Litfest: Day 3

By Sunil Kumar

Finally; concluding my account of the 6th TOI Mumbai Litfest I went to(2017) and the Sunday(Dec 17) in general. After a delightful, spiritually uplifting lecture by an ISKCON Prabhu; I decided to take an UBERPool to the venue. A great desire to listen to Vikram Chandra on Sanskrit was the catalyst; as I was considering whether a visit would be fruitful.

Most days; you get reasonably OK people(from a distance) in the ride. After two throughly disgusting ruffians get down at their destinations; I arrive a little angry at the venue.

However; soon enough; Vikram Chandra’s nerdy discourse and appreciation of Sanskrit comes through and I get engrossed in what he’s saying. Discussing the generative grammar of Sanskrit; Chandra gives the analogy of a Sanskrit ocean in a cow’s footprint. Subjects from Leonard Bloomfield. linguistics and the obvious basis of present-day IT and computing(linguistics; Emile Post; the Backus-Naur form) from Panini’s precise algorithm-like grammar as the first known computing(like) language were subjects touched in passing.

The hoary antiquity and the (divine) antecedents of the Sanskrit language have been known in India for centuries; and the rediscovery and re-use of its formidable logical and syntactic structures are largely due to Western academia which is shrewd enough to use and very often appropriate things from around the world. Chandra’s linguistic odyssey also touched upon Chomsky’s appropriation of Sanskrit ideas which he clearly picked up from ideas mentioned in other American works that clearly mentioned ancient Indian texts.

Panini’s scholastic or in management terms systems thinking was also mentioned. Sanskrit is literally defined as well-formed or a refined language with clearly demarcated building blocks. Due to some recent reading; have been able to understand the language available and appreciate its multiplicity of nuances and meanings.

A great disservice has been done to the language firstly by the British as imperialists; and then by the “so-called” pseudo-secular setup by associating it with radical Hindu movements. For any inquisitive mind; Sanskrit is a pleasure and indeed such people delve further into the ocean of this language disregarding populist tropes.

A little biography on Panini concluded this discussion. Residing at Shaladra; 20 kms from present-day Attock Bridge; Panini was jokingly referred to as the patron saint of nerds by Chandra. The traditional account of his death is Panini contemplating a tiger’s roar w.r.t tonality, formation and melody in an ancient “gurukul”(forest school/academy) as the animal mauled him to death.

A little discussion with Chandra ensued; as I had managed to read two of his books; the mammoth Sacred Games and Code Mantra. Struck me as decent. When I asked him about his novel Sacred Games appearing on Netflix; said that since the US giant is a closeted organization; even he as the author was not aware of the release date. He also mentioned David Shulman’s Tamil; which I wanted to read and have since purchased and gone through.

As I see a long snaking line wanting to listen to Gulzar and Vishal Bharadwaj; I make my way into the Aditya Birla hall and listen to Bachi Karkaria and some Nair discussing one of independent India’s most raunchy and interesting cases; the Nanavati episode. Periodically funny and serious; Karkaria’s account of the case covered all aspects at the time. She also mentioned Jethmalani and the Sindhis in passing; apart from the demonization of the Sindhi paramour Ahuja by the Parsi community of the time largely under former editor of Blitz Karanjia.

A click-bait timeline is always manufactured by the media; particularly so in recent times; when most of this is overdone; and the result is boring the audience. Urban mythology is manufactured these days at a frightening rate and with India’s 500+ news channels(largest in the world); we have even overtaken the world’s biggest talkshop the USA.

Sindhi Jethmalani was described as irascible and the Parsis as extremely reluctant to give up their entitlement by Karkaria as she tried to balance the narrative which has also been given a patriot vs playboy slant by most sources including the media and an equally powerful film industry.

Quoting a few accounts of Ahuja’s generosity to his Parsi Secretary and Sindhi refugees post-partition Karkaria tried to make the point that the man was not as bad as generally portrayed. Have purchased her book recently; so will read and then post a review on this site later. (With my two million dollar opinion; two cents seems so stingy).

The hawkers of the time displayed commercial savvy selling Ahuja towels and Nanavati guns. Sensing the downfall of a Sindhi; Gujarati merchants who looked upon his community as a business rival rejoiced when Nanavati was let off initially.

Commenting on Nanavati’s extensive contacts within the top brass of the armed forces and the defence minister of the time; V.K Krishna Menon. Described by Karkaria as Menon’s blue-eyed boy; Nanavati migrated to Canada along with his philandering English wife Sylvie and managed to live out most of his days in relative oblivion and unnoticed not subject to Indian media scrutiny. As a trustee of the local prayer hall at Toronto; Nanavati was not subject to the moral stain of turpitude i.e the debauchery of Ahuja.

Conspiracy theories were discussed with an old lady mentioning something her parents of the time had told her; a theory that there was no affair between Nanavati’s wife; the English adultress and Ahuja. Instead it was a business deal gone awry; and the seduction story was manufactured as an afterthought. Karkaria did not dismiss this theory outright; giving most people the impression that there was a lot going on at the time which we do not know.

Accustomed as we are in present-day India to gorier episodes happening practically every year including the Talwars, Sheena and Indrani Bora; or the savage murderers Jerome and Maria Susairaj in the Neeraj Grover case; this seems nearly civil in comparison. Interlaced with humor and pathos; as this session ended I managed to ask Karkaria on whether the jury system was abolished in India as it was elitist. According to her; this was not the case and it was scrapped as it was difficult to keep the jury sequestered. For anybody unclear about this; think about the O.J Simpson case in America if you’ve heard about it. Sequestration involves keeping the jury aloof and secluded and not vulnerable to any external influence.

Reading different legal experts recently led me to the conclusion that what I said was also true as the jury system was perceived to be metro-based and elitist in many parts of India and there was a campaign on to abolish it for a long time.

My experience for 2017 came to an end as I booked a taxi back sitting in the Times hall listening to Sanghi and the mythologist Pattnaik in a humorous chat on both of them being perceived as twins. Semi-entertaining and definitely informative; literary festivals and kind of enriching on an ideas level. The flipside is the opinionated and biased anti-Hindu narrative of these so-called “liberals”. Apart from that; different subjects and ideas on offer keeps me interested.

The day concluded with an inspiring movie on Prabhupada; the Founder Acharya of ISKCON in PVR Mulund.

Some photos from the day;

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