about being accepted and offering acceptance.
Next was a conversation with India's best-selling fiction writer, Ashwin Sanghi, who shared the technique of writing a best seller. "It is best to treat novel writing as a project and if all the characters, with their characteristics, interface and events are marked out clearly on an excel spreadsheet with clear timelines, it becomes easier to put the ideas in words," he said. Explaining the difference between mythology and history in terms of Purana and Itihasa, he also pointed out that history is "a version of events". A thriller involves both 'surprise' and 'suspense' and 'Little Red Riding Hood' had both. While discussing the 'Rozabal Line' ( based on the belief that Christ was buried in Kashmir), he made the point that Abrahamic and Indic religions are not inseparable poles. Abraham and Sara from the Old Testament are phonetically not very far apart from the Puranic legends of Brahma and Saraswati!
Your columnist was a discussant in the session on the future of the IAS based on Deepak Gupta's book 'The Steel Frame: History of the IAS'. The consensus was that while nothing can be certain in an uncertain world, the challenge for organisations and institutions was to be 'future-ready' and in this context, the focus of training was more on building positive attitudes, teamwork, communication skills, negotiations and leadership, plus of course, empathy for those at the margins. Gupta was forthright and categorical in his view that the age and number of attempts should be reduced and induction from the State service to the IAS should be on the basis of a competitive exam conducted by the UPSC.
AK Bhattacharya's book, 'The Rise of Goliath' talks of the twelve disruptions that have changed India and that demonetisation and GST are certainly not the first of such disruptions. India has been able to withstand many of these, starting with the Partition, nationalisation of SBI and Air India, transition from PL 480 to Green Revolution, the dismemberment of Pakistan, oil crisis, nuclear explosion, Mandal Commission, Babri Masjid, etc., all of which have affected our polity but the country has shown remarkable resilience in bouncing back. This was followed by Shiv Shankar Menon's conversation with Pradip Baijal and Amar Sinha on the making of India's foreign policy. Menon made the point that India and China had both understood each other's point of view and have shown great sagacity in keeping economic co-operation and political accord in different boxes, which meant that while the two (nations) may never go to war, they would also never be good friends. Baijal's view is, of course, different for he has documented China's success in encircling India.
In Raghav Chandra's 'Kali's Daughter', the protagonist, Deepika Thakore is an exceptionally bright and talented Dalit civil servant who opts for the Foreign Service, bearing caste-based slurs with stoicism and emerging as a professional diplomat even as she faces the harsh and brutal discrimination of the entrenched social classes which are caught in a time- warp. For the Acharyas, life is all about perks and postings, signature addresses and matrimonial connects. The best part of the book is its vivid description of the life of an officer trainee during the foundation course at the LBSNAA and also that even in this elite institution which attracts the 'best and the brightest', there are subtle identity markers which may not leave a physical mark but can leave deep psychological scars. The Economist has already listed it as one of the most important books to understand the contemporary Indian reality and Chandra follows the tradition of Mulk Raj Anand who wrote his famous trilogy on 'The Untouchable, The Coolie and Two Leaves and a Bud' to describe the situation in the decade preceding our independence. Eighty years on so much has changed and yet not changed!
Dr Sanjeev Chopra is the Director of LBSNAA and Honorary Curator, Valley of Words: Literature and Arts Festival, Dehradun. Views expressed are strictly personal