[Photos courtesy bangaloreliteraturefestival.org]
This rather long set of field notes is being attempted from multiple sets of observation perches after I got back from Bengaluru last weekend. I was invited by the organisers of the Bangalore Literature Festival to moderate a conversation around Aadhaar, a project that has got the world’s attention, and everyone in the country debating on whether it is a good idea. At Team Founding Fuel, this is a project all of us have been watching with much fascination. My colleague and friend NS Ramnath and I have been mandated by the team to research and write a book on “The Aadhar Effect” and its implications on India and the world. This book will be the first in a special Founding Fuel branded series.
To discuss it on stage with me were Jairam Ramesh, a member of Parliament and author of multiple books, Arun Maira, now a full time writer and former member of the Planning Commission, and Sanjay Jain, chief innovation officer at IIM Ahmedabad. In an earlier avatar, Jain was part of the core team that worked on building Aadhaar out.
While at the fest, it was after a long while that I got to meet my friend and former colleague Manu Joseph. “Oftentimes, all a writer has to do is simply describe what he sees and the story tells itself,” he told me. “It can be both amusing and insightful.”
Now, most of us who are familiar with Manu’s body of work know he is a terrific writer with three best-selling books to his credit. He was there as a speaker at the grand finale on a very controversial theme. “How do you define nationalism?” I’ll come to that debate and the characters there in a little while. But when Manu said what he did, it didn’t occur to me until much later that I was in a sweet spot.
With the benefit of hindsight, I now know Manu was right. I don’t have much to do here, but just describe the various kinds of creatures I saw off-stage, on-stage, behind the stage. This story will tell itself.
Creature #1: The politician
Kanhaiya Kumar and Jairam Ramesh had the audiences, me included, eating out their hands. The former, a student leader, is in the news now as a dissident and is reported to have political ambitions. Manu was on stage with him as one of the speakers trying to define what may the idea of nationalism be.
Jairam Ramesh is somebody whom I have been trying to reach out to for a while so I may engage in a conversation to understand what is his stated position on Aadhaar. For various reasons though, we haven’t met. My understanding was that while he started out as a votary of the idea of a universal identity, he now belongs to a camp opposed to it. Why did his stated position change is something that remains unclear to me. I was delighted to share the stage with him because it offered a chance to ask him point blank where does he stand.
Back to Kanhaiya Kumar. On stage at the finale on Sunday evening were people of all kinds including his teacher from his days at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) Makarand Paranjape, Manu Joseph, and Suketu Mehta—another globally acclaimed writer. Paranjape is a reputed scholar and author. In the public domain he is known as someone who leans to the “right wing”. All of them were there to articulate their views on where does the thin line that separates nationalism and jingoism lie.
Each speaker was given 5 minutes to make their opening remarks. Paranjape opened with a measured tone on a scholarly note. By the time the mike reached Kanhaiya Kumar, he had heard pretty much everyone speak, including Manu and Mehta among others.
I watched with much fascination as Kanhaiya Kumar gently asked the moderator if he could stand up to make his opening remarks. Everybody had made their points while seated. Initially, the moderator politely declined. But Kanhaiya’s “humble” demeanour, amplified by his simple kurta and frayed trousers conveyed to the audience an impression that he was the “outsider, the kind who inevitably gets “left out”. That was his calling card.
He addressed everyone on stage as “sir” to drive home the point that he is indeed the “outsider”. I thought I could see the audience’s heads stop working as he started to speak and their hearts go into overdrive—mine included. All of us shouted that he be allowed to stand up to speak. Kanhaiya got what he wanted.
He made his opening remarks in broken English as opposed to the urbane language deployed by everyone else on stage. Those remarks in English sounded like prepared ones. He then apologised to the audience and told everyone his native tongue isn’t English and that he grew up in the hinterlands of Bihar. So, Hindi is the language he is most comfortable with and asked for permission to speak in Hindi.
In South India, Hindi is an imposition. But coming as an “earnest plea” from a young man, our hearts went out to him. “Yes, Yes,” we screamed.
That was the only opening he needed. My colleague Ramnath who doesn’t understand Hindi stood in awe of all that Kanhaiya Kumar said. I admit I was taken in too and tweeted about it while he spoke. “My idea of nationalism does not include imposing Hindi on everyone,” he said in chaste Hindi. I don’t know how many people understood all of what he said.
Unlike everyone else, he wasn’t speaking to a script, but unleashing rebuttals to those whom he didn’t agree with, most of which were directed at his teacher Paranjape. To do that, he was deploying rhetoric, not logic. The nuances were all lost. For instance, “If you think I lean to the Left, yes, I lean to the left, because I am among those who got left out.”
You don’t get to be politician by being stupid, but because you are smarter than everyone else
With the benefit of hindsight, I now know he said nothing of consequence. But we applauded wildly as he went on a monologue that lasted all of 12 minutes—way past the mandated brief. Clearly, he was in political career-launch mode. I wonder how far he may go!
I would have loved to talk with him. I ran into him later in the evening. We were staying at the hotel and on the same floor. It was time to exchange pleasantries. But he seemed tired and reluctant to engage. When I told him I write for a good part of my living, I thought I could see his demeanour change to suggest he may be amenable to conversing. I cannot be too sure though. It is entirely possible I may have imagined the change. But gut feel told me there is a supremely confident politician in the making here. I shared my contact details with a companion the Supreme Court has mandated must accompany him always. He didn’t share his details. But I wait in the hope he may touch base sometime. I like listening to stories of all kinds.
It was much the same thing with Jairam Ramesh. I was naïve to imagine I could corner him. I thought I had bowled a googly at him on stage around how the Congress party, which he represents, was in power when Aadhaar was thought up and first deployed, and that his voice as a critic now comes across as rather grating and politically motivated. It didn’t take him much thinking to fend off the googly with a straight bat. “It’s a great idea. But badly implemented,” he said to much applause.
In response to a question from someone in the audience on whether they ought to get themselves an Aadhaar number and link everything to it as is now being mandated, he got away by saying that the law must be obeyed. But to oppose anything you do not agree with is part of the fundamental fabric of a democracy. The flourish with which he said it had me flustered and the audience on his side.
And I don’t know when and how he slipped in that his position changes as his role changes. This was a line I had heard from another member of parliament in researching the project. Ramesh’s stated position went unchallenged and unanswered. I felt compelled to ask everyone to applaud him.
Like I articulated last week, you don’t get to be politician by being stupid, but because you are smarter than everyone else.
Creature #2: The critics
Most people at literature fests are the genuinely curious kinds who want to know more about the world. These form the quiet majority. They are keen to listen to people talk, engage in conversations with others, participate in events, buy books, engage in banter with assorted people, try out all kinds of food, and pick some trinkets with much gusto at events the organisers put together after much thought.
It is the vocal minority though who get written about. These are the critics and regulars at all lit fests and are a peculiar breed. There are some traits that bind them.
- They carry an impression of themselves—that they are created of a different mud as opposed to the “masses” who frequent cinema halls to watch Shah Rukh Khan serenade his love interests in the Bollywood version of Switzerland.
- They also imagine themselves as more intelligent than everybody else because they are professional critics often employed at a media house. So, they think it incumbent to criticise everything.
- These creatures get invited to events like these and are put up at plush places. They talk well, look good, and carry a certain demeanour. And for all practical purposes, they “travel in a pack”. But the serious critics are often ignored and work in mofussil places.
- Funnier still is that unlike the Shah Rukh Khan fan who will pay hard earned money to watch a movie first day first show, this vocal minority pays nothing for anything. But their criticism is taken seriously. “The rooms at Cannes last week were so much more better than the crap ones here,” for instance.
That is why I assumed I’d be up against a “hostile audience” because by all accounts, they have decided that Aadhaar is evil. Why, I wondered, and poked around a bit. Some interesting nuggets emerged.
Take the media critic for instance. This creature is of two kinds—the uninformed and the idiot. The uninformed exist because they haven’t done their homework and lucked out to get to where they are.
Real critics do the hard work and offer feedback from the ground
The idiots exist because they can scream from the rooftops, but lack substance. That is the tragedy with both Indian liberals and those on the right wing. Push them hard and they cannot defend their positon beyond 500 words in print. But their decibel levels are high on television and they are parasites to boot. Their existence is incumbent on real critics who do the hard work and offer feedback from the ground. Idiots don’t have the muscle either to do the hard work. So, they wait until the homework is done by real reporters who go to the field to find out what may the deficiencies be and file meticulous reports.
Idiots then pick and choose what can cause the most impact, craft it to suit their interests, and bomb the place with it. All else is conveniently ignored. When questioned, they have a standard counter-question: Who funds you?
Popular narrative on most media platforms is shaped by either the uninformed or the idiot
Popular narrative on most media platforms is shaped by either the uninformed or the idiot.
So, as a moderator of a panel discussion on Aadhaar, my job was to place a complex theme into perspective. And through all the time I was there, I was asked by various people what do I think of Project Aadhaar because I was wearing a “Speaker” tag and many knew I am there as a moderator.
[A panel discussion entitled ‘Aadhaar - Dystopia or Utopia?’ The panellists included Arun Maira, former Planning Commission member, Jairam Ramesh, former union minister and Sanjay Jain, former technology executive at UIDAI. The discussion was moderated by Charles Assisi.]
Just that I may place the conversation into perspective, I had to state it in as many words in a public forum—that I think to provide a unique identity to over a billion people is a staggering accomplishment. And to completely diss the project is stupid. I could see a few angry faces in the front grunt in disagreement and yell that I shut up. This was stuff they didn’t want to hear. It doesn’t fit the narratives that the uninformed and the idiots believe in.
Some media outlets and social media handles though reported the next morning that I was heckled by a packed audience. This was in contrast to what I could see from stage though. I thought I could see an audience keen to listen in to different perspectives. Because until then the only narrative most people have been told is that Aadhaar is a dystopian idea and intended to hijack their lives.
The contemporary narrative is controlled by a vocal minority
But because local media reports had it that I was heckled, I thought I’d check with a few friends who were in the audience. They told me the only dissonant notes were by some angry voices in the front. Darned right I was. The larger audience wanted to listen in to the multiple perspectives. But if it got reported, it would hijack the contemporary narrative now controlled by a vocal minority.
When I checked with Manu on what did he think of the audience, he thought it a receptive one as well. That is why my initial irritation gave way to much amusement when my colleague Ramnath reminded me of a quote by Oscar Wilde: “There is much to be said in favour of modern journalism. By giving us opinions of the uneducated, it keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community.”
This is not to suggest I have no biases. “Why,” I argued in my head, “does Twinkle Khanna have to be at a Lit Fest? What is her claim to fame? Is it because she is pretty? What were the organisers thinking? Or smoking? And why is she surrounded by people all the time who want selfies with her?” I always maintained her book sold as many copies as it did because she is pretty and a popular actor.
Another part of me confronted myself though and said that it is a terribly unfair thing to suggest. I haven’t read her book and arrived at a conclusion basis some assumptions—not the truth. I haven’t met her or made any attempt to meet her either. Later in the evening, over dinner, Manu told me that he has met her while on an assignment and thinks of her as an intelligent and beautiful woman.
But the media can shape popular narrative and informed opinions are hard to come by. To that extent, I suspect I am the kind of liberal who gives liberals a bad name.
It was driven home harder still when I walked over to the table where Makarand Paranjape was having a quiet drink. He asked me my name. And then went on to tell me the historical significance of its origins and why I ought to be happy to possess it. When I told him I had discarded the religion of my forefathers a long while ago for philosophical reasons, he went on to offer me a brief treatise on the history of Catholicism and asked me some tough questions on why did I have to give up my faith? So much for all narratives of him being called a right-winger. If he is on the right-wing, give me a right-winger like him any day as opposed to a shallow liberal.
The other nugget that came my way is that there are “paid critics” who are “professional socialites”. After having spent two decades in journalism, it was only last weekend that I discovered this species exists and that there is a reason they get invited to these dos. They have large followings on social media platforms and columns as well in popular newspapers—usually tabloids or on Page 3.
A tweet from them or a line insidiously implying a brand is a good one can get their accounts credited with as much as Rs 5 lakh. In much the same way they can destroy a carefully crafted reputation with a single line. They must be humoured so that you are in their good books.
Now I know why one of them has me blocked on Twitter. I’d called him a few names on Twitter in a fit of anger after reading some rather ridiculous tweets on his timeline. The other is a creature always in the news, has answers to everybody’s problems, knows all the gossip, and I don’t bother to read. But the missus thinks of her as somebody worth emulating. All said, both live a nice, “cheap” life of the kind I envy. Incidentally, both have no affiliations. Their only affiliation lies with the colour of money.
Creature #3: The writers
Everybody wants to write a book. The Bangalore Literature Festival was full of writers. Authors were being looked at in awe. Some people asked me what I do for a living. When told I spend a good part of my time writing, I was often told how they have this idea for a book and if I can offer any pointers on how may they go about it.
Manu and I were catching up after a long while and the both of us laughed at how miserable a writer’s life is. It is hard work and the return on investment (ROI) is terribly low. If you may need perspective, allow me to offer some unsolicited advice on why you ought not to write a book.
- Good books aren’t whipped out of thin air. It took Manu’s most recent book, a thin volume if size is a metric, three years to complete. We didn’t get into each other’s personal financials. But he and I know writing is lonely, takes awfully long, nobody outside the business understands why it takes as long to write one, and why do we expend so much time on what pays as little as it does.
- Then there are the perverted economics of it all. In India, a book that can sell 5,000 copies is considered a bestseller. Assuming each book is priced at Rs 500, a bestselling writer can hope to earn Rs 2.5 lakh in royalties from the publisher—that is assuming he manages to negotiate royalties in the region of 10% for each copy sold. This too may be set off against the advance paid by a publisher.
- Reality is, thousands of books are written each year. Not all are priced at Rs 500, royalties at 10% don’t kick in from the first copy sold, and only a handful make it to the bestseller list.
So why do you write? The both of us agreed that the only reason we continue to write is because we love to write. And that the time spent in writing is the only time we feel are pure and sacred. I suspect it may be the kind of moments the spiritually inclined may feel when in prayer.
When reality kicks in though, we know the only reason we can write is because there are other streams that allow us to carry on with life. Until then, we continue to delude ourselves to believe the law of averages may tilt in our favour and that what we write may someday make us rich and famous.
So how do you get to be a full-time writer? My friend Ramnath again pointed me to a passage from Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s book Antifragile. “There is a tradition with French and other European literary writers to look for a sinecure, say, the anxiety-free profession of civil servant, with few intellectual demands and high job security, the kind of low-risk job that ceases to exist when you leave the office, then spend their spare time writing, free to write whatever they want, under their own standards. There is a shockingly small number of academics among French authors.
“American writers, on the other hand, tend to become members of the media or academics, which makes them prisoners of a system and corrupts their writing, and, in the case of research academics, makes them live under continuous anxiety, pressures, and indeed, severe bastardisation of the soul.”
Creature #4: The speakers
Everybody has a personality that is their own off-stage and on-stage
Now, it was the speakers for whom the audiences were thronging the venue—many of whom I have known in multiple avatars. That is why I thought backstage is an incredibly interesting place. Everybody has a personality that is their own off-stage and on-stage.
Consider Jairam Ramesh the politician. He stayed aloof and confined to his room while at the event. Attempts to reach out to him in the past were met with redirects to his aides or silences. I was ready to head butt with him on stage. But once he took to the podium, his personality morphed into that of a warm creature. I started to like him. But once the session was done with, he quickly shook hands and disappeared as hastily as he had entered.
Then there were celebrities of all kinds and used to both the big screen and the small one. They looked utterly nonchalant, posed for pictures with fans, and signed autographs. On the face of it, they were supremely confident. When on stage though, and when grilled by a good moderator, I could hear what I thought sounded like utter gibberish.
And how can I forget my friend Manu? He has a reputation for being aloof and an outlier. When the both of us saw each other, the first thought that occurred to me was what nasty thing can I say to him. I don’t know what may have occurred to him. But because we were in polite company, we did all the right things. But this much I have to say. The Manu my friend whom I talk to was not the Manu who was talking on stage. He was a different creature there. I thought I wasn’t listening to him talk, but watching him write. All of his words were chosen deliberately and crafted for impact. He wasn’t talking onstage. He was writing. And when I tried to engage with him in a conversation before he got on stage, he wasn’t listening. His mind was elsewhere. He had that look on his face. The kind of look an athlete would wear before they ready for a sprint. He was “getting into the zone” if you will.
But how would the audiences know? Once off-stage, he was back to the person I know.
As for me, honest feedback often comes from my daughters. “Why is it dada that you try to talk in a posh accent when you are with people you don’t know?” they ask innocently. After watching a video of the session where I was, I could see the point in their question. Ouch!
The only person I thought who stayed authentic and sounded the same both onstage and offstage was Arun Maira, a gentleman I have had the privilege of interacting with often.
In pondering over what may it take and strolling through the bookstalls, my eyes stopped over Ruskin Bond’s most recent book, Lone Fox Dancing. I’ve always wondered why does he write as simply as he does. In a moment of epiphany, it occurred to me he isn’t writing in simple words, but fluently and elegantly. It takes a master craftsman to write like him. I promptly got a copy of the book. I’m not sure if a lifetime may be enough to get to the kind of place where he is.
My observations can go on and on. But I must stop. Because as a speaker at the festival cheekily told Ramnath and me backstage before getting onstage, “Most contemporary discourses aren’t discourses really, but sound like the Arnab Monologues.”
(This is adapted from an article first published in Livemint.)
Aadhaar and the Buddha's Middle Path: A panel discussion with Arun Maira, former Planning Commission member, Jairam Ramesh, former union minister and Sanjay Jain, former technology executive at UIDAI.