When you sit down for a bedtime recitation Grimm’s Fairy Tales, do you realize that many of those weird and wonderful folk tales have their origins in the ancient Indian animal fables of the Panchatantra? When you hum Baloo’s catchy tune from The Jungle Book, do you know that Kipling’s original story sprung from a real-life saga of love, lies, troubles, and family secrets played out across colonial India, Edwardian England, and Vermont? And when you settle with some popcorn for the latest glitzy Bollywood epic, have you any inkling that you’re watching an interpretation of Shakespeare?
Tonight, the Bush Theatre will host the opening event of London’s inaugural South Asian Literature Festival, and the next ten days of talks, readings and film screenings in venues across the capital such as the British Library, The Commonwealth Club and Waterstones Piccadilly will hold many surprises for those of us whose reading struggles to escape the Western hemisphere. Personally, I may have wolfed down Jhumpa Lahiri’s searingly beautiful short stories, recommended Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things to everyone I know, and adored Rohinton Mistry’s classic A Fine Balance, but I rarely know where to venture beyond the award winners and bestsellers reviewed in the broadsheets. And, with some outstanding new authors emerging from South Asia such as Pakistani Jamil Ahmad and Banglandeshi Tahmima Anam, it’s time that changed.
“I loved the idea of having a proper excuse to learn more about India and a region of the world I knew very little about,” explains festival director Jon Slack. An Aussie now living in London with a decade’s worth of publishing experience at Taschen, Transworld, Aurum Press and Borders Adelaide, Slack exemplifies the eclecticism and passion of both the festival and London’s wider literary scene. “The kind of new writing in English which is coming out of places like Bangladesh is fantastic – we’re helping to launch a new anthology of woman’s writing this weekend. Literature and publishing in South Asia is booming and there’s some excellent work now coming to light. We’re still in the early days of a truly flowing publishing subcontinent, but it is exciting to see these changes happening now.”
Highlights of the festival include The Blind Man’s Garden, an exclusive preview of Nadeem Aslam’s novel set in post-9/11 Afghanistan; Mughal Nights, a late extravaganza at the British Library inspired by a party at a Mughal Palace, with music from DJ Ritu, art from British Library artist-in–resident Christopher Green and mehndi artists from Ash Kumar, and dancers from Nutkut; and Shakespeare’s South Asian Stage, where RSC director Iqbal Khan, Globe-to-Globe artistic director Tom Bird and the legendary Tim Supple will investigate the art of adapting Shakespeare in South Asian settings.
Although funding for the festival in tough economic times has been a predictable struggle and its viability has depended on scores of dedicated volunteers, London was always destined to be the festival’s home. “It is the world’s great melting pot,” Slack declares. “There are South Asian communities in many corners across the city. Then there’s the British Empire, with its tremendous historical ties to the region through the East India Company, and the generations of immigrants who’ve since made homes on our shores. Not to mention all the Londoners who’ve made a life in India! What better place to celebrate the coming together of cultures, and to connect with people who are open to new ideas and influences?”
His aim for the festival is to make unexpected connections – “we want a real mix of people coming together, realising they have more in common than they know” – and Slack hopes that it will be the start of a much bigger and more fluid interchange. “We’d love to see a regular community continue to grow around this kind of writing, and to see what other ways of telling stories can be explored. I love the idea that stories are not just words on paper but can be movement or film or sounds – any number of things. Hopefully we’re pushing the boundaries between storytelling and ideas.”
It’s a rallying call which is hard to resist. And with a selection of events that ranges from Madhur Jaffrey launching her new cookery book Curry Nation to Brown Kids Can’t Jump, an exploration of why there were so few British Asians in the Olympics from an ex-footballer, a Labour MP and a BBC sports reporter, there should be session to inspire everyone.
As November hits and London seemed greyer then ever, I for one will be spending the next ten days immersed in the colour, warmth, richness and, above all, surprise to be found in the next gen of South Asian lit.