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Rejuvenating Culture the VoW Way

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By DR. SATISH C. AIKANT

One doesn’t have to spell out the full form of the acronym VoW to bring it home to the discerning readers that what is meant here is the Valley of Words, a veritable feast for the bibliophiles and culture aficionados, that recently concluded in Dehradun. The Doon Valley boasts of a glorious cultural past, and for good reason. It has been home to a host of writers and artists. Even while the Raj was making its inroads into the twin cities of Mussoorie and Dehradun, the native writers were leaving their mark on the cultural landscape of the Valley. In the 1950s the polyglot author, thinker, traveller and activist who had travelled extensively in India and abroad writing prolifically, fell to the charm of Mussoorie and chose to spend quite a few years there, with his wife Kamala Sankrityayan, herself a well known writer in Nepali and Hindi. Rahul wrote extensively in Hindi, Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan and Bhojpuri and produced the first Hindi-Tibetan Dictionary. Do the locals remember him now? Well, the irony is that the road in Happy Valley in Mussoorie where he lived and was named after him has been renamed three times and there are no traces of his legacy left. His contemporary Satyaketu Vidyalankar, eminent historian, wrote his monumental history of the Arya Samaj along with several volumes on the history of ancient India while he was living in Mussoorie. Yet another prominent resident Satya Prasad Raturi a left wing writer and social activist who had participated in the Praja Mandal resistance movement against the erstwhile princely state of Tehri lived in Mussoorie. All these figures were regarded highly in their time. Now it has become more fashionable to read John Lang’s trivial accounts of the colonials’ ‘Household Words’ than appreciate the authentic accounts of Indian life through the writings of Rahul Sankrityayan. M. N. Roy, once a towering figure of the international communist movement, who lived in Dehradun for sixteen long years until he died in 1954, is almost a forgotten figure now. VoW must be thanked for bringing Keki Daruwalla whose book Swerving to Solitude discussed in a session helped revive interest in Roy. It was in Dehradun where Roy, with his wife Ellen, had set up what is known as the Humanist House and ran the journal The Radical Humanist. Disillusioned with both bourgeois democracy and communism, Roy devoted the later years of his life to the formulation of an alternative philosophy which he called Radical Humanism. They started the Indian Radical Humanist Movement and set up the Indian Renaissance Institute. After Roy’s death Ellen became the centre of the movement and carried forward his work until her death in 1960. Dehradun has been home to Nayantara Sahgal who has been writing for over four decades now. Allan Sealy and Vandana Shiva live here. The city was visited by spiritual savants like Vivekananda. Nehru had long association with Mussoorie and Dehradun which the veteran journalist Raj Kanwar vividly recalls. Gandhi (a writer in his own right) visited Mussoorie a couple of times. Apart from holding prayer meetings he took active interest in the lives of the citizens. The decades of sixties and seventies did bear the cultural imprint of such literary luminaries who have become part of the folklore of the valley. But then the decline began as even the small towns such as Dehradun (nostalgically remembered as ‘the city of green hedges and grey hair’) began to be seduced by the culture of the Malls and Multiplexes, in order to keep up with the cosmopolitan Joneses. The world of authentic culture began to shrink. The public tastes changed. Or shall we say culture went into a slumber? Perhaps it needed something like Vow to jog its memory and regenerate a cultural renaissance of sorts. Writers are solitary figures by nature or by choice. They work in isolation. But once in a while they do emerge out of their seclusion and mingle with the public who also constitute their readership. Occasions such as provided by VoW are what they are looking for. The power behind VoW is Dr. Sanjeev Chopra an erudite civil servant, Director of Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA) in Mussoorie. He is a distinguished bureaucrat having served as the Principal Secretary to the Government of West Bengal in the Agriculture, Food Processing and Horticulture Departments and was Secretary Industrial Development and IT with Government of Uttarakhand where he drew up models for sustainable development and was instrumental in making the state investment friendly for businesses. He is also a man of eclectic interests actively engaged in promoting culture as a community value. This was the third edition of the Valley of Words he has organized which has brought authors, artists and artisans, environmentalists, military strategists, readers and publishers and booksellers together – all meeting in creative conversations. Books and authors indeed are the focus of any literature festival and so it is with VoW. But the love of reading isn’t the only thing that makes literary festivals popular, the love of all art forms and forms of expression is what makes them so enjoyable. It’s not just a place to watch debates play out on the stage and hear the authors hold forth on their works. It is also about connecting with like- minded people in a conducive and enabling environment. VoW gives the perfect opportunity for new writers to find an audience and get a feel of the pulse of their readers. In turn the readers get an insight into the creative process of the writers and how their imagination forges new worlds. They get an opportunity to see the writers in the flesh and hear them speak and read from their works, possess books signed by their favourite authors which establishes a connection between the reader and the writer. Above all such festivals create enlightened communities by encouraging great conversations and sharing ideas. This is important as it keeps interest in the arts alive. In a world of information overload through internet literary festivals can offer us valuable opportunities to focus on what is really important. Rajiv Malhotra in his keynote address to VoW talked about a dystopian scenario where boundaries between humans and machines become increasingly blurred, what with Artificial Intelligence knocking at the frontiers of consciousness and wresting subjectivity from it. So we really need to focus on reading as the pre-eminent cognitive ability of humans. We might even redefine Descartes’ proposition ‘cogito, ergo, sum – I think, therefore I am’ to something like ‘I read and read and read, therefore I am.’ Events like the Valley of Words create an ecosystem to stimulate thinking whereby the human subject retains his agency and his dignity. It is books and authors that provide him the necessary ingredients for thinking. The process begins in school and goes on throughout one’s lifetime. One of the well attended sessions, significantly titled ‘Bitten by the Reading Bug’ was an engaging conversation between Ratna Manucha and Matthew Ragett aimed at encouraging reading habits in the young children. The speakers emphasised the importance of reading for which the parental guidance is crucial to ensure that children do not get distracted by phones and other devices. After all it is not hard to enjoy books. One hopes that Vow as an institution will continue to flourish inspiring more of such events in times ahead even as the book publishing becomes increasingly challenging as it is feared that the future of the book as the primary medium of literature is threatened by the digital transmission of text in various forms, the decline of bookshops, and the dominating commercial power exercised by the giant internet corporations. VoW certainly shows how to be ‘bitten by the reading bug.’ Let the tribe of readers increase and let them immerse themselves in their favourite books, biting huge chunks even if they have to bite more than they can chew.

(The writer is former Professor and Head of the Department of English, H.N.B. Garhwal University)