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People have forgotten how to read fiction: Jeet Thayil

At the session 'How to Spin a Great Yarn', at the Times Lit Fest Mumbai today, poet Jeet Thayil, journalist Carla Power and physician and politician Nadia Hashimi engaged in a heart-to-heart conversation about storytelling with Associate Editor, Times of India, and Director Write India, Vinita Dawra Nangia.

The 7th Times Lit Fest at the Mehboob Studios in Mumbai saw a host of poets, authors, artistes and pubic intellectuals discuss books, literature and much more in engaging sessions throughout the day. The session titled, "How to Spin a Great Yarn" united the three authors with the common thread of their successful career as writers, who have voiced their own opininons on Islam, terrorism and the resultant destruction through ardent writing. Moderator Vinita Nangia got them to speak on writing and the art of storytelling, delineating on its urgency today.

While Carla and Nadia extensively talk about life's positivity and "the light at the end of the tunnel", Jeet Thayil's voice has always been more satirical as he tends to go "more to the darker side". The talk began with Carla Power, a secularist who later got drawn towards Islam. When Vinita asked her what drew her to reading the Quran, Carla said her Muslim world view was sort of limited and she wanted to tag along with Sheikh Nadwi on his tour to see where their world views converged and diverged.

Vinita Nangia, who took the conversation to many interesting turns with her thought-provoking and engaging questions, said that she finds it fascinating as a fellow journalist that Carla has actually delved so deep into the subject that she took out a full year to understand the Quran. She asked if it changed Carla as a person. To this Carla added, that for her, the most profound thing was not reading the Quran, but seeing how the text animated and shaped her friend Sheikh Nadwi's worldview. She explained that Americans, including her, are raised to see themselves as the centre of their own universe and she was no different. And for her there was something deeply profound about spending a year trailing someone who did not necessarily see himself as the centre of his own life.

The Afghan-American pediatric physician, politician and author of two bestselling novels, Nadia Hashimi's inspirational journey became a topic itself. Ms Nangia, amused by Nadia's exemplary career and promising leadership, asked if she found it difficult reflecting the emotions of Afghani women, being an Afghan girl herself who grew up in the US. To this, Nadia said "Looking at the history of Afghanistan was a research piece. I could not interview people around me; I explored in texts. And that was exciting," she added.


When asked if Jeet Thayil's new book A Book of Chocolate Saints is an autobiography of sorts, Jeet clearly mentioned that it is a novel stating that "lately people have forgotten how to read fiction. It may be based on a character, but that doesn't mean that what you read is a biography." Bringing a lively note to this conversation, Vinita countered his point saying "You can't really blame those people as you have picked up facts from life and from real-life characters and even yourself. In some parts of your book you have even written about characteristics which are very well connected with you. Isn't it rather naughty doing that and then expecting people to imagine otherwise?" Jeet said that he implied them as a joke, having a bit of fun with such an extensive novel.


He agreed that book reviews in India can be inaccurate which will impact the success of the book but empathised with journalists as he had been one himself. "The worst time in my life was the two decades I was a journalist".
Carla Power, agreed saying, "I've written headlines and I see how narrow they can be and how misleading they can be".


Ms Nangia raised an interesting question that if the best stories happen out there in reality and whether the three of them have been inspired by such real stories of real people.


Both Nadia and Carla said that despite dealing with heavy themes and issues in their books, they manage to convey positivity and hope in their writing. Jeet pointed out that our reality wasn't something anyone could write, "In 2017, with Donald Trump in America and Narendra Modi in India, how do you write fiction that could ever match up with that insanity?" he said, drawing a huge laugh from the audience.


As the talk moved to heavier topics, Carla Power spoke on how she feels boredom and inactivity lead to 'white supremacist terrorists', especially in small towns.She elaborated on how in "podunkville" towns in America, people used money from Homeland security to have people patrol the town to protect it from terrorists. While she acknowledges that the problem of terror is real, she also feels that "America is a country that has grown too sleek and too fat and you have to invent a bogeyman".

"What I'm doing is bringing about a bit of awareness of the strength and resilience of Afghan women," added Nadia, a phenomenal woman who has dedicated her life to the betterment of the world, with her able and splendid leadership.


The combination of Carla's worldview, Nadia's incredible drive to better the world and Jeet's dry humour, along with Vinita's insightful questioning, made for an enthralling session. While all the speakers seemed to agree the world is flawed, they also expressed in their own ways how to better it through representation.

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