I’ve always been the kind of girl who can transition from Lucretius to Cosmo within the same hour. So when, tired from a day of seminar, I’m confronted with the opportunity to go to a “talk” and take advantage of one of our university’s numerous extracurricular intellectual offerings, my brain automatically places high stakes on the event.
Which is why I was disappointed when the promising “Book Talk: Contemporary Indian Literature” held at the Yale Center for British Art on Wednesday turned out to be not at all what I expected. Conducted in a room within the YCBA’s third-floor exhibition gallery, the talk seemed to promise some allusion to art by mere fact of its location. Sure enough, as audience members distractedly (or perhaps nervously) gazed at Johann Zoffany’s portraits of turbaned, austere men, Associate Dean Mark Schenker, the event’s leader, offered explanation amidst the general air of confusion. He explained that the talk was the second of two in a series devoted to discussing Indian literature and that this was incredibly relevant in the context of the Indian portraits or any time “when a culture is on display through the eyes of another culture.”
But despite this noble purpose, the talk failed to legitimize itself throughout the course of the next 45 minutes. It didn’t really tie “The Hungry Tide,” the book under examination, to the art or seek to explain the cultural exigence behind the paintings, nor did it discuss the problem Schenker raised beyond the simple asking of the question. What I assumed would be a lecture on the novel — written by Amitav Ghosh, an Indian author who is visiting Yale this semester — turned out to be just another meeting of the book club. A minute after I sat down in my uncomfortable backless stool (the venue was far too hip for the comforting inelegance of the folding chair), it dawned on me that the purported talk was not a lecture after all.
“So, who’s read the book?” Schenker candidly asked, catching on pretty quickly to the source of my confusion.
Five middle-aged women raised their hands. The few other students at the talk quickly cleared out, as the bag-check security guard at the front later told me when I was leaving, heartily congratulating me on “lasting the longest.” Once this initial question was on the table, no one seemed quite sure of how to proceed. After a pause that seemed far too long and far too awkward, Schenker asked if anyone who had read the book could offer an opinion, really any opinion. Another five dreadfully slow minutes.
And so it went on. Like adults reentering the seminar room for the first time in years, the conversation slowly picked up speed, but only vaguely. Not having read the book, I was utterly confused, and since unlike an actual seminar I didn’t have a grand theme to hide behind, I relegated myself to silence, watching the minutes on my iPhone clock tick by. As the book club winded down to a close, I felt jipped. After my two-hour afternoon seminar, I wanted to be asleep or exercising or reading, anything other than reenacting a satire of my classes.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure the discussion was informative and interesting for its intended audience — the handful of adults who had read the book. But neither I, nor the other students, understood what we were signing up for, nor did the online description allude to its true nature. In some ways it might be more helpful for people to talk to, not at, each other about these topics, but only if the people involved in the conversation are adequately prepared.
I think that this is indicative of a general trend at Yale towards overly and falsely advertising events in order to present a more constantly engaged culture. But while it might be exciting to log onto any number of websites and see the ten film screenings, five talks and seven panel discussions that are going on every single day, these events might be more popular with actual, currently attending students if we could be guaranteed that they would be substantive and meet the expectations created by their marketing.
That is, the next time a YCBA talk claims to provide Indian cultural insight, I want to know that I will gain more of this knowledge than by watching a Bollywood movie in my bed.