On the morning after Afzal Guru was hanged following the conviction for the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001, I wondered about the number of young men and women who have turned militant in the war-torn areas of India simply due to the accident of birth and circumstance. I’m left pondering the odd juxtapositions of the names contained within the full name “Mohammed Afzal Guru.”
The words “Mohammed” and “guru” refer to a personal religious teacher and spiritual guide in Islam and Hinduism, respectively. “Afzal,” in Urdu, means “superior.” The word “guru,” whose origin is Sanskrit, refers to a teacher who is an intellectual guide.
I wondered about the life of this young man. How much of it was owing to a nonexistent guru, one who may have offered the promise of love and hope in a land teeming with fly-by-night gurus brandishing their own scepters of faith? How much of his destiny was due to geography?
For three and a half months, I’ve watched tumult in the country of my birth. A horrific gang rape in the capital city was followed by several others in many parts of the country and roused many to action. I’ve been privy to two capital punishment deaths during this long stay—of Ajmal Kasab in November in Bombay and of Afzal Guru in February in Delhi—both of which occurred with little prior warning and minimal fanfare and generated much national debate. Both these state-sponsored deaths are believed to be vote stunts by the ruling party. All three events sparked international uproar and the people of India, instigated by the media and civic organizations, have begun to ask questions. They have realized that there simply isn’t a man or woman around to shine the light and lead the way in desperate times. The new skepticism and feistiness in India gives me hope, even though the continued tendency to want to build a halo around people’s heads makes me cringe. I was blinded by the halos floating over writers’ heads in Jaipur.
I arrived in Jaipur hoping to meet, casually, some of the men and women whom I considered my gurus in thought and the craft of writing. But when I arrived at Diggi Palace I realized that many of them had isolated themselves—by choice or by the weight of their halos. These writers and panelists, mega celebrities for the time that they were in Jaipur, assumed a Vishwaroopam that India thrusts on anyone who gains a modicum of success in a given field.
Like the Dalai Lama, most of the writers and panelists moved with an entourage of security staff, a core group of organizers and a trail of journalists hanging on to their tail. The stampede inside the Tata Steel Front Lawns at Diggi Palace on two different days—on the days that Dalai Lama and Shabana Azmi addressed the crowds—made the JLF feel like the Kumbh Mela in Prayag where Shiva, Ganesha and Karthikeya had decided to crash the party.
Shabana Azmi was brilliant during her panel on Sex and Sensibility but several journalists felt that she treated them as if they were pariahs. She signed the autographs of a relentless few in the audience with glum disinterest, as if she were folding laundry in an apartment in the Bronx on a gloomy Nemo kind of day. Gurcharan Das, a man whose writings I revere, was so busy he didn’t have time to mingle. If he or others talked to people at all, it was merely for a few seconds when they autographed the book a reader had bought and wanted signed. Pavan Varma, another writer whose works I admire, wasn’t so admirable when he showed his acerbic, patronizing face to several panelists during two sessions.
I didn’t attend Gayathri Spivak’s famously soporific lecture now immortalized by J.D. Daniels in The Paris Review but I was at the panel titled “Gandhi vs Gandhi” led by Faisal Devji with Richard Sorabji, Ananya Vajpeyi and Charles Di Salvo. While Sorabji, Vajpeyi and Devji drove front-benchers away with language that shimmered with arcane profundity, Di Salvo salvaged the situation: he summarized, in plain language, the experiences in Mahatma Gandhi’s life as a lawyer in South Africa that helped him integrate his professional life, his politics, his morality and his spirituality so “they were all one” by the time he returned to India to incite India towards independence.
Unfortunately, the very gurus I was interested in meeting in person at Jaipur were the people I was disenchanted with after I heard them speak. When there was a talk about craft and process in the panel called “The Art of Biography,” the moderator Wade Davis—who spoke for eleven elastic minutes before he asked his first question—was so bloated I worried he might float away like Aunt Marge in “The Prisoner of Azkaban” even as Pico Iyer, a pint-sized man who occupied a quarter of a chair on the Jaipur stage, grew larger in stature. But even Iyer rubbed emery cloth on me on the first day of the JLF: at the end of his discussion with Akash Kapur he announced that he was sorry he had no time to talk to any of his friends after the session because he had a very busy afternoon ahead of him.
Last October at The New Yorker Festival I remember how author Martin Amis descended from a swanky sedan in Manhattan. Heads turned. A curious chatter rippled through the line as people discussed the man and his thirteen books. But that was it. Jaipur, on the other hand, hammered halos around the heads of writing gurus.
Where, I wondered, could I find a guru, minus his halo and his agenda, who might sit with me at breakfast and tell me how I must be the best I can be? I thought, then, of that impressionable young man in the nineties who, like me, was disillusioned and struggled to find a guide. Afzal Guru had finished his first year of medical school when he was encouraged to drop out and join a militant group for the liberation of Kashmir. A fork in the road led him to the gallows down the road.