Photo: Ishan Tankha
Photo: Ishan Tankha

THiNK — Tehelka’s annual event in Goa — was born three years ago with a specific ambition. We wanted to create a space that would celebrate the centrality of thought and ideas as the most crucial foundation of a civilised society. We wanted to bring together some of the most brilliant and diverse minds from across the world and revel in the synaptic fireworks their meeting would trigger. We wanted to challenge our audience to think new and fresh; to think like heretics and fantasists. To understand that the fixities we live with can often blind our understanding and narrow our landscapes. We wanted to create a forum that would, in its very essence, remind us that the lines have always been fluid; that the world is constantly reshaping itself. We wanted to build bridges between worlds that never speak to each other; collapse silos that never hear one another. We wanted to kindle both wonder and empathy.

Three years into THiNK, it would be a vanity not to acknowledge that some of its original ambition has found gratifying fruition. In each of its editions, THiNK has brought together the most profoundly disparate group of THiNKers it is possible to find in one place. Astronauts and farmers. Illusionists and rationalists. Virus hunters and historians. Corporates and tribals. Feminists and submissives. And an army of modern druids: scientists and technologists working at the frontiers of our futures, exploring the creation of fusion energy, flying cars, and genetic coding.

This year, with THiNK 2013, the frisson of bringing the accomplished and the fearless together reached a magic new high. Imagine a space where you meet on the same day, three rape survivors and a computer-hacker cum bank robber cum neuroscientist, who is isolating the corners of the brain that make you love and hate. A space where you meet a political activist who spent six months in a torture chamber run by Saddam Hussein; a historian who upturns your understanding of Muslim conversions and temple destruction; a doctor who can make human limbs regenerate themselves like lizards’ tails; and a phalanx of women fighting the oppression of occupation armies in different ways. Imagine a space where you meet both master craftsmen, master directors and Maoist commanders. And an array of interpreters, reading the horizons of technology and nature. Imagine a drinks table that hosts Robert de Niro, Garry Kasparov, Amitabh Bachchan, Ram Jethmalani, VS Naipul, Tina Brown and Shekhar Kapur in animated conversation. Imagine a post-lunch session that has Naseeruddin Shah performing Manto. Imagine a Sunday morning that finds Finance Minister P Chidamabram listening to Medha Patkar. And a Saturday that serves up a dynasty not from politics but paleontology.

But to experience the true potency of THiNK, one has to sample its ideas. To share some of its exhilarations with our readers, therefore, this week’s special issue is centred on THiNK and slivers of conversations that began there.

If Silicon Valley algorithms are dictating our behaviour, what will happen to human will? If we have robbed the sun bank and human desire — predicated on fossil fuels — has become divorced from geological sustainability, is this end of growth as we know it? How can we prepare for an age of energy descent? If 70 percent of India’s surface water is too polluted for use, and its groundwater is sinking by 2-4 meters a year, how can 1.2 billion lives be sustained? How should we be managing the country’s water? Why are thousands of tribals taking to arms? How can music connect rebellions? How can a grandmaster checkmate a dictator? Is critiquing the Internet the same as critiquing the Enlightenment, or is the net the latest tool of the neo-liberal? Why does skin colour count for nothing? Why should George Bush and Tony Blair be tried for war crimes?

One of the triumphs of THiNK is that it always yields the unexpected moment. The first year, Dayamani Barla, a tribal mining activist from Jharkhand, got a thundering ovation. The second year, it was two farmers from the Narmada Valley who mesmerized the audience most. “This hotel has enough lights to light up 300 villages,” one of them said. It cut everyone to the quick.

This year, we had the CIA and the Taliban. Talking of missed opportunities for peace.

Mullah Zaeef started the Afghan Taliban with Mullah Omar. Their brutal reign over Afghanistan is the stuff of contemporary history. Women were caged in their homes, stoned for adultery and banned from public life. Is it possible the Taliban will ever change its medieval values?

Yes, answered the Mullah, to everyone’s surprise. We must; we have to. Women are one half of the universe; we must educate them and give them freedom to choose. Back in 1994, he said, Afghanistan was in turmoil and the Taliban had never been exposed to the world. Now, things had changed. Experience had changed.

Whether the Mullah means what he says or whether it was silken hypocrisy only time will tell. For the moment, just the fact that he felt the pressure to say the correct thing is victory enough.