<%-- Page Title--%> Interview <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 141 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

February 13, 2004

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The Messenger of Peace
An Interview with the Indian writer Ajeet Cour

Mustafa Zaman

Ajeet Cour, known to Bangla readers for her novel “Gipsy Nodeer Dhara”, is a writer who turned to activism. Her activism centres around the proliferation of fraternity and peace among the neighbours. These neighbours, who have an identity that still needs to be examined in cultural terms and nurtured on both state-level and on the level of the writers and activists. SAARC presents possibilities. It is these possibilities that Cour strives to exploit to reach a common and greater goal. SWM talks to her about the Foundation of SAAc Writers and Literature that she heads as its president and other relevant issues.

SWM: How did the foundation came into being, when did it take off?

Ajeet Cour (AC): For the last 28 years I have been running this cultural institution called Academy of Fine Arts and Literature. It was founded in 1975, and got registered in 1977. The first ever Indo-Pakistan writers' conference under this banner was held 1986. This was a time when India was not willing to issue a visa to any Pakistani writer. A businessman could cross the boarder without much hassle, but writers had to face difficulties. And there was this one particular event when a women poet who took political asylum in India, during Zia-Ul-Haq's regime. Her husband was a small-time leader of the MQM?. She was given a house, awarded a lectureship at Jamia Milia University in Delhi; her case was an exception. Normally writers were not even allowed in. So I decided to fight this. Most important thing is that we are placed in such a geographical position that till Qiamat we are a geographical reality. We have to be neighbours, so I resorted to writing letters, lots of them to pester the authorities not to insult writers by not issuing visas.

SWM: When was this?

AC: This was 1986. Before this I started out with children. I started with getting the girls from the slum areas of my daughter's age group16,18... I lost her in an accident in 1974. I started to educate them, this work still continues. Back then we used to put up tents in the slum areas to address their problems. I taught them Bharat Natyam, Kathak, and music, and also sculpture, pottery, painting.

SWM: How did you get this far?

AC: The Indo-Pakistan writers' conference 1986 was very successful. There were Urdu writers whom people in India had never seen, they came from all over Pakistan, even from Hydrabad. The three day long meeting facilitated talks with these writers, who stayed on for the next seven days. All the time it was like a get together of a huge family. That gave me an idea that probably such sane voices -- voices of sanity, goodwill and non-animosity -- people who really want peace, would be able to make a difference. Now the money that belong to the people is lying locked in Swiss accounts. They are being able to do this as they feed on a war like situation, money can be made in a war like situation. So, everybody in power wants things to keep boiling. But all sane people -- particularly writers and scholars -- want peace because they are people's people.

SWM: As for the people, how do you plan to sway them in your favour? The politicians know how to sway the people, they are masters of this craft…

AC: My latest venture -- the success of SAARC summit -- is a proof of what we can achieve if we stick together. When the SAARC summit was announced, first of all our then Prime Minister said, we won't go. Then he said, If at all I go, I will not talk to anybody, as the SAARC constitution there is no provision of getting a resolution on bilateral disputes. And now President Mossharraf is giving one statement one day and the other the next day...this was the situation in which I went to Pakistan with ten Indian writers.

SWM: When was this?

AC: It was on October 17, 2003, before the SAARC summit. At the border there was about two thousand people to receive us. It was for the first time that an Indian writers' delegation had come to Pakistan.

SWM: What happened in between? The first conference you orgaised was in 1986…

AC: In 16 years nobody has come... in 2003 it ignited a lot of interest. Flowers were being showered; we were talking, rejoicing... it was something to be seen to believe. And even the immigration people were so excited that they forgot to stamp our passports. It was such an ambiance. Later when we were relaxing in the hotel, our passports were taken and brought back after being stamped.

SWM: What happened in 2003 visit?

AC: The sort of media coverage we received was unbelievable, I think it can only happen in this part of the globe. There was television interview, forty minute long interview. It created a positive impact...you have to just think a thought that is… what they call is the synergy. If you think positively, things starts to change. And in the end I felt that whatever happened at the SAARC summit, we had a little part in it.

SWM: Tell us about your activity regarding writers.

AC: Since mid 2000, I have been collecting writers from the SAARC region. Every time we meet it is in a different country. In Dhaka we came in to attend such a meeting in March 2001. We had a large conference here. We have given the highest SAARC literary award to Shamsur Rahman that year.

SWM: Shamsur Rahman is an already established giant of Bangla literature, what is the object of conferring him such an award?

AC: It was a life time achievement award. After this, in 2001, we gave four awards to younger writers.

SWM: How do you choose these writers?

AC: We have committees in all the countries, then of course we use our own brain. I am well aware of the fact that the writers are not saints. As in politics, in the literary world too there are factions with allegiance to certain political gurus. If one gets the award the guru becomes annoyed, there is big dadagiri here also. So we have to use our own brain.

SWM: Is it really possible to be able find the really talented emerging writers?

AC: Yes. I will give you an example. We gave an award to a writer who had written only one book. And he is from a community of a nomadic tribe of Maharastra. He was the only person from his tribe to have received education. He writes in Marathi. The senior Marathi writers were very aggrieved. And another example is a women, who is a Brahmin. She was not really very educated. Born and brought up in village, she got married to a doctor. She gave birth to three daughters, who grew up to be doctors. So this women had no place in their lives. She was living with them of course, but at age 48 she went back to her village. Where she recorded the lives of the people, a tribe who were branded by the British as a criminal tribe after the 1867 mutiny, the first war of liberation against the British. They were not to enter the villages; they lived in shacks on the outskirts. She wrote on this literally barbed-wired community and we awarded her.

SWM: How do you plan to address the problem of language barrier? We have too many languages in this region. As the region was a British colony, we are more familiar with that strand of knowledge. How do you think that this problem should be addressed?

AC: That is a pity, but may be it is also a blessing in disguise. Through English we communicate. To the writers from different languages we ask to have their works translated into English.

SWM: You think that the answer lies in English translation? Isn't it a fact that you lose a lot in translation?

AC: There are people who are equally familiar with two or three of the regional languages as with the mother tongue. The ideal thing is to get them to translate from one language to the other. That is still a dream. It needs consensus among all the people of this region, and governments should be willing to give large scholarships to make this possible. Transcreating is what we must emphasise, as translation is not enough.

SWM: With English and Hindi as dominant languages of this region how do you think it is possible for young writers to emerge while writing in a less-known language. Take for example the Bangalis are lagging behind in getting recognition.

AC: Writers have to emerge in their own languages. I am a writer, I write in Panjabi, which is my mother tongue. The writers will have to write in their mother tongue.

SWM: Readership is sinking with Bangla literature, how to tackle this? English readers are increasing gradually...

AC: No, I believe that readers will read any good stuff.

SWM: Electronic media is playing a role...

AC: Electronic media is a shame... when serials started, they started with literary pieces. Like we have Monoj Shyam Joshi here with us, who wrote the first serial of India. It was written in simple Hindi, so that everybody could follow. If you want really to reach people you will have to write in simple language. the deepest of emotion can be told in simple language.

SWM: Lets talk about the foundation... after nine conferences what do thing you have achieved?

AC: Now, what I have achieved can also be summed up in an small incident. When we were Pakistan, one TV anchor named Hamid Mir, who interviewed Osama Bin Laden, he is the Tim Sebastian of Pakistan, he asked me to sit for an interview. I said you don't know show to smile and I don't talk to people who cannot smile. He said I will how you my smile... I had to give 40 minute long interview. So I decided to tag along one Indian writer with me and asked him pick any two Pakistani writers. I have created so much goodwill among writers of all the countries. When during the interview Mir brought up the issue of Kashmir and the Pakistani writer whom I call Munno Bhai, told, “look she is a writer and and Kashmir is not a cake she can offer you”, then he said, “Arey Bhai if we would have made our part of Kashmir into a heaven we had some moral authority to talk about the other part of Kashmir”. This only a writer can do. This is my achievement. To create a writers community who can think positively.

We were to go to Maldives, and we were told by the government there are no writers in Maldives, I said leave it to me, I will find the writers. Same thing happened with Bhutan. We were told there are only Lamas... I said if the grass can grow, if there are trees, there are writers. There are ten writers who are part of the family now.

SWM: As far as the governments are concerned do you believe that they will go along with the agendas you have set?

AC: I am not asking for any money from the governments, my daughter Arpana Caur is a very famous artist in India, I spend all her money,

SWM: If the governments of this region is unwilling, if they don't lift a finger to bring about a real change how do think you with your organisation

AC: Nothing happens in one day. Even if I cannot do something substantial. One has to start it at some point…

SWM: You tried to turn an agenda that you yourself thought this region needed and tried to take to the transnational level?

AC: It is not my personal agenda, my conscience says that my life will be worthwhile if I did this.

SWM: What about the mass people, they are not even educated.

AC: They will benefit if peace exists. If government money is spent on educational institutes and hospitals, and on creating employment, the general people will benefit most.

SWM: Do you think your message will be taken into consideration by the governments of this region?

AC: We can only hope they borrow some sanity from us.



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