Update: This story has been edited to include a comment from Aatish Taseer..
It’s not even winter yet but the 2016 edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) has already produced a whiff of literary scandal.
A purported email exchange between JLF co-organiser William Dalrymple and writer Aatish Taseer is doing the rounds in the inboxes of Delhi’s literarily inclined, which is to say a lot of people. Taseer has refused an invitation to the JLF because Dalrymple hasn’t taken note of Taseer’s latest novel, 'The Way Things Were', which has just been released in the United States.
In an email to Taseer on 12 July, Dalrymple invited him to be a part of a panel on Partition literature in the next JLF. Dalrymple said he was offering Taseer his “rightful place on a series of Partition/Manto panels” along with others who have published scholarly works on the Partition.
“I thought you'd be excellent, and I'd welcome your distinctive take on a subject you know well,” Dalrymple wrote. This wasn’t a simple invitation, because there is a bit of history between the two--Taseer has been openly vicious against Dalrymple in the past.
In a “fiction self-interview,” in 2011, Taseer had interviewed himself. Without naming Dalrymple, Taseer had written: "I saw him at one of his book launches, a grotesque figure, a man become obese on the affections of Indians! He lay on a stage, this great whale of a man, dressed in a mirrorwork kaftan, if you please, his dirty feet hanging off. And all about him, like little pixies, Baul singers skittered around…”
Dalrymple referred to the animosity between the two, saying, “There is no plot, and I am playing no game. I genuinely hold you no grudge, though I readily admit I am bored of this pointless feud and welcome the opportunity to hold out an olive branch. Anyway the offer stands, and as with all our guests, we would be very happy to programme you in a variety of panels, including opportunities to discuss your acclaimed novels. I would be delighted if you would accept this offer in the reconciliatory spirit it was intended. It may well be that we are not destined to be friends, even if we share many friends and interests in common, but I really don't see that either of us gain anything by continuing these pointless hostilities. So please: do come to Jaipur, and while we're about it, how about we bury the hatchet?”
Taseer replied within a few hours, “Willy, even you must know that you don’t write to a writer in the week that he has published his most important work yet, and not so much as mention it. Manto?! What is Manto compared with what I have achieved in the 'The Way Things Were'? Do you really believe I don't know the worth of my own work?”
Dalrymple's email did say that the invite would offer him the opportunity to discuss his novels, but Taseer seems to have been miffed that Dalrymple hasn't yet written a glowing review of the new novel.
Taseer then gave him links to reviews of the new novel in the Western press, saying that they go “part of the way in capturing my own high opinion of what I have done in 'The Way Things Were'.” At least one can’t fault him for lacking self-awareness there.
Taseer ends his angry email by telling Dalrymple how he might consider accepting the invitation: “Let me make this simple for you: go away and read my book. Then sit down and put in words your own admiration of it. After that I will gladly take seriously your invitation.”
Taseer said (in comments offered subsequent to the publication of the original version of this story) his words in the leaked exchange were prone to misunderstanding. "Both Willy and I have decided not to speak about a leaked communication. I will say, however, that when I say “Manto”, it is my translation to which I’m referring —“Manto: Selected Stories”—not the writer whom I adore. It was a shorthand William Dalrymple would understand since he began our communication with a reference to my translation, which I did when I was 27. This is why private communications should not be leaked out of context."
People in the publishing and literary circles have been forwarding the email exchange to each other for some days now, giggling over Taseer's pomposity. It is unclear how the email leaked, although don’t let that detain you from making informed guesses.