A festival of sorts

A festival of sorts

Literary meet

Another year, another chapter... Sadly, the Jaipur Literature Festival has almost become like a ‘mela’, a ritual one cannot escape, notes Renu agal .

exchange Prasoon Joshi, Javed Akhtar and Gulzar in one of the sessions.

“It is like the Kumbh Mela,” said this writer I met at the Jaipur Literature Festival, “you could leave the old and ill of family and escape just as people do in the Kumbh.” This was said only in jest, but the milling crowds that had assembled here did make it look like a literary Kumbh. However, even amidst this crowd, an absence had been felt. And funnily enough, that became the festival’s most favoured topic.

The absence of Salman Rushdie and the subsequent war of words that had ensued between the government and intellectual community continued till the very end. Will he, won’t he? Who is to blame? — These were only some of the questions that were buzzing in everyone’s minds. Every other session featured talks on artistic freedom, and of voices being thwarted. Hari Kunzru, Jeet Thayil, Amitava Kumar and Ruchir Joshi brought out moth-eaten copies of The Satanic Verses and read it out, much to the chagrin of the festival organisers.

They  might have loved the media frenzy that the absence of Rushdie had brought over, but surely enough, they hated such an act from the writers, one that brought them under some risky spotlight. Soon, the ‘offending’ writers were sent packing. Nevertheless, Rushdie’s ‘tweets’ and the strong police presence reminded one and all of the power of a book, especially one banned by the Ayatollah.

It wasn’t long before the celebrity stature of a major television diva from the US, who had attended the festival as well, shadowed the presence of the one who couldn’t come. Jaipur’s crowd and Delhi’s society were struck by the aura, fame and respect that Oprah brought along. The ‘Big O’ moment even made the prima donna of Indian television look for a job with Winfrey.
There were people who showed much disdain over the hullabaloo created over the presence of a non-literary figure. But this section of the crowd could find much solace from the popularity of a parallel session chaired by Karan Thapar, one that included the likes of Ayesha Jalal and Fatima Bhutto.

Topics such as India-Pakistan and sub-continental politics were lapped up by the audience. Perhaps, the most striking feature of such discussions was the neat googly Fatima Bhutto had posed,demolishing Imran Khan’s tag as the ‘future’ of Pakistan.

The festival found a new hero in Sri Lankan writer, Shehan Karunatilake. His debut novel Chinaman hit a sixer worth 50,000 dollars. The festival also restated its importance through the presence of writers such as Ben Okri, Ranjit Hoskote, Michael Ondatjee, Tom Stoppard and many more. The sheer pleasure of listening to some of the greatest editors of our time, discussing books and journalism, compensated for the mela madness.

One can truly glance upon the brilliance of the pen from wordsmiths like Ben Okri. A magician with words, he is known for saying, “there is no theatre as magical as the theatre of the mind.” And for someone like him, (he barely tolerates such festivals, but accepts that they have become necessary for the sake of publicity and promotion) being seen does not necessarily mean
being read. On the other hand, Mohammed Hanif, the crowd puller from Pakistan and a festival-circuit regular, jokes that he has gotten used to the good life such festivals provide and wonders when he will ever get the time to write!

Shehan Karunatilake is only just finding out how tough it is to be a celebrity writer and talk in front of the microphone. For him, he would rather have the pen do all the talking. However, in the same breath, he acknowledges that it’s festivals like these which provide the exposure and readership that a writer requires.

I left with the feeling that this festival of words might be losing its charm, or forgetting its essential core. It would appear that this event has transformed from being a literary festival into a ‘must-do’ on the social calendar of those people who want to be seen in the right place at the right time, irrespective of whether books figure in their larger scheme of things.

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Perhaps, this is why one finds the festival festooned with a Bollywood touch, involving the likes of the inimitable Gulzar and Prasoon Joshi in sessions that prove to be crowd pullers. There was just a sprinkling of language and literature sessions, just enough to avoid being blamed for straying too far off the path. And, as if to add fuel to the fire, the much promised and eagerly awaited video conference of Rushdie never materialised. His physical and virtual absence only served to remind those present of the danger that ‘freedom’ faces today, especially in the hands of a few bigots and opportunists.

There might be that sinking feeling at the back of a book-lover’s mind that publishers are no longer finding as many new voices as they might have done before, to strike up new deals or draw up fresh contracts. But still, this festival reaffirms one’s faith in the fact that books are not dead. Publishing definitely has a future in this age of communicating within 140 characters.

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