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By Vaiju Naravane
THE FIRST-EVER major event in France around Indian writing came to a disappointing end recently. The Belles Etrangeres literally Beautiful Foreigners, a line taken from the French poet Louis Aragon is a two-week-long literary fest that takes invited writers on a whirlwind tour of Paris and the French provinces for conferences, book signings and seminars. India was the guest of honour this year with 20 writers working the crowds. The choice of names, however, was questioned by critics, journalists and translators who felt that some of India's best writers had been passed over and sacrificed to "political correctness" in an attempt to establish a "balance" on the basis of language, sex, gender and social commitment.
"Quite honestly we did not get the best India has to offer. There was nothing we could really sink our teeth into. What the reader wants is good books. It does not matter to him whether the original is in English, Bengali, Hindi or Oriya, whether the writer is male or female. There is no point adopting a reservation policy for literature. You cannot be politically correct with literature. It is important to present the best in Indian writing in order to whip up an appetite for books from India. If this was the objective of the festival, then the exercise has failed," a prominent French journalist told The Hindu. Press coverage although fairly extensive was half-hearted and lukewarm, as if journalists had found it difficult to work up enough enthusiasm for the fare offered.
Stalwarts such as Mahashweta Devi or U. R. Ananthamurthy writing in the `bhashas' shared the honours with younger talent such as Alka Saraogi , a sprinkling of English-language novelists including Shashi Tharoor and Upamanyu Chatterjee, poets C. Narayana Reddy and Udayan Vajpayee, a few women authors, a children's writer, an illustrator and a trio of Dalit chroniclers, one of whom couldn't make it because he was arrested at Mumbai airport on the point of leaving for France, for allegedly mistreating his wife and misappropriating her property.
Kamala Suraiya Das dropped out at the last minute (to the obvious relief of the organisers her purdah-clad presence would have been difficult to explain or handle in these delicate, post-September 11 days, one of them confided) to be replaced as an afterthought (following strong protests at his exclusion by his French publishers Fayard) by Narendra Jadhav, whose book, "Outcaste" first published in French is to be brought out by Penguin Books in India. Despite some positive fallout, the Belles Etrangeres was a sorry tale of missed opportunities and poor organisation with a selection of authors that was difficult to fathom. "Our main criterion was that of translation. We wanted authors whose books were available in French. The public must be able to read the authors who are here. Otherwise what is the point of bringing them over," said Rajesh Sharma, literary adviser for the festival organised by the Centre National du Livre (CNL), a state-run body affiliated to the Ministry of Culture.
He was, however, at a loss to explain the presence of Mr. Narayana Reddy who has just one single Telugu poem in translation, that too as part of an anthology published by the magazine Europe or the selection of Kishore Shantabai Kale whose work is not available in translation.
Forget Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Rohinton Mistry or Amitava Ghosh considered "too well known to be invited". Even writers such as Paul Zacharia, Khushwant Singh, K. Satchitanandan, O. V. Vijayan, I. Allan Sealy, Manil Suri, Ambai, Shashi Deshpande, Ayappa Pannikar, Amrita Pritam, Vinod Kumar Shukla, Dilip Chitre, Vilas Sarang, Raj Kamal Jha, Manu Bhandari, Anita Nair, all translated into French, were blithely ignored by the Belles Etrangeres.
"We invited Anita Desai, Vikram Seth, David Davidar. They all declined. And then there are other considerations. A balance between the languages represented, gender, social class, etc. weighed upon the choice. In any case I did not decide alone. The five-member committee from the CNL made the final choice," Mr. Sharma said, but refused to divulge the names of the committee members on the grounds that it was "an internal matter". A surprising declaration given the amount of public money involved.
When asked by this correspondent, both Jean-Sebastien Dupuit, Director of the CNL, and Martine Grelle, Commissaire for the Belles Etrangeres, denied that such a committee even existed. "There is no committee. Once the short list had been prepared, the final decisions were made by Michel Marian, the general secretary of the CNL, on the advice of Rajesh Sharma since almost no one within the CNL was really equipped to make the selection," Mr. Dupuit said.
It might have been wiser for the CNL to have appointed an adviser without an obvious conflict of interest. Mr. Sharma edits a collection of books from the Indian subcontinent entitled Lettres Indiennes for the southern French publisher Actes-Sud. Three of the four fiction writers he has published so far made their way to Paris, while a publisher like Philippe Picquier, the first to recognise and promote Indian talent in French (Bulbul Sharma, Sanjay Nigam, Mr. Allan Sealy, Mr. Khushwant Singh, Radhika Jha, Firdaus Kanga, Ms. Anita Nair amongst others) saw only two of his writers, Mukul Kesavan and Esther David, make it to the list. Esther David was invited because she is a Jewish writer but why was no Muslim writer invited?
Worse, the talented Malayalam writer Mukundan's book was hastily rendered into French from its English translation (despite the fact that excellent Malayalam translators are available) in order to meet the deadline of the Belles Etrangeres thus setting up a deplorable new precedent. It is hoped that texts from Indian languages will not make their way into French through the back door of English.
The choice of Dalit chroniclers earned some justified criticism since the writing was of poor quality and the accent on confessional autobiography that made no attempt to go beyond individual tales of caste discrimination. "I can understand that French publishers were excited by the idea of protest literature from India. But the best Dalit writers have not been represented. The Tamil language too has been unfairly dealt with. There are far stronger voices in Tamil and Telugu, exploring new avenues both in terms of style and content. We see no sign of them here," Prof. U.R. Ananthamurthy told The Hindu. Only Narendra Jadhav's book rises above crude autobiography to offer a Dalit interpretation of Gandhian politics. Unfortunately, a somewhat limited and basic debate about caste and the politics of caste overshadowed any other discourse on India, literary or social.
While most events were admirably organised, in Paris people wishing to attend public meetings with the authors at the Sorbonne were turned away in droves. The rooms where the discussions were held barely seated 120 people. Having brought writers from so far away and at such expense, the least that could have been done was to give the public desirous of hearing them a chance to do so.
The Belles Etrangeres undoubtedly raised the profile of Indian literature in France. However, much more could have been achieved had the selection process been less flawed, more sagacious and non-partisan. In any other country such flagrant conflict of interest would have raised both questions and eyebrows. In France, however, where literary prizes are allegedly regularly "fixed" with permanent jury members on the payroll of major publishing houses a slight shrug of the shoulders was all it elicited.
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