"I" for Identity!

The ICCR's three-day Africa-Asia writers' conference saw both dialogue and self-promotion

Bela Malik Delhi

The North's control over the world extends over literature. Writers from other parts of the world can only meet through institutions located in the developed world. Even writers within a country do not have the necessary forum to dialogue with each other and share their concerns. To address this, inspired by the spirit of the April 1955 Bandung conference of African-Asian states, the Indian Council for Cultural Affairs (ICCR), headed by Pavan K Varma, organised a three-day Africa-Asia literary conference in Delhi/Neemrana to facilitate cooperation between the continents.

Times were different then. The Bandung conference laid the basis for the non-aligned movement in 1961. Now there is only the US-led world. The conference made no overt reference to this. Imperialism, which was the shared experience of those at the receiving end, was more in the background. That "I" word translated into "Legacy, Identity, Assertion". Don Mattera, a Pan-African Congress activist and Islamist from South Africa, highlighted the urgency in writers addressing fundamental questions so that they can reach out to the people of their countries. The title "Continents of Creation" was to celebrate the continents as crucibles of civilisation, culture, religion, languages and biology. Centuries of white colonialism had robbed the continents of confidence and reduced them to hopelessness through slavery, partition, and economic exploitation, political, religious and cultural oppression. Karan Singh, Director, ICCR, declared, "We must not allow the West continuously to define the terms of our modernism, nor to lay down the contours of the future."

These sentiments were not loudly echoed. Participants tended to self-reflection, and the "I" often stood for nothing but itself in a literal sense. Varma, also a writer, viewed the sharing of individual stories as a window to a collective space.

In a discussion on language and politics, Gulzar (Sampuran Singh) said that Urdu is alive and well in India. There should be a difference made between language and script. He prefers the term "Hindustani" and advocated the promotion of Urdu through the Devanagri script. He said that Sahir Ludhianavi and Shailendra showed that it is possible to be profound and popular at the same time.

Hardnews spoke to UR Anantha Murthy and Pavan Varma, who both rued that translation was only seen to be from national languages to English. Anantha Murthy, who writes in Kannada, explained that highly contextualised prose is often dense and contains nuance. This makes it difficult to translate. There is tiredness with one kind of writing, which creates a demand for translation of works into national languages. His books sold more in Malayalam translation than they did in their original. Varma believed that English-language publications have a miniscule market, given that only five per cent of India knows English. There is a fertile backyard of writers in English and other languages, who need to be brought out. 

But the worlds within worlds was visible through the relative marginalisation expressed by some writers, such as Sonam Kinga from Bhutan, who said that the literary movement in his country was only a few years old in contrast to the richer experience of some of the other countries. The expression of indulgence on the faces of some of the participants indicated the need for many more interactions to break the divides between people of the other world. 

On the concluding day, as participants opened up with each other, writers from Pakistan and India spent time discussing issues of a writer's identity and belonging across the border. While this was evocative, others could not fully relate to this specific experience.  English being the language, those who were hesitant in their command, tended to listen. The floor was dominated by questions from the more fluent speakers, who were often South Asian.

Delegates used the forum in different ways. Mallika Sengupta creatively shared her thoughts through her preferred medium of poetry. Other participants used the space for self-promotion.

More such meetings are required, perhaps on smaller scales. They need to address practical issues facing writers and poets from Africa and Asia. Forums, publishers, scholarships and financial support and translators are needed for cultural exchanges to be meaningful in forging initiatives that transform a shared legacy and experience into a different collective future.