Event update

How inclusive are we? Explore opinions discussed in an Online Literary Festival hosted by Indian Novels Collective and Belongg

On Saturday, 23 January 2021,Indian Novels Collective in collaboration with Belongg, hosted a day-long online festival on inclusivity in Indian-language literature. It witnessed sweeping participation from different quarters—from academia to literature, publishing to activism—giving rise to a dynamic, intellectually stimulating and creatively-charged interface.
 

For the first session titled Same-Sex Love and Desire in Colonial India we had academic, activist and author – Ruth Vanita, unpacking the articulations of same-sex desire in literature, through changing trajectories of time-space, starting from pre-colonial India and moving on to colonialism, proper. Talking about how same-sex desire never faced any persecution in pre-colonial India, Vanita elaborated on how it is just one part of a vast spectrum of desires and pleasures. She further added, ‘Employing a range of different kinds of tones, major poets wrote about same-sex relationships without any embarrassment or inviting any trouble.’ Vanita also delved into the vilification of sexual and romantic love outside the institution of marriage. She referred to the ‘systemic erosion of cultural institutions as a direct result of colonisation of the mind’ and how ‘the whole vision of life and literature shifted, due to exposure to western education and laws. Pleasure, devoid of any motive or any prospect for social reform, was rejected.’ However, Vanita reassured her audience that the journey has commenced towards reclaiming the confidence that we previously had lost in our literary culture, post 1857.
 

Moderated by the co-founder of Indian Novels Collective, Prof. Ashwani Kumar, the second session Sunrise Upon the Northeast: Literature from the Not-So-‘Mainland had three brilliant poets from the Northeast: Kamal Kumar Tanti, Sabreen Ahmed and Mona Zote, on the panel. Reflecting on the composite culture of Northeast India, Sabreen Ahmed spoke of how the aesthetics and ethos of reclamation of Miya poetry is more political than the humanist concerns, and cannot be limited to one single connotation. Kamal Kumar Tanti echoed a similar belief and went on to comment on how poetry is finding new publishing avenues in Assam. He added how both, physical spaces and digital media, are encouraging the circulation of poetry in Assam. For people writing in English, Sabreen emphasised that webzines are helping in creating visibility and scope for publishing in Assam. Addressing the lack of opportunities for Indian writers in regional languages, Mona Zote asserted, ‘If we want our literature to be read, translations should be the way forward.’ Going beyond the ramifications of the post-colonial coinage ‘Northeast’, the session celebrated the universal language of togetherness, as the poets recited their evocative poetry and reflected on the polyphony of their experiences, navigating through constant rupture, rapture, renewal and resistance.
 

Shanta Gokhale’s iconic works Avinash and Rita Welinkar brought attention to mental health issues, way before its representation was normalised in contemporary literature. In the third session The Ocean in the Closet: Writing and Reading Between the Lines, the prolific writer and our revered mentor spoke to Shefali Tripathi Mehta. Reflecting on how creative writing has its roots in reality around us, Gokhale shared some of her experiences and foregrounded the lack of acceptance stems from the stigma attached to mental illness. Calling out the culture of exclusion endorsed by society at large, Gokhale underlined the need for open conversations to generate awareness and empathy. In addition to mental health, the veteran author also expressed her views about writing and translation. Upholding the belief that translated text should always remain accessible to readers, Gokhale shed light on the role of translation in engaging a new readership and the transference of love from the source language to the target language — a love that also becomes the building bridge between different cultures, languages and world views. As the insightful session drew to a close, Gokhale also treated the attendees to a lesser-known trivia by revealing that Avinash was never published in Marathi.
 

For Holding up the Microphone: A Publishing Saga, we had four powerhouse women on the panel, which involved an in-depth discussion around the symbiotic need for independent presses to balance commerce and readership expansion. With Trisha De Niyogi of Niyogi Books moderating the session, we had Urvashi Butalia of Zubaan, Rita Krocha of Penthrill and Ruby Hembrom of adivaani on board (joining us via video messages). Addressing the shifting premises of the publishing industry, Urvashi Butalia mentioned how marginalised voices enrich our literature. She also added that dedicated readers and passionate colleagues act as great allies for independent publishers. For newer voices to be accepted, Butalia advised that readers ‘cultivate different curiosities’. Reflecting on the role of publishing in the dissemination of stories and preservation of knowledge for the next generation, Rita Krocha talked about the current publishing scene in Nagaland and how it has given a much-needed platform to emerging writers. Ruby Hembrom walked us through how she started adivaani for the preservation of Adivasi culture and knowledge, and the challenges of publishing adivaani books. Along with thought-provoking exchanges, the panelists also recommended some of their favourite titles, that would be great options for discerning readers to explore.
 

With an amalgamation of depth, texture and analysis, the last session of the day The Way I See It: Conversations about Challenges in Writing focused on literature’s potential for empowering different realities. Tracing the dual processes of disability, ability and their interconnected overlaps, the discussion drove home how literature can help one empower oneself through alternative innovations. Poet Soni Somarajan advocated integrating compassion to our societal framework and reminded us how one can choose to be one’s own self. Writer-cartoonist Bnim created a life-affirming impact of resonance with —‘I cannot walk, I can run; I cannot play, I can make people dance.’ Shedding light on the travails of exclusion, triggered by able-bodied ideals, disability rights activist and founder of Revival Disability Magazine, Anusha Mishra spoke about the active process of unlearning and relearning, and how she finally came to believe in herself. As the conversation progressed, Bnim expounded on the inclusivity ingrained in Telugu literary culture. Citing the example of Shakuni in Mahabharata, he also revealed how the present-day nomenclature of physical disability had its roots in the cruelty of mind. Critiquing the problematic representation of disabled experiences in contemporary cinema, Soni Somarajan and Anusha Mishra pointed out how that often contributes to further alienation. Anusha further added, ‘When you carry out sensitisation campaigns, you have to be careful about not triggering anyone’s trauma’ while also voicing the necessity for passing the mic to more disabled writers.

Literature performs as our elixir of resilience, a moral compass and coherence, helping us survive the worst of times and transcend the barriers that hold us back from realising our fullest potential of knowledge and humanity.

As the festival mapped the all-encompassing galaxy of Indian literature, it also reminded us how it forges meaningful connections with its readers, replenishing fissures in the process.

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