Jaipur Litfest Day 5: Socrates to the CA

Niranjan Kunwar | January 26, 2015

I took a quick, cold shower on Sunday morning, the last day of the Jaipur Literature Festival. The previous night, I had transferred from a comfortable hotel, walking distance from the festival venue Diggi Palace, to a cheaper location. The temperature inside the new hotel room was not artificially controlled. So I dried myself fast and put on warm layers. But the temperature outside seemed to have dropped by a few degrees as well. Inside the auto, I reached for my scarf and wrapped it around my head. The fog was thick at ten in the morning.

This venue was less crowded than usual. I briskly walked over to a stall and bought a cup of desi chai with a butter maska. I planned to sit through only two more sessions. A slight, subtle weariness had gradually risen inside me during the course of the festival and now it had settled comfortably somewhere inside my head. Perhaps it was the knowledge that my time in Jaipur was coming to an end, and I was already compelled to think of my next stop, Jodhpur. It wasn’t only the ideas (and putting them down on paper) that had worn me down; it was the cumulative consequence of travelling around India for five weeks, of being unsettled for so long. I was eager for this journey to come to an end.

Under the Google Mughal Tent, warming my hands around another paper cup of tea, I waited for the morning session to start – “Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life”. Bettany Hughes, a historian who specialized in ancient and medieval history, had written a book on Socrates called The Hemlock Cup. She talked about her work and about the fifth century philosopher: “Socrates’ famous seven-word sentence – An unexamined life is not worth living – is a founding principle of modern life,” said Hughes. I had come across these ideas, radical for Socrates’ time, in college courses before.

What we are doing now, continued Hughes, exchanging ideas face-to-face, engaging in discussions, is very Socratic. That was one of his core beliefs. To ask questions, to inquire, is one of the most central aspects of being human. And it was for this very reason that Socrates was put on trial and made to drink hemlock, the poison that killed him. Socrates was charged for introducing “new Gods” and “corrupting young minds”. But what he was doing was merely encouraging people to think differently. How to be good? What is the good life? Ask yourselves, said Socrates. The answers lie within you.

Coincidentally, the session that followed Hughes’ also had the word “search” in its title, although it appeared to be referring to a very different kind of search. “Nepal: In Search of a Constitution” featured Nepali journalist and author Prashant Jha, along with historian Kai Bird and multi-talented columnist Pushpesh Pant. The first part of the session was more of an introduction to Prashant’s book, Battles of the New Republic, to the non-Nepali audience members. Prashant stated one of his central views – how the Republic wouldn’t have been possible if there had been no war, even though the loss of lives, forced disappearances and mass displacement were unfortunate side effects. He also discussed the strategies of the Maoist leaders and the mistakes Prachanda made during his time as Prime Minister.

He then noted that the Nepali people have never really had a chance to write their own constitution. “It may take time, but it will be written,” he said, to which Pushpesh Pant added, “Democracy is not synonymous with efficiency.” “Nepal is deeply polarized,” continued Prashant, “and it’s very difficult to predict the political cycle in South Asia. There are problems within the Maoist factions too.”

Prashant also mentioned how Modi’s visit to Nepal had been very successful, and that his clear validation of the country’s sovereignty had lessened Nepali insecurities. “But this idea of partial sovereignty is something I have devoted a chapter to in my book,” he continued. “The question of how India uses its political capital will always be there. Constructive Indian facilitation in Nepali politics would be useful.”

The Jaipur Literature Festival took place during the week in which Nepal’s Constituent Assembly missed yet another deadline to come up with a draft of the constitution. Hopes were dashed, anger generated; social media streamed photos of protests and bandhs in Nepal. How to shape federalism in Nepal remains among the major issues blocking the constitution-writing process. But it’s important to remember that some things take time. As Bettany Hughes noted in the earlier session, we are still debating these central questions – How to live the good life? What matters? What makes us happy?

After Prashant’s session, I stood up and walked towards the exit. I needed to remove myself from the crowd, from this field of charged energy. A certain kind of search has always been a part of our human narratives, I mused. Our ancestors spent most of their time searching for food and shelter. These days, space explorers search for distant stars and life elsewhere in the universe. In my mind, I was already searching for words to wrap up the festival blog. More mundane searches, too – a bus out of Jaipur and a room in Jodhpur.




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