South Asia exists beyond its contentious borders in its conjoined cultures and intertwined languages. We are each others' stories.
Each region and nation has its own unique political and emotional narrative. Linguistic histories, colonial experiences, and traumas such as the partition of India, mass migrations and multiple conflicts, have fermented and matured the search for identity in the literature of our countries and societies.
India and Pakistan uphold a shared literary heritage of Urdu, Hindustani, Sindhi and Punjabi writing. Together Hindi and Urdu, with a common vocabulary but different scripts, constitute one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. Tamil is one of India's classical languages, with a vibrant literary presence in Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Singapore. Malayalam has a strong footprint across the Middle East. Besides being the mother tongue of Nepal, Nepali is spoken and written across the border states of Northern India. Then there is English, the legacy of colonisation which South Asians have made uniquely our own, appropriating and crafting it to our sounds and consonants, as well as our metaphors and idioms. English is both an important bridge-language and a creative literary language in this part of the world.
This bewildering diversity finds presence and focus at the annual DSC Jaipur Literature Festival, of which I am co-director (alongside William Dalrymple). The credibility and impact of this multilingual, democratic, un-ticketed, intensely popular festival has increased the visibility of previously inaccessible writing from the 22 official Indian languages, as well as literature and oral and folk traditions from South Asia in general. The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, which carries a prize of $50,000 for authors of any ethnicity writing about the region, has also created an important forum for showcasing contemporary South Asian literature.
Last January, a tragic 'comedy of terrors' played itself out at the Jaipur Literary Festival. Salman Rushdie, who had been warmly welcomed at the festival in 2007, was subjected to death threats by various Islamic groups, provoked also by the political compulsions of a crucial state election, which led to his withdrawal. Four authors (including Jeet Thayil, shortlisted for the 2012 Booker Prize and longlisted for the DSC Prize 2013 for Narcopolis) read from Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, which is still banned in India. As the threats escalated, a planned video-conference at the venue was abandoned and aired on television instead. Cases were filed against the four writers, the producer of the festival Sanjoy Roy, and myself, for inciting violence and communal disharmony.
Dismal as this may sound, the obsessive media and public interest triggered an engaged public debate about the nature of free speech in a society with so many fractured sensibilities. A debate which has been further highlighted by the attempted murder of 14-year old Malala Yousafzai for her activism to promote knowledge and education for all. The incidents in Jaipur and Pakistan display the power of words, and also all that is brittle, contradictory and controversial about their usage in the South Asian region. The anarchy and opportunism common in the cultural landscape is counterbalanced by deep literary traditions and an enduring respect for learning.
Many marginalised and suppressed voices, including Dalits and women, are using newly emergent micro-literatures to subvert oppressive hierarchies and prejudice. Women writers in particular are yielding a growing impact on the literary traditions of India's many languages, even in the face of resentment from an established patriarchy. Two years ago, the Vice-Chancellor of a prominent Indian university created controversy by referring generically to Indian women writers as 'chinals', or prostitutes, for writing more about their 'physical rather than spiritual' experiences. Quite a few male writers rose in defence of his statement - while most of the literary community was open in expressing its outrage at this cultural chauvinism. In the South Asian context, fiction provides a surrogate space for women, as well as gay and lesbian writers, to discuss and wrestle with their personal and social realities in what is still a largely patriarchal, homophobic society.
In its many voices, languages and avatars, South Asian literature is beginning to look at its own reflection rather than viewing itself in the refracted approval of an imagined Western audience. The publishing industry is growing at an unprecedented rate, accessing a combined population of over 1.5 billion potential readers through print and digital publishing.
It is a rare privilege to be in the eye of the storm of this literary re-exploration of one of the most ancient and continuous cultures in the world. Festivals like Jaipur and awards like the DSC Prize help us reflect on the value of words, of the stories they tell, and of the histories that they condense. Literature aims at increasing human understanding and so stands beyond political borders. South Asia offers a celebration of bibliodiversity, of old and new stories in many languages, and many literatures. This expansive outreach and insight is worth standing up for.
To follow the progress of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2013: www.dscprize.com