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26 Nov, 2012

Rising World Power India Promotes Word Power at Bangkok Literary Forum

Imtiaz Muqbil was the only travel industry journalist to cover this inaugural event

Bangkok – Three well-known Indian authors in English, Amitav Ghosh, Jahnavi Barua, and Vikas Swarup, made stellar presentations at the first international conference organised in Bangkok to build literary bridges between South and Southeast Asia. Although the event’s theme topic was “Indian Writing in English,” the discussions became a sweeping examination of the changes shaping the Asian Century — from secularism to environmental issues and the Indian diaspora abroad, all of which are grist for the mill in Indian writing.

The first of its kind held in Thailand, the event was funded largely by Chula Global Network, a unit of Thailand’s famed Chulalongkorn university. Collaborative support came from the university’s Indian Studies Centre, only set up earlier this year, the Institute of Asian Studies, the Department of English, Faculty of Arts, and the Indian Embassy in Thailand. With both Thailand and India seeking to strengthen the cultural aspect of the “Lookeast” integration process, Chulalongkorn university is building ties with India and Indians, especially in the field of culture, arts and literature. Organising such events also boosts the university’s chances of rising in global rankings.

Said University President Prof Pirom Kamolratanakul, “The conference is designed to promote enhanced understanding and knowledge of India and Indian-related issues among Thais and foreigners residing in Thailand. It also fosters relations between like-minded academics and helps them work together for the future.” Indian Ambassador to Thailand Anil Wadhwa called the event “a milestone in Indo-Thai cultural communication” and a “logical contemporary step to take in the ongoing cultural dialogue that began in the 3rd century BCE when Asoka’s monks, Sona Thera and Uttara Thera, set sail across the Bay of Bengal for the Golden Land of Suvarnabhum, carrying with them the golden message of the Dhamma.” (Read the full text of the Ambassador’s speech below).

The event went a long way towards promoting the work of Indian writers in English, highlighting their contribution to global literature and enhancing the image of local Indian writers who still suffer from the stigma of being “inferior” to those from the U.K., U.S. or Australia. Although many of the participating authors and academics are regular visitors to Thailand, they had yet another chance to come up to date with some of the phenomenal changes under way in the kingdom and ASEAN. After the conference, a tour of the UNESCO World Heritage site of Ayutthaya, a former capital of Thailand, further underscored the shared history and heritage. Amitav Ghosh also spoke at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand and Ambassador Wadhwa hosted private speaking dinners for the authors at his residence.

Thailand is well aware of the importance of word power to build travel & tourism. One of the kingdom’s best-known hotels, The Oriental, owes its fame and brand-image partly to being frequently mentioned in the writings of Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad and Noel Coward, all of whom have suites named after them. The hotel also hosts an annual SEA Write Award, the first of its kind in the travel & tourism industry to recognise English and local language authors in Southeast Asia. Sadly, the famous authors invited to deliver the keynote address at the awards ceremony are almost always from the West.

The Western authors of the early 20th century were fascinated with things Eastern. However, in his keynote address, aptly entitled “Where India and China met: Canton (Guangzhou) in the 18th and 19th Century,” Amitav Ghosh indicated that the East had much to learn about itself. He kept his audience spellbound with an hour-long pictorial panorama of remarkable insights he gained while researching his two most recent books, “Sea of Poppies” and “River of Smoke”.  Both are masterpieces of fictionalised history which take readers from an opium factory in a remote Indian village named Ghazipur to the outposts of British colonialism in Calcutta (now known as Kolkata) to the warehouses of Canton (Guangzhou).

Mr. Ghosh probed how colonial powers funded their empires from the proceeds of tea and opium, the role of former British companies such as Jardine Matheson, the rise of ports such as Singapore, the shipbuilding tradition of Indian Parsi families, the location of one of the world’s oldest mosques in Guangzhou, even the role of U.S. cities such as Baltimore in shipbuilding. “Major American business dynasties are to an extraordinary degree built on opium money,” Mr. Ghosh said, noting that the concepts of free trade and globalisation were around long before they became a fad today. He also discovered that the great grandfather of U Thant, a Burmese and the third UN Secretary-General, was a Muslim from Bengal, that the family of former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad originated in Kerala. Once a flourishing Chinese trading centre, Canton is today again becoming “the world’s emporium,” Mr. Ghosh said.  

He found traces of such rich history everywhere – in museums, art galleries, libraries and murals. He called it a “vanished world which can be recaptured primarily because it produced such incredible images of itself.” He added, “What interests me in writing about history is how people managed during those days.” His love of language and history is accentuated by his love for reading. “Just the sound of words enchants me,” Mr. Ghosh said. “Learning other languages extends your mind. It teaches you that the whole idea of languages being separate is a myth. In some way or another, they are all inter-related. How many know that the word ‘dungaree’ comes from name of Dongri fort in India?”

Mr. Ghosh expressed misgivings about today’s young generation growing up in a culture of consumerism. In the old days, he said, Asia valued thrift – even the family toothpaste tube used to be rolled up to squeeze out every bit. Today, thrift has been replaced by a spendthrift culture that has spawned waste and environmental problems. Machines once made to last are now made to be disposed of in six months.

“When I see this world around us, the culture that I remember existed in my childhood is completely gone. We see a generation of young Asians growing up in a culture of consumerism and consumption, without which an economy cannot grow.” He cited New York Times writer Paul Krugman who highlights global economic problems in his columns. But, Mr. Ghosh said, “ultimately what he is talking about is how to get growth going again. And what is staring us in the face today is that no more growth is possible. Who will take this message out? Nobody in China can do it, their entire system is based on (creating growth). The same is true everywhere.”

Another writer, Jahnavi Barua, is a former doctor who gave up her practise 10 years ago for family and personal reasons. She then became a full-time writer because “I felt I had something to say”. Originally from Shillong in the Northeast India, Mrs Barua resides with her family in Bangalore. “Fiction has always represented India well,” she said. The country’s sheer diversity, from its flavours to fragrances, has been emphatically displayed in its literary output. Certainly, in the tradition of the argumentative Indian, there are huge differences in opinions. But, she said, these do not undermine the fabric of the country but add to its incredible diversity.

She stressed the role of Northeast India which is bordered by Bhutan, Bangladesh and Burma. The region’s shared history and heritage bonds the people both cultural and emotionally. The first time she became aware of this was in winter of 2002 when she first came to Thailand with her then one year old son and was struck by the similarity of the dress, tradition, culture and even gestures and mannerisms. This history and geography is what shapes writers and sharpens the keen sense they have of what exists beyond their own borders. She hailed the conference itself as “demonstrating the strength of the written word in the bridge building process.”

Indian diplomat turned writer Vikas Swarup (whose “Q&A” was the basis for the hit film “Slumdog Millionaire”) also delivered a dinner address on “My Journey as a Writer.” Unfortunately, this editor was unable to attend his talk.

The conference consisted of 13 papers by professors from various universities in Japan, India, Thailand, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. The discussions covered the entire mosaic of India’s literature and its religious, cultural, social and ethnic heritage. The academics probed every nook and cranny of various Indian and ethnic Indian writers’ style, content, structure and syntax – from Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children to Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. The Indian writers’ works were compared with those of their ethnic Indian counterparts in the U.K. and U.S., especially on the recurring theme of the search for identity.

Prof Charturee Tingsabadh, Department of Comparative Literature, Chulalongkorn university noted in her analysis of Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss: “Particular concern is focussed on the figure of migrant problems of the homeless and home-making to highlight the inequities of globalisation and its entanglement in the legacy of colonisation.” Hisae Komatsu, Research Fellow at Hokkaido University, Japan discussed the writing by British Indian authors such as Salman Rushdie and Hanif Kureishi as well as other British authors of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin. He noted that since the late 1990s, the way of representation of ethnic cultures has become more diverse. “Earlier, they saw the homeland culture as being inferior to home culture and denied the value of it… But recently, a new trend which positively re-evaluates ‘homeland’ culture with pride became conspicuous. And notably, with an exclusive attitude.”

Similar themes in the American context were explored by Maria Rhodora Ancheta, Department of English and Comparative Literature, University of the Philippines at Diliman. She discussed Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story collection Unaccustomed Earth (2008) – stories which focus on Indian-Americans living apparently affluent, upper-middle class lives, the shifts in relationships and generations and the “questions of identity and dis-identity” and how “being an Indian in the United States necessarily complicates and indeed changes the nature and apprehension of home and homeland.”

Head of Chulalongkorn’s Indian Studies Centre, Associate Prof Surat Horachaikul, an ethnic Indian who is fluent in Hindi, Punjabi, English and Thai, called the conference a “huge step forward” in raising the image of India and Indians. Indeed, the conference itself is just one of several upcoming activities in the lead-up to the India-ASEAN Commemorative Summit in New Delhi on December 20-21, 2012. A performance of Samudra Contemporary Dance is to be held at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC) on November 29-30. An ASEAN-India car rally is to pass through Thailand twice (during November 29- December 3 and December 10-11, 2012), accompanied by number of events in Phuket, Bangkok and Sukhothai.

Specialist chefs are being flown from India by India Tourism Development Corporation for a food festival from November 28 to December 4. A business seminar is being organised on December 3 on the theme of ‘ASEAN-India connectivity: promoting linkages between ASEAN and India’s North-East’, for which a number of companies from India’s North-Eastern states are visiting Bangkok.

More is still to come in 2013. The people of Thailand are discovering that there is a lot more to India than wedding parties, the Buddhist circuit and I.T. experts.


Opening Speech at the conference delivered by Anil Wadhwa, Indian Ambassador to Thailand

I am delighted to address you all at the potent gathering of minds represented here today at the Bharatasamay International Conference on Indian Writing in English.

This milestone in Indo-Thai cultural communication is the first of its kind in the six decades of modern diplomatic ties between our two countries.

And in fact, it is a logical contemporary step to take in the ongoing cultural dialogue that began in the 3rd century BCE when Asoka’s monks, Sona Thera and Uttara Thera, set sail across the Bay of Bengal for the Golden Land of Suvarnabhum, carrying with them the golden message of the Dhamma.

As all may know, the intervening centuries saw a cross-flow of ideas and icons across and around the Bay of Bengal, which is to Asia as the Mediterranean is to Europe, a bandwidth of culture in which our languages and stories meet and mingle.

If India was known in old universe of discourse as the ‘Mother of Story’, then the Bay of Bengal is certainly Asia’s ‘Sea of Story’ – the ‘Katha Sarit Sagara’, where all the ocean and river cultures around the Bay meet in a flow of shared yet unique sensibilities.

To leap millennia thereafter, Asia’s first Nobel Prize winner, writer-poet Rabindranath Tagore, was a creative cultural communicator of world renown whose 150th birth anniversary was celebrated worldwide last year.

It was celebrated last June right here as well, in this historic Thai university, in this very place, with an international conference of Tagore scholars, which included the recitation of the two poems he wrote about Siam and discussions of his stories, among other Tagorean facets.

The inauguration of the India Studies Centre at Chulalongkorn University earlier this year was also celebrated with a story: the ballet of ‘Chitrangada’ danced in the Odissi style, drawn from the epic ‘Mahabharata’ – also known as ‘the longest poem in the world’, with over one hundred thousand verses.

Last year also saw an eight-country International Ramayana Festival, where ‘The Epic of Asia’ – as the Ramayana is affectionately and proudly known – was retold in the distinctive dance styles of seven ASEAN countries and of India.

Stories continue to be exchanged today in various forms between India and Thailand, especially through popular cinema and the performing arts. People from my Embassy who have regularly attended the grand Khon performances since 2010 – the episodes of ‘Nang Loi’, ‘Suek Maiayrap’ and ‘Jong Thanon’ – have come back marveling at the sheer bewitchment of Thai story-telling through the art of theatre.

And it all comes back to the word, does it not?

To the fact that somebody thought of something and first told a story in words, creating characters and situations that expressed not only his individual creativity but also, as is quite often the case, conveyed something about social, cultural, political and artistic milieus that rang with such resonance that a cultural bandwidth was activated around the Bay of Bengal, defining the spirit of ASEAN today.

So this important conference of Indian Writing in English to be held over three days in Bangkok brings about a creative confluence that cannot but please all concerned.

It is something that the Embassy of India would like to see happening every year, to take our mutual cultural communication further with all its nuances, tones and textures.

The topics chosen for the various sessions reflect – perhaps for the first time in the history of modern Indo-Thai relations – the sheer diversity, range and depth of India: the sub-continent that we still call ‘Bharatvarsh’, her peoples and her histories, her self-perceptions and her views on the world of which she is a part.

From the Multilingual Contexts of the Indian Novel to the Technology of Place and Re-Mapping of the Self in a cosmopolitan context;

to exploring the expression of the Subaltern and its modern political resonances; through exploring the cross-cultural histories of the Bay of Bengal whose waters are brimful of memory and metaphor,

to the threshold of translation, which completes and renews the circle of cultural communication begun long years ago between our lands:

this conference attempts to articulate all this and more.

Beyond the enduring hold of the two great epics and the jewels of the Jatakas, this  conference looks to be constructed a masterly method to ‘catch-up’ on India.

Through the time-honoured Realm of Story and through the sheer eclectic nature of Indian Writing in English, which, in just three decades, has proved to be an enduring international literary phenomenon.

We are delighted that this conference has attracted so many creative minds of renown and wish your interactions every success. In particular, I felicitate the students whose University has the dash and imagination to conceive of and organize a gathering of this stature and scope.

My best wishes to you all.

Sawasdee khrap.