Didem Doğan

Tat Tvam Asi: ‘I am you, you are me’, a rooted philosophy

Ubud Writers and Readers Festival is the leading literary festival of South East Asia. The 13th of the festival was held in October 2016, with a diverse mix of Indonesian and international writers, readers, editors, bloggers, activists and during four days people from around the world exchanged ideas, participated in seminars, watched movies, read poems. This year’s theme was ‘Tat Tvam Asi’, ‘I am you, you are me’, a rooted philosophy with its origins back in Upanishads wrote in Sanskrit more than ten thousand years ago. ‘Tat Tvam Asi’ is quoted in one of them, in Chandogya Upanishad, and means ‘You are that’, which could be translated as ‘You are that which is the ultimate reality, ultimate consciousness’. Its universal and deep meaning suits Indonesia’s multi cultural society and opens the door its various colours through this sincere gathering of literature lovers.


Some notes from the seminars. It was a pleasure to discover two great writers in this festival, one of them the Indian writer Amid Chaudhuri, the other Juan Pablo Villalobos, the Mexican writer. They are both internationally acknowledged writers, with books translated to many languages and well known literary awards. The Indian writers have a more academic stand which makes them seem more sophisticated and abstract, listening to Chaudhuri is a joy. One of them opens up with questions like ‘Why do we tell stories’, ‘Imagining India’, ‘Where’s home?’. When Indian writers are discussing what is meant to be Indian, he says his aim is to ‘insert what is meant to be Indian into what is meant to be human’. The Indian writers when talking about ‘what is home’, say ‘finding home in other places and finding in other places home’, one other says ‘Home is the place where you forget the world is on fire.’

Another seminar aiming to discuss the heritage of Cervantes hosts Villalobos. Juan Pablo Villalobos, born in Guadalara, Mexican writer whose books are translated to 15 languages: Down the Rabbit Hall, Quesadillas, I’ll sell you a dog and the next one to be published soon. For me it was the gem of this festival, I listened him in two sessions, one in ‘the language of Cervantes’ where he told us how Cervantes’ heritage influenced him, the other ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ where we learnt more about his writing process. He’s from a town in Guadalajara, moves to Barcelona to make a PHD in literature and started to write about Mexico after ten years away from home country. He says in each of his books he’s actually looking for a sound, this sound is the sound of a child in his first book, the sound of an angry adolescent in his second book, and the sound of an old man in his third book. The sound embodies the sound in his head, apparently. When it comes to Cervantes and Don Quijote, his humour might be influenced from the humour in the dialogues between Sancho Pancho and his master. He too has a bitter argument similar to Cervantes, when he says at the end it’s not the literature but the reality that always wins.

The festival hosted not only writers but also readers, bloggers, editors. The subject always ends up in social media, how it kills the moment, how it creates artificial bubbles. And how much we may criticize it, it’s the place of the current game and today many travel writers are competing with only a screen. But once upon a time, it was not like that. We listen to Lonely Planet’s founder Tony Wheeler in one of the sessions. He belongs to an epoch where travellers truly in search of ‘discovering’ some thing before they were first eager to share it on social media. I see the expression on his face when he hears the word SEO, search engine optimisation, he definitely did not think how many people read or shared his notes when he was traveling South East Asia in his youth which led to travel series that created the most well known guidebooks. Is it possible not to envy him.

And lastly it gets fun as it gets dark, here is a different experience for me. This is the first time I watch a Poetry Slam. 15 candidates are on stage one after other and they read their poems on Festival’s theme ‘Tat Tvam Asi’, ‘I am you, you are me’. A Muslim hiphop band from Australia, an Indonesian Buddhist, a gay, white Australians… Some of them talk about love, some other on immigrants, some other on social injustice, each one has three minutes, the poems are all touching. As the audience gets excited, the winner is announced and comes back to stage to reread her poem.