‘You Will Be Safe Here’ At JLF 2020

Image Credit: JLF 2020

On the second day of the Jaipur Literature Festival 2020 (JLF), the bibliophiles that had flocked to Diggi Palace got a chance to attend a panel discussion titled ‘You Will Be Safe Here’. Moderated by Vivek Tejuja, the panel comprised of authors Anuradha Bhagwati, Arthur Japin, and Damian Barr. The panel was actually named after Damien Barr’s latest release and aimed to literally create a safe space in the festival.

Though the panel was held at the most beautiful location in the palace, the first thing that you noticed was not the beautiful paintings on the walls of the Durbar Hall. Instead, it was the fact that not only was every single chair occupied, but there were people sitting in the aisles, standing at the back, and even leaning in from the door. While on the first glance this would probably seem amazing, it is also a clear and loud indicator of the fact that there was no other LGBTQ+ panel at the five-day festival.

Discussions on a variety of topics like the difference in their writing styles, the importance of intersectionality, family reactions to their work and dealing with them, finding strength in activism, and writing as a safe space were prompted by Tejuja, who has written about his journey of growing up gay in India in his book, ‘So Now You Know’. The panel stood apart from all others at JLF because it has everything from deep moments of self-reflection and instances of recounting trauma to voguing and cracking jokes about the queer experience.

Anuradha Bhagwati talked about being a bisexual woman of colour living in a western nation with immigrant parents, and how writing her memoir ‘Unbecoming’ was a healing experience. Describing the moment when her mother first learnt about her relationship with a girl and threated suicide if Bhagwati didn’t break it off, she said “So I ended it. Because I was a good Indian girl and I thought I was going to kill my mom.” The silence that enveloped the room at this moment was witness to how well this situation resonated with anyone who has grown up scared of their family finding out that they aren’t straight. However, she went on to discuss her journey of growth and self-acceptance while stressing the importance of the positivity, love, and warmth you can get from the family you choose.

On the other hand, Damian Barr described his journey of growing up white, gay, and poor in a rich nation. Talking about his childhood he remarked, “My mother was Catholic and my father was Protestant. The only thing that bound these two religions together was that they hated gay people.” However, his positive outlook on life was contagious as he joked about how his relatives still go to Amazon and write negative reviews for his books, and now he finally has the option to hit a ‘report abuse’ button. In an instance that had the crowd falling over with laughter, he talked about how one of his gay friends wondered if they were bisexual for a moment because they liked Madonna, “Can you imagine? I mean, what’s gayer than liking Madonna?”

Arthur Japin, meanwhile, was the only person on the panel who had not written a memoir yet. While he began his story with how he was bullied at school because the other children knew he was different even before he did, he also talked about how he has retroactively realized how each of the fictional stories that he has written has been about an outsider who must fit into society, and therefore the major influence that his personal life has had on his writing. In a crowd favourite moment, he enacted the one song that is present in almost all of the musicals where the protagonist is sad because all hope is lost and then suddenly the beat becomes happy and the synchronised dancers convince him to try again. The room exploded with thunderous applause and cheers, as Japin went on to describe how he imagines himself to be in one such dance sequence every time he encounters a problem in life.

Other notable moments in the panel discussion included conversations around letting go of the shame that has been imposed by society, the difference between growing up gay in various decades and cultures, and the importance of feeling like you belong. Japin, in particular, described a day when there was an LGBTQ+ fest in Amsterdam. For the first time in his life, people who were not straight were the majority when he looked at the street and he remembered thinking, “Oh my God, This is what it feels to be everybody else, every day!”

The panel ended by opening the floor to questions, and that is when psuedo-allies tried to sneak in. However, this is also when the spirit of solidarity and warmth came alive in the room when the audience and speakers took a united stance against such people by calling them out. One old woman tried to make a case for the fact that homophobia doesn’t exist in India anymore and thus queer people demanding equal space is redundant. A resounding “no” echoed through the Durbar Hall as almost every single person in the room instinctively responded to her together.

The moment that all attendees definitely took home with them, however, was Bhagwati’s answer to whether such a panel will even need to exist in the future. She explained that it will definitely exist, but it will look different- it will look more diverse. There will be more people of colour, more women, more varied sexualities, and actual trans representation. She very rightly summed up with what we all need to consciously be aware of: “This is just the starting point.”

Disclaimer: On Monday, 27th January 2020, a group of protestors against CAA and NRC were made to leave the location by bouncers. This was the last day of the festival, and JLF released a statement saying that they had received complaints from their sponsors. This makes it important to remember the organisers claimed that they do not  “wish to silence protest, but to ensure our visitors – students, older people and international guests – can take in the diverse content and knowledge for which the festival is known.”  that their title sponsor itself was ZEE, the channels owned by whom have famously taken right-wing stands. I attended a few sessions like ‘Faiz and Firaq’ which celebrated the legendary poets and had the audience singing ‘Hum Dekhenge’ together, ‘Bolna Hi Hai’ where Ravish Kumar openly spoke about the perils of Hindutva and CAA prompting cheers from the crowd, and ‘Manto and me’ where Nandita Das talked about the bravery of the women at Shaheen Bagh. However, these were statements made by the panellists or interviewees themselves. Though platformed by JLF 2020, these comments cannot necessarily be claimed to be endorsed by the festival.

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The student that always has her hand up in class, and in life. Dreams of a world where there is an abundance of love and ice cream, minorities are not constantly expected to put in unequal emotional labour for everything, and kind people find each other despite all the noise.

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