Jaipur Literature Festival 2023: climate change, colonialism and constitution

Jaipur Literature Festival 2023: climate change, colonialism and constitution

by Suswati Basu
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Earth Transformed author Peter Frankopan on climate change at Jaipur Literature Festival 2023

The Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) took place in London again, celebrating the power of words and ideas over the course of three days. It featured a wide range of speakers, from award-winning authors to thought leaders and activists including the likes of Oxford Professor Peter Frankopan, Indian politician and academic Dr Shashi Tharoor, as well as award-winning journalist and author Sathnam Sanghera. The festival is held annually at the British Library.

Read more: Jaipur Literature Festival 2022 highlights: Literary greats on freedom of expression

What is the Jaipur Literature Festival?

The JLF in London is a celebration of South Asia's unique multilingual literary heritage. It showcases the work of writers from across the region, as well as from the UK and around the world. The festival is a platform for dialogue and debate, and it provides an opportunity for people to come together to explore the power of words. It attracts thousands of visitors each year as a result.

It originated in India and is considered to be one of the largest literary festivals in the world and attracts renowned authors, thinkers, and speakers from across the globe. The festival provides a platform for intellectual and cultural exchange, featuring panel discussions, book readings, workshops, and performances. It covers a wide range of topics including literature, poetry, history, politics, and social issues. The Jaipur Literature Festival has become a significant event in the literary calendar, celebrating the power of words and fostering a vibrant literary community.

Earth Transformed author Peter Frankopan on climate history

British historian Peter Frankopan spoke with fellow distinguished academic and co-founder of the Jaipur Literature Festival in London William Dalrymple about his epic new book The Earth Transformed: An Untold Story. Dalrymple, who jokingly said you’d never need the gym again after carrying the book, asked Frankopan about the thousands of years of history in his 730 pages. The author said the problem with current history is that 94% of history is based on work created in the west. He said: “It means that for example the fact of classics at my university means Latin or Greek. It doesn’t mean Sanskrit, it doesn’t mean Chinese, it doesn’t mean non-Mediterranean European cultures, and it doesn’t really mean Egyptian. It means languages that could very easily be lost.”

“We are going through, at the moment, a faster loss of biodiversity than any of the previous five extinctions”

Professor Peter frankopan

For Frankopan, this means that artificial frontiers causes other types of history to also be lost. He added: “it’s important to me that we write in books about climatological and natural histories, as Polynesia sits there, Americas before Columbus, two great continents that you would miss in a single whisper of any academic attention or popular attention.

“So global means trying to take away as many barriers as possible and lots of people are very unhappy about that,” the Silk Roads author added, in response to the 4,000 footnotes which had to be put online. But the biggest takeaways were some of Frankopan’s stark warnings and his casual mention the fact that we’ve already been through five mass extinctions. He asked himself “should I have been more optimistic”, in which he realised it was better to be realistic. After all as he says “We are going through, at the moment, a faster loss of biodiversity than any of the previous five extinctions”. He proceeded to talk about the knock-on effects of climate change including the displacement of millions due to floods in Pakistan or Spain needing to borrow $500 million of support for the collapse of its olive production, “which can drive political cycles”.

Ambedkar: A Life author Dr Shashi Tharoor on constitutional history

On a similar note of looking to the past to address the future, Indian politician and writer Dr Shashi Tharoor discussed one of the founders of India’s constitution, which is also the topic of his latest book. Ambedkar: A Life talks about Babasaheb Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, MA, MSc, PhD, DSc, DLitt, Bar-at-Law, who is among the most revered of Indians today. The social reformer belonged to the Dalit community, who are historically marginalised and oppressed in Indian society.

Shashi Tharoor in conversation with Tripurdaman Singh on Ambedkar at the Jaipur Literature Festival

Ambedkar played a pivotal role in the Indian independence movement and was a champion of social justice and equality. He is best remembered as the architect of the Indian Constitution, serving as the chairman of the drafting committee. His efforts in framing the Constitution ensured fundamental rights and protections for all citizens and focused on eradicating discrimination and untouchability. Speaking to fellow academic Tripurdaman Singh, Dr Tharoor said “you’re absolutely right that he had to overcome the most incredible humiliations. When you when you read them today, you almost find it impossible to believe that people behave like this towards others merely because of the caste into which they were born.”

“it’s always dangerous to transpose people from their time from the beliefs that they expressed then, and then apply them to situations that didn’t exist in that form several decades later.”

Dr Shashi Tharoor

Throughout his life, Ambedkar fought against social discrimination and worked relentlessly for the rights of Dalits and other marginalised communities. He advocated for the empowerment and upliftment of these communities through education, economic opportunities, and political representation. Ambedkar also emphasised the importance of social and religious reforms to eradicate caste-based inequalities and promote social harmony.

When asked about whether Ambedkar would be a supporter of the current government in India, which is considered to be far more extreme than recent establishments in the country, Dr Tharoor believed he would be opposed to the situation. However, he added that “it’s always dangerous to transpose people from their time from the beliefs that they expressed then, and then apply them to situations that didn’t exist in that form several decades later.” He admitted that Ambedkar was vehemently against the Hindu upper caste even in his time.

Sathnam Sanghera on teaching colonial history at the Jaipur Literature Festival

And Dr Tharoor and the final speaker have something deeply in common. The politician had written the eye-opening book Inglorious Empire, much like award-winning journalist Sathnam Sanghera, who wrote Empireland, and now his most recent book Stolen History. Check out the interview with Sathnam Sanghera and the episode on teaching children their past.

Alice Loxton and Sathnam Sanghera speaks to Yasmin Khan about history at Jaipur Literature Festival

Sanghera joined popular historian and TikTok influencer Alice Loxton, who wrote the book Uproar, and they discussed the topic of chronicling the past with Oxford University Associate History Professor Yasmin Khan. Both participants are unusual in the sense they do not have an academic background in history, but retell and showcase primary sources in their works. For them, it is about making history accessible. Loxton said: “Actually, the way that most history books aren’t written quite straightforward, and there’s probably quite a lot of room for being a bit more creative, a bit more fun, a bit more entertaining, and more engaging.”

“We can’t let [empire] be hijacked by culture warriors on the right. And there’s culture warriors on the left, too. Historians need to stand up and defend what they do.”

Sathnam Sanghera

Similarly, Sanghera says he was trying to explore imperialism through objects and people in Stolen History. This included items like nutmeg, which was one of the reasons why empire started, tea, Wembley Stadium, which was called Empire Stadium originally, as well as the Scouts. Sanghera said: “You can actually teach a lot about imperial history through every day objects which you’re familiar with, while avoid the ‘culture war’.” The journalist said that when he looked back a hundred years ago, he realised that empire had been taught the same way in schools – through object lessons.

Read: Anti-Coronation Day books: nonfiction reads on the British Empire

But The Boy With A Top Knot author said despite the constant backlash of misinformation, “History is about argument based in fact, and you cannot deny the fact.

“We can’t let [empire] be hijacked by culture warriors on the right. And there’s culture warriors on the left, too. Historians need to stand up and defend what they do,” he added. And he’s right of course.

And finally…

The Jaipur Literature Festival plays a significant role in enhancing the heritage of India by showcasing its rich culture and history. The event is a great opportunity to learn about South Asian literature, and to hear from some of the world’s leading thinkers and writers, so don’t miss it in 2024.

Read: HistFest 2023: historians remind us that our past is more important than ever

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