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AC Grayling’s talk on God at the Mumbai International Literary Festival

ALMOST A DECADE ago, a group of prominent citizens of Mumbai came to me and said, “Isn’t a literary festival in Mumbai a good idea?” Of course, I said, it’s something that must happen. I wasn’t prepared for the next question: “Will you set it up, and run it?” I rashly said ‘yes’.

‘Rashly’, not because I have any regrets, but because I had no idea it would take over my life: I would miss deadlines ( I missed Open’s a fortnight ago), books I had planned to write would remain in the planning stage (where was the time to write them?), I would wake up at 3 in the morning to send emails that couldn’t wait (or so it seemed at 3 in the morning).

Now the eighth edition of Mumbai’s International Literary Festival is over, and everyone has called it a huge success: most of its participants (150 of them from 17 countries) and many members of our growing audience seem to agree on that point. In any case, you know you have done something right when the line for passes at a counter opening at 9 am starts forming at 7. Or when queues for each session get hopelessly long, hopeless at least for the incurable optimists at the end of each line who just won’t give up, hoping for a miraculous extension of the auditorium, a sudden explosion of extra seats, or perhaps an unexpected exodus of people already inside. It pleases you that there are so many who want to get in; it upsets you that there are so many who won’t.

The inevitable poser from friends is, “What was the best session in your whole programme?” That’s impossible to answer when there are five sessions running simultaneously, and unless you have developed the ability to clone yourself, you can attend only one at a time. One session that does stay in my mind is AC Grayling’s talk on ‘The God Question’. This, probably, had the longest line, and since Grayling isn’t exactly a household name in India (though he should be), it perhaps had to do with the invisible presence of the other entity in the session.

Grayling, who was professor of philosophy at London University, spoke elegantly, lucidly and logically for an hour without a note or a pause. God obviously had a formidable opponent here. Inevitably, doubts about the existence of God come down to our inability to produce any proof of His existence. For an atheist, the Big Bang which helped form the universe, happened by itself. Alternatively, there’s the possibility that the universe has always existed, and life on earth took off because of the right mix of gases and nutrients and atmosphere.

What do we have in God’s corner? Faith (what people in the impossibly long queue for Grayling had in ample measure). Or as the eminent astronomer Bernard Lowell famously said—I am paraphrasing—“Science can take me back in time very near to Year Zero when the Universe was born. Beyond that, for me, even as a scientist, it can only be a leap of faith.” What else could you muster in God’s support? Rebirth (or reincarnation) would certainly constitute proof that something beyond randomness exists. But have cases of rebirth been scientifically documented? Or suppose you come across an excellent astrologer, who can point out accurately milestones in people’s lives (like the death of a parent, date of marriage, birth of children) which are verifiable because they are in the past, surely that constitutes some kind of evidence that there are things that we cannot know?

Moving beyond God to the next best thing, women, a general criticism of the festival that came up more than once was about the gender gap: why were there so many more male participating writers than female? To that, I would pose a counter question: we have five awards for books in the fiction, non- fiction and management/business categories. Why was only one of the five winners a woman? Entries were sent by publishers from amongst the past year’s books, and the jury had its quota of women, so there was no bias in either submissions or selection. So what happened?

Surely, the question goes beyond literature and a literary festival. It goes into the position of women in our society, a society which for all its spurious claims to modernity, is patriarchal and repressive when it comes to the education and social standing of women. Compare this to the West and you find women writers probably outnumber men. So if we lag behind in our festival numbers, it’s not because of any gender bias, but because women in our society are made to lag behind.

How’s this for a dream sequence? One day while Professor Grayling is pottering around in his garden, there is a roll of thunder and a bolt of lightning. Then God appears to speak directly to the professor. And She says: “Here’s your proof.”

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