11.05.11

Just Think

The first Tehelka Think Festival in India kicked off today with panels on everything from nanotechnology to satire. Lucas Wittmann reports from the hottest gathering in the country.

The day began with the future and ended with laughs. No sooner had the first annual Tehelka Think festival launched when the conversation turned to nanotechnology. Justin Hall Tipping, a TED regular and CEO of Nanoholdings, jumped to the stage and brandished promises of how nanotechnology can turn coal byproducts into cement and graphite into a conductive material 1,000 times more efficient than copper. From there, it was a sharp turn to the politics of resisting terrorism from both sides—Shehrbano Taseer, the daughter of slain Pakistan minister Salman Taseer, said she made the choice not to be cowed by the terrorists, while artist Hasan Elahi shared his immensely amusing and subversive response to the FBI’s unwarranted investigation of him—when he decided to perform surveillance on himself. In a single hour, the audience could immediately see that they were in for wide range of topics.

The Think Festival is similar to the Aspen Ideas Festival, but there are tropical temperatures and the Indian Ocean glittering invitingly nearby instead of ski slopes. Launched by Tehelka (Newsweek/Daily Beast is a partner in the festival), India’s leading and groundbreaking investigative magazine, the festival is a heady mix of political activists, the new Indian elite, famous politicians (the head of the BJP Party, Twitterer Shashi Tharoor), and global thinkers (Frank Gehry, Tom Friedman). Organized and largely hosted by Tehelka editors Tarun Tejpal and Shoma Chaudhury, the groundbreaking festival is the first of its kind for India. For the next three days, about 1,000 Indians—and a few Westerners—are gathered at a lush seaside resort.

“We failed Steve Jobs.”
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Watch New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman discuss his experience at the festival.

The festival had panels on everything from Israel and Pakistan to the usually controversial V.S. Naipaul—but the biggest headline so far came from Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of cancer, who in conversation with TV journalist Barkha Dutt said, “We failed Steve Jobs.” Jobs, who died last month, had undergone an unorthodox treatment for his cancer that could have harmed him. By the next morning, that quote was scrolling across Indian TV screens, along with this expansion of Mukherjee’s point: “Here is a man who gave us life altering technologies and the question you need to ask is if we gave him life altering technologies back. And we did not.”

From there, the festival continued in a swirl of intelligent discussion and bawdy humor, with one of the country’s stand-up comedy stars, Papa CJ, who demonstrated that in India no topic is sacred. In another panel, sex and censorship’s effect on arts was tackled by leading indie filmmakers Anurag Kashyap, Prakash Jha, and Kaushik Mukherjee , who rejected the idea that they could be limited by these factors. For example, Mukherjee’s explicit film Gandu is not being distributed in the country. In another discussion, activist Aruna Roy challenged participants to think critically and seriously about what kind of country they want. With her words ringing in our ears, attention turned to the avuncular ramblings of V.S. Naipaul, normally a punchy, irascible figure, but here, he took time for reflection on his long career—and his non-fiction chronicles of India. His books once made him infamous for the sharply-penned portraits of India over the last 50 years, but now they are hailed as ahead of their time. In another discussion, another writer very much ahead of his time, Mohammed Hanif, the Pakistani novelist who wrote the hilarious satirical must-read, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, discussed how Pakistan lends itself to black humor—similar to how the way the Soviet bloc used to.

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Afghanistan politician Shukria Barakzai discusses the struggle for women's rights at the festival.

And after all that it was time for dancing and drinks and finally a pause from all the thinking. Until tomorrow, that is.