In many ways the story of the Jaipur Literature Festival is the story of India’s contemporary literary scenario. What started as a tiny offshoot of a larger festival five years ago with more ambition than plan, is now bursting at its seams immortalised by the incisive Tina Brown as “the greatest literary show on earth.” Our literary culture goes back further in time than the history of many other civilisations but over the past few years it has made its presence redoubtable by notching up international victories that set the standards in an increasingly small globalised world order.
Hari Kunzru and Vikram Chandra, hardly old enough to pass on to another generation, have both gasped about the new celebrity status of writers. It is this rapid transformation that makes bewilderment the centrepiece of this great show. More than 30,000 people are in attendance but the book sales (growing by 5 percent annually according to some figures), are still not comparable to the fortified western markets.
The festival directors, William Dalrymple and Namita Gokhale divide responsibilities to draw as large a canvas as possible, roping in the biggest names in English literature from home, Diaspora and abroad complemented by a selection of Indian regional language writers. But the stress on Anglo-American representation and the easy glamour of Indian writers in English takes up more space than independent publishing and regional literature can comfortably spare. While some of what is recited in Indian languages is translated for the benefit of a largely English speaking audience, no such courtesy is made for those who might not be fluent in English. Evidently, Indian literature like India now, is firmly the domain of the English-speaking middle class whose conscience will determine the fate of what cannot fit in. And that conscience is presently eager to revel in new found glory.
The Delhi-weekend-getaway veneer of the fest might make writers look like mere performers for the social set every once in a while, but there is hope that the glitter will herald the substance and sales. Nothing before has been able to draw so much attention to books and this attention, however misplaced cannot be bad for the future of publishing. The festival stands proud, unapologetic amidst its critics, as producer Sanjoy Roy in the concluding ceremony likens it to the great Indian wedding tamasha and the publicity material brandishes Brown’s quote, perhaps not entirely unaware of the ironical ambiguity of the phrase ‘literary show’.
Engaging with hard facts
Besides the stellar line up of authors, the most notable thing about this year’s fest was its sheer contemporaneity. While fiction trumps non-fiction in terms of visibility on the subcontinental showcase, the festival engaged extensively with hard facts. Tibet, Kashmir, Jihad, Gulags, censorship, foreign policy, South Asian conflicts, gender issues, state oppression and the financial meltdown were contemplated by the best names in business — Steve Coll, Max Rodenbeck, Lawrence Wright, Niall Fergusson, John Kampfner, Anne Applebaum, Tenzin Tsundue and Asma Jehangir to name a few.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s wildcard guarded entry despite the Fatwa created a fitting stir to fire up the political crosscurrents streaming through. Dalit Literature as the chosen theme for this year’s regional participation saw a conglomeration of writers from across the country discuss and share their work and thoughts in an inimitably wrenching language of the heart. The future of the written word and the role of the Internet in the times of e-readers generated much excitement. The craft of fiction, biography, diaries, travelogue, poetry and the elusive lines between them came up in novel ways. But it was the art of writing that remained at the heart of it all, threading the myriad pleasures of this enterprise.
The attendees included a large number of uniformed school students, local enthusiasts, literary groupies who snubbed Bollywood stars to mob poets, hustling aspiring writers, wired journalists, lounging models, gratified foreign tourists, preening fashion designers, dapper entrepreneurs and eclectic merry makers who were happy to confess they had not really heard of Wole Soyinka, this year’s biggest name on the program. As the PR machinery went into overdrive, a hapless volunteer called Soyinka Woyinka and another walked upto Arvind Krishna Mehrotra to ask him if he was Roddy Doyle, despite a journalist friend’s best efforts to persuade her otherwise.
At the end of the five-day extravaganza, inspiration competes with these stories as the fest’s lasting contribution to memory, spawned by the famously egalitarian nature of its organisation. As if it were not exhilarating enough to see in person the heroes of our literary fantasies, one is also crammed in with them sharing tables, washrooms, buffet stalls and venue seats. To be at the JLF is to be part of an unparalleled sensory energy that is likely to prevail over critical faculties.
The Diggi Palace frames its lush lawns — peacocks, squirrels and parrots darting over generous trees aglow with fairy lights or casting obscure shadows on tent walls otherwise cosy with lamps and chiffons in various shades of happiness. Bars that stay open all day, mostly serving free alcohol contribute liberally to promote the illusion of a literary wonderland, wholly outside of the real world, where everybody talks and buys books all day and listens to music nestling with giants until the wee hours of the night.
It is hard not to warm up to the experience that makes writing and reading less lonely preoccupations and allows you to come away with conversations you will dine out on for a lifetime — conversations in which a group of us girls accosted a very amused A K Mehrotra to have a drink with us, Dalit novelist Desraj Kali, in a curious mix of Hindi and Punjabi regaled us with his love story afterhours, gossip was exchanged like free love and literary crushes on everyone from a young Ali Sethi rendering Faiz to the mystical, slightly-smiling Roberto Calasso were nurtured under falling leaves.
But for all the organisers’ efforts, hierarchies found their way in. Western authors stuck to themselves mingling only with Indian authors who live abroad and the more affluent writers camped at the high-priced restaurant on the premises leaving regional authors and journalists with little scope to interact with the metro or foreign cliques.
A number of debates were frustrated by the limitation of time and space, both on and off stage or inappropriate moderation. Last minute changes in sessions and panelists added to the attendees’ fatigue, already peaking with the inexorable crowd and overwhelming variety of available intellectual stimulus.
But it was in this upheaval that the festival found its measure as truly Indian. We know no other way to live except in happy confusion. For centuries we have made festivals out of chaos. And for book lovers, the yearly rituals of this one are becoming significant for the sense of community and belonging they enable.