Friday, January 29, 2010

Conspiracy theory theory

Why are there no Karma Police at the Jaipur Literature Festival? Shouldn't they be arresting Kai Bird for talking in math and buzzing like a fridge? The reason Radiohead's famous lyrics were playing on the back of my head is that the eminent biographer was at the helm of affairs on day two's first two events.

In the first one, Bird was in conversation with Claire Tomalin about the art of biography. At the end of if, what did I take home? Biography is not art, it's sweat. Your subject seduces you if he is alive. Minor characters are the prism throught which you view your subjects and, this is my favourite, best biographies have been written by journalists.

Then Bird moved to the Mughal Tent, where he was joined by Forbes columnist Tunku Varadarajan and New Yorker journalist Lawrence Wright on why conspiracy theories abound in all the crannies of the world. Moderated by famous West Asia correspondent Max Rodenbeck, the panel discussed topics as diverse as the single assassin of Robert Kennedy and checking out the possibility of there being explosives in the World Trade Centre towers prior to the aircraft hitting the twin towers.

While the intellectual masturbation that is all-pervasive in such discussions, the panel actually came out with panacea, it's fleeting nature notwithstanding, to suppress the proliferation of the Chinese whispers. Tunku said democracy is the perfect antidote to conspiracy theories that are wilfully devoid of evidence (case in point: the very fact that Lebanon is fragmented according to the theory that you subscribe to).

It makes perfect sense that after a talk on why human mind loves conspiracies, it is followed by Steve Col talking about his Pulitzer-winning work Ghost Wars. Willian Dalrymple moderated the talk and managed to get all the gut wrenching details as to how the New Yorker journalist debriefed a Pakistani ISI agent in Dusseldorf. The most fruitful part of the discussion was when they described the nature of the beast called al-Qaeda. The way Coll describes how he gained access to the bin Laden family made him a new-age Jack Nicholson from Antonioni's "Passenger". What was, however, disconcerting was the fact that there were not many present in the audience.

After a scrumptious feast of Rajasthani cuisine and lamb dipped in red wine, I went to the Mughal Lawns to listen to Isabel Hilton and Tenzing Tsundue talking about Tibet. Isabel, author of much-acclaimed "In Search of Panchen Lama" and Tenzing, a Tibetan fighting for the Tibet cause, kept talking in a show-China-in-a-bad-light tone. Yes, China might be suppressing the muffled cries for Tibetan democracy but then that's a tacit Faustian pact that people in countries like China, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar have made with the respective governments in order for social security and material comforts.

The event I was eagerly looking forward to happened in the front lawn over a white elephant that the publishing industry would avoid looking at, as if it's a car wreck- Internet. "Can The Internet Save books?". Well, yes and no is what the group of panelists said. Novelist Vikram Chandra found it highly ironic that people are crying hoarse about the sooner-or-later death of printed work. Chandra said that just like Gutenberg made the quill obsolete, Internet is doing something similar. some serious food for thought, that is.

Tunku Varadarajan hit the nail straight into the head by lamenting over the "declining intellectual standards of Indians". He said the discussion is virtually useless because in the end, good writing is all that people need, be it on the cathode tube or papyrus roll. Tina Brown, former Vanity Fair editor and editor of Daily Beast, quoted a disconcerting statistic for the worshippers of printed word; that she got as many readers for Daily Beast in a year as she got in Vanity Fair in the last eight years. However, she hastened to add that long form narrative is not to be seen online, something magazines like New Yorker, vanity Fair specialise in.

Thus, her future plan to put 40,000 word pieces online from various writers and then bring them out later as a short paperback. That was music to the years of those present.


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