I still have Indian dust on my shoes from the city of Bangalore, where I spent almost a week at the international literary festival.
I was mind-boggled at the scale of this national Indian event: literature, politics, activism, feminism. There was music and even street art, but what a crowd. Sixteen thousand highly literate participants, roaming from one outdoor stage to another, and engaged with every atom of their souls.
Literary culture persists in this part of the world, where people still believe that leafing through books is a transformative spiritual experience that can change the world.
Authors of the first world, beset with Internet and economic crisis, often seem like plastic vanity-toys kept past their sell-by date, but maybe what they lack most keenly is a creative readership. As a passionate reader, I often claim it is more difficult to read a book well than it is to to write one. As a less passionate writer, I know that even one ideal reader is enough to motivate a decent book.
The beautiful literary carnival — held on the broad, leafy grounds of one of Bangalore’s finest hotels, an oasis of glamor and privilege — contrasted with the crooked streets of Bangalore where the sacred cows, pariah dogs and torrents of honking traffic live with a passion for survival. This was not my first visit to India, so I was ready for the epic scale of grandeur and abject poverty, but it was still a culture shock.
The jet-set’s digitized skyscrapers tower like phantoms over vast bazaars seething with a seize-the-day human vitality. It’s reflected in Indian literature, where the English language, global yet somehow frail, towers over sixteen vernacular publishing scenes. In the Bangalore festival, professional writers traded erudite quips in English because thats how one gets it done, but they were singing in the English-speaking choir, and they knew it. The seething, vibrant life in those modern Indian streets, half chopped coconuts and half cellphone components, is never taught at Oxford.
All over the world we women haunt conflict zones, and India, which is vast, has plenty of them. The gunfire tends to sound the same but the conclusions are different. The national patriot woman works to support her brave men at war; the peace activist withdraws support from men who aren’t brave enough to refuse the uniform and leave the slaughterhouse. There is one common ground, though: whether life is called “peace” or “war,” the women always struggle in a trench.
The ongoing #metoo scandal in India is briskly spreading all over the country through social media. It started with celebrities — actresses and directors, but spread through media centers, universities, publishing, wherever women get sexually harassed by wealthy and powerful men, which is to say, all over the place. It’s evidence that complaints of Western feminism have a universality, and wherever women don’t speak up about the suffering of women, it’s not because the oppressions aren’t noticed; it’s because the complaints are repressed. It’s taboo to speak up, and even a small distance in cultural mores can make the speakable unspeakable.
Women are keenly attuned to what can be said in what conditions. At the festival, one female mystery writer complained that she simply can’t bear to read a “classic English whodunnit novel” which is set in Scotland. All those careful cultural assumptions about who gets battered to death by the butler with the fire iron, they are fine in a homey English county but just don’t work in distant Glasgow, which seems as incongruous as Bangalore, almost. This may be indeed be a literary problem, but it doesn’t explain why crime and detective fiction thrives inside India for Indians, because it does.
At the festival, a female science fiction writer complained: why must I be targeted as a woman when I write fiction about science? I may be a biological woman, but why should that restrict what I can write? I remembered that as a young writer, and as a young woman, I shared her frustration, but I gave it up as soon as I realized that my writing didn’t emerge from some gender-neutral science laboratory.
When women were not on the page, it was an absence. My favorite writers of novels missed the women’s perspective. My own life experience was visibly missing from classical novels. The women characters were lame, my world was not that world of canonic literary classics, I was invisible there, and not withstanding the fact that literature was my safe place, and a source of worldly education, I was miserable. I had no power, I had no words. My experience and wisdom had not been captured in those novels I read. It was in my body, as in every other living woman through history, outside of genre, in a gender gap.
As a woman without a fatherland and without a mother language, my own literature had to be born ante literam. The luxury of writing without a gender also has a gender, it is male “mainstream.” But the stream is not the ocean, and dams can break.
In Bangalore I did a “book signing” without books! My books have never been in print in India, but I do have website with many of my books online, and an old fashioned pen in my hand. A handshake, a signature, and a hug for a book from a website address! It was fair barter.
Bangalore has many temples, small and big, fancy and clean, awkward and trashy. The whole city conveys the impression of a temple on the move. The pavements are broken by banyan roots, the skies are speckled with vultures, the soil is overrun by small but aggressive striped squirrels, so watch your step!
The traffic is Los Angeles times ten, with no lane or crossing discipline. Pedestrians including the numerous cows and dogs simply amble through the noisy torrent of motor-rickshaws, endless scooters, bikes ringing, cars honking, trucks blasting. Traffic policemen occasionally shake-down the worst offenders, who can either appear in court or else cough up half the cash on the spot, for cop’s pocket. Somehow the whizzing vehicles respectfully avoid killing elderly women and small children.
In the old summer palace of the Sultan Tipu, a historic structure which in Italy would be guarded relentlessly with video cams, the local people sat on the gleaming wooden stairs, meditating, solemn. A little girl danced as endlessly as an extra in a Bollywood movie, gently applauded by her neighbors.
It is a densely crowded, communal life in India. Most every task that might be done by one person in the West is parceled out among three or four people, then performed for an audience.
In a coffee shop I simply asked for a cold soda. The waiter conveyed the request to the boss; the owner gave the waiter a key to the refrigerator; another waiter opened the fridge, yet another retrieved the bottle and, finally, my original waiter, with a flourish, brought it to me, opened it and carefully poured it out for me. Then I drank it in a rather showy fashion, because, after all that fuss, I felt obliged.
People want to listen and to serve: in my hotel the Don’t Disturb sign is replaced by the written board: Please let us clean the room soon, our pleasure is to serve you. As a writer, as an activist, I confess I feel much the same.
I feel edified and cleansed after being in Bangalore. In India, people check on your condition all the time, emotionally and materially. Then they certify your stay with a nice red stamp, ink in your passport, or henna on your body.