Literature's own paradise

Literature's own paradise

Literary Festival

Literature's own paradise

Glimpses: Many faces at the JLF.

“Ah, I finally see the end of the line,” the wonderful Vikram Seth exclaimed, relieved, about 50 minutes after he signed the first book that afternoon at the Jaipur Literary Festival (JLF). Not that Seth is new to being hounded by fans, but these five days might have been particularly harrowing for the acclaimed writer. A gentleman I met was immensely thrilled at having had the honour of accidentally stepping on Vikram Seth’s foot.

The sixth edition of the Jaipur Literary Festival, which concluded on Tuesday, has many successes to take strength from. It brought together over 220 writers of 13 languages from all over the world and combined discussions, readings, and music and dance performances into a grand literary mela quite like no other. But it has to be particularly pleased with itself for its status as literary Woodstock — admission to all its events was free; no public areas were reserved and seating was democratic — many participating authors were seen sitting down in the aisles and standing by the sides, at talks; why, one could run into her favourite author buying books at the festival’s buzzing bookstore! Its proudest achievement, thus, ought to be how it gave every book lover the opportunity and access to squash one’s favourite author’s toes.

Standing beneath the low arches of the 150-year-old Diggi Palace each day, one was confronted with the beautiful agony of having to choose between the festival’s four literary quarters: would one go to the Front Lawns, where Orhan Pamuk spoke passionately about ‘the damning issue of destruction and cultural change’, or to the magnificent Durbar Hall with its painted ceiling and commanding chandelier? You could gallop off to the royal stables, the Mughal tent, where Javed Akhtar held a blue tent full of people in thrall. Or sit down in the baithak of bright yellow curtains and listen to the latest in Hindi blogging.

The subject of language itself was of much interest at the festival. Sheldon Pollock, the Sanskrit scholar, in his keynote address said the rush to claim classical status for languages resembled “scrambling for deck chairs on the Titanic (for) no one is reading these classical languages!” Pamuk said a lot of writing is “marginalised because the writing isn’t in English.” A packed house witnessed a charged discussion on the topic of non-Western writers writing in English. To Rana Dasgupta’s claims that the world was globalised, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie shot back: “Wait till we live in a world where we can move labour as easily as we move capital. Then we can talk about globalisation”.

“Chinua Achebe is often regarded as the father of African literature,” said the popular Nigerian author at a session on her latest book Half of A Yellow Sun, “Which makes me curious. Who is the mother?” Adichie is among the band of contemporary writers who enjoyed much attention at the festival. Like her, Pulitzer prize winning Dominican novelist Junot Diaz, with his radical ideas, was a crowd favourite. His books sold out at the festival bookstore minutes after his talks. Diaz took part in a lively debate on the Crisis of American Fiction with literary heavyweights such as Martin Amis, Richard Ford and Jay McInerney. Was the novel dead? Diaz said, “It’s not the novel’s fault that we are given less contemplative time.” The discussion, however, ended with Amis assuring everyone that the lament that ‘the novel is dead’ was as old as the novel itself.

Journalism was another prominent flavour at the festival this year — The New Yorker’s John Lee Anderson and journalist-politician Rory Stewart being highlights. Many murmurs were heard as to what so many political topics were doing at a literature festival — Kashmir, Freedom of Information, the future of Pakistan. Is the JLF slowly turning political? Or maybe, political ideology and literature are inseparable in what Tarun Tejpal reminded was a place for ‘the life of the mind’.

Quiz William Dalrymple, eminent historian and festival director, on his favourite feature this year and he points at fellow director Namita Gokhale’s session on Bulleh Shah. “We’ve struggled in the past to make sessions in other languages as popular as the rest.

This one was academic, a mix of poetry, translation and music. Another thing I really enjoyed was the music.” He says of the concerts in the evening, “I’d say enough, and forget for a while about the people stranded in train stations and without visas, put my Blackberry in my pocket and enjoy the evening.” The evenings were dedicated to diverse musical acts when literary journalists, publishers and the general public milled about nursing drinks of choice and listened to the likes of Salman Ahmed, Susheela Raman, Cheb I Sabaah and traditional Rajastani acts like the marvelous dalit singer Bant Singh.

At first look, JLF was literature’s own paradise — celebrating both the cerebral and the fun aspects of literature — inviting two Nobel laureates and, at the same time, The Sex and The City’s Candace Bushnell. But then came the weekend, and with it “the influx of Delhi’s glitterati” as also Jaipur’s own citizenry with family in tow. Consequently — to use a terrible phrase — all hell broke loose. The venues overflowed, the pathways were cramped and the evenings became stuffy. Work commenced on several obituaries of the JLF.

“The festival was alarmingly well attended during the weekend,” agrees Dalrymple with half a laugh. He admits that plans such as expanding to an extra five acres inside the palace and setting up an entry fee for weekends have been considered. Sanjoy Roy, whose Teamwork Productions manages JLF, wearily explains that they were warned about numbers right from the initial years when there were only 7,000 attendees. An estimated 60,000 people attended the festival this year and Roy sees no reason why the festival should lose its ‘warmth’ in the following editions. “Any festival which grows will have that charge — Glastonbury, Woodstock… as you grow successful, you grow bigger.

What you lose on intimacy, you gain on buzz, scale, quality and excitement,” explains Dalrymple.

The JLF has been at the receiving end of a litany of criticisms this year — an article in a leading magazine went so far as to label Dalrymple the ‘pompous arbiter of literary merit in India’. Much noise was made about the over-capacity crowd. But, in their defense, to write off an idea that allows you and me to listen to a legend such as J M Coetzee (who Patrick French credited with the extraordinary feat of keeping a large Indian audience bound in complete silence for 45 minutes) read from his work is the best thing that happened to the Indian literary scene and deserves better than to be listlessly written off.

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