Nothing can prepare for Jaipur Literature Festival

Ali Cobby Eckermann

Reflections on the Jaipur Literature Festival

by Ali Cobby Eckermann

It is 7 am. Breakfast is being served and the thick fog outside the window of the train as we head from New Delhi to Jaipur casts a surreal ether on our entry to North India. There is little view of arable country and only snatched glimpses of small villages as the train scampers past. Every time I spot a huddle of family around a campfire I think of home. And for me, as a writer, that is the gift of India. Within the juxtaposition of caste and culture one is forced to contemplate and learn about oneself, and evaluate ones’ personal world view. It is a complex challenge of honesty.

Nothing can prepare for Jaipur Literature Festival. The train arrives at Jaipur station and after the tranquillity of the train ride, one is thrown back into the pandemonium of India. The tussle of the festival is never dull, and the opportunity to meet more Indian and international writers was always prevalent. This prompts such interesting Q $ A after sessions. The opulence of the festival is impressive, and our accommodation at the Marriott Jaipur was luxurious. But it was so disturbing to overview the absolute poverty of residents in the vacant lands outside the building.

The best remedy was a day of sightseeing; an elephant ride and tour of Amber Fort Rajasthan. Another blessing was to meet a group of Raika of Rajasthan, to share stories and show them photos from ‘camel country’ in the APY Lands of South Australia. These are the conversations and interactions that I enjoy the most. Again I was reminded of home.

During the entire tour we were shown genuine kindness and delight of our interactions by local students and lovers of literature. One of the main highlights was my return to Jadavpur University in Kolkata, to launch Broken By Neglect, the bilingual collection of my poems. This had resulted from the initial travel with Mridula Nath Chakraborty, to attend the Autumn School for Literary Translation in 2013. It is difficult to describe the emotions I felt on my return; such respect and happiness emanating from the students and faculty. It felt like ceremony, and I will honour it as such.

The book launch with the students was a great success, and the meticulous work by the Dept. of Comparative Literature translation students and co-editors, Mridula Nath Chakraborty and Seemantini Gupta, now acknowledged. The books were affordably priced to the students incomes. Cost is often an issue, with many students unable to afford new books. A solution could be sought to donate Aboriginal Literature texts to campus libraries, for student access.

The week at Jadavpur University was spent supporting the students in translations of poems by Lionel Fogarty. I watched the same essence of respect, diligence and accuracy for detail. Special guests joined us, including Dalit writer Kalyani Thakur and her publisher Mandira Sen. The Dalit writers and students know exactly the struggle of Aboriginal people through colonisation, assimilationist policy and racism. I can feel it in their handshake, and see it in their eyes. At the Apeejay Kolkata Literature Festival Lionel and I presented with Esther Syiem and Robin Ngangom, tribal writers from the North East of India.

The first Navayana lecture was given at Jadavpur University; the title Give me Back My Mothers Heart. This lecture allowed me to expand on my experience as a Stolen Generations survivor. It is so very overwhelming to meet an audience that truly understands the legacy of trauma. This is beyond my experience in Australia. To me this is one of the true benefits of Literary Commons.

As a group Mridula, Lionel and I travelled through West Bengal. We met writers from various Denotified Tribes; entire nomadic tribes labelled as criminals by Indian governance. Wow! Again the comparison of experience through storytelling and literature was profound. Together we shared “Weaving Relations: Poetry and People across Continents” hosted by the Dept. Of English & Other Modern European Languages at Viswa Bharati University, learning more about each other and our poetry. The courtesy extended was often accompanied with song.

Mridula is a very special person, and an excellent Ambassador to introduce Aboriginal writers into the populace of India, both urban and rural. She has the ability to create an ambience of equality, despite the divisions of caste that exist. Her engaging nature allowed us to travel further into the rural regions around Santiniketan, visiting a village co-op and restaurant, meeting with tribal Spiritualists preparing for ceremony, street food and markets. The interactions with these tribal peoples will never be forgotten.

New Delhi was the halfway point for my participation in the Literary Commons tour. It was my first experience to spend time in India alone. Lionel and Mridula had ongoing commitments keeping them In Kolkata for some extra days. Navayana publisher Anand had invited me to launch my memoir in New Delhi, and to present the second 2015 Navayana lecture; the title The Kangaroo Is Dead At The Waterhole. The lecture shared my family story of Maralinga and was well received, a related article was printed in the Hindu Star newspaper. I was told the following day that author Arundhati Roy had been in the audience, and had purchased a copy of my book. I was rather overwhelmed.

With the arrival of Lionel and Mridula from Kolkata, our work in New Delhi continued. Highlights included a session at Sri Venkateswara College at Delhi University with Lionel Fogarty and Christos Tsiolkas, who was also on his way to Jaipur. An afternoon tea at the Australian Embassy with Deputy Commissioner Bernard Phillip and Hema Singh was a fun and relaxed gathering.

I hope that all the Aboriginal Aust. writers who travelled to India within the Literary Commons project had similar experiences. This has been a growth opportunity for me, both as a writer and a woman. The challenging issues of caste and poverty were compensated by the respect shown for our heritage and writings. The similarity of struggle is a tonic to me. I do hope the avenue for other Aboriginal writers to experience this opportunity continues.

It will be a privilege to reciprocate the kindness and respect when the collective of Dalit writers travel to Aust. This is an essential art exchange, a reciprocal exchange of compassion and truth. These shared experiences will enhance further shared understandings for both cultures. I hope that the combined literature experience will promote stronger voices to articulate and document the dangers of continued loss, in all literary genres.


This country will not give
What you demand
And what you do not know
You need will arrive
In abundance

Such is the wisdom here
To furnish dreams not yet dreamt
To achieve goals not yet forseen
And to harvest the smiles
That have yet to arrive in our hearts

5 January 2015