There’s curiosity, but not enough cheek and dissection, in the recently concluded Jaipur Literature Fest.
The sixth edition of the Jaipur Literature Fest has come and gone. What began in 2007 as an insane twinkle in the eye of its organisers has expanded to become one of the world’s most exciting literary events. Around a lakh of people waded through Diggi Palace this year, sipping on the renowned Diggipuri ki chai and munching pyaz ki kachoris. And, if they were cooped up in the delegates and media tent, bacchanalian amounts of free wine. Over the five days under the literary hippodrome, Homi K Bhabha delivered his cultural sermons, Javed Akhtar opened his scholastic bag of knowledge on ghazals, Howard Jacobson and Zoe Heller squabbled over the idea of a multimedia novel with a history toggle, Sharmila Tagore dipped her perfectly manicured toes in the literary ocean, while artist Anish Kapoor and other marquee names went unexplained by their absence. While the highbrows exchanged notes, writers, publishers and agents found cosy meeting corners on the sidelines. Whether it was the Dalai Lama or Ruchir Sharma, the halls were packed and there was surprisingly similar exaltation. And the twitteratis almost lost their thumbnails while chirping their comments on everything from Dalai Lama’s session to an author sneezing into his khadi kerchief.
Not only did the writers engage in ordinary literary festival activities — reading from their works, discussing their inspirations and answering the inevitable pen-or-pencil-preference question — but were also found wandering around the venue, ordering saffron-laced tea in the Red Sofa Lounge, turning convivial in Authors Lounge and buying signed copies of other authors in the book store, as a pleasantry. As I was told by a garrulous author whom I interviewed, “It’s the highest prestige festival. It’s the one writers want to go to. It’s become a status thing. People get terribly distressed if they don’t get invited to Jaipur.” And those who don’t get invited, point in case Taslima Nasreen tweet: “Never invited. I think it’s for the agreeable, manageable, uncontroversial, unquestionable elite writers #jlf.”
The festival has acquired a sheen of glamour over the years. It is supposed to have made literature sexy and a lot of writers ambled around basking in their five days of rock star status. The new charge has, in fact, even forced toughened soldiers to adapt: seven journalists from rival publications sat side by side to interview Gurucharan Das. But, at the end of the day, they realise that this is India. So when it comes to Bollywood stars — or anyone remotely connected to Bollywood — or a cricket star, the writers are quickly trodden under foot; Sharmila Tagore and the duo of Javed Akhtar and Shabana Azmi being this season’s hot favourites.
Just one day at the fest could have you seesawing. On the one hand you had Delhi aunties and their designer bags waging seat battles. They went everywhere, anywhere they could get a seat — it didn’t seem to matter whether it was two Dalit writers in Tamil or Prasoon Joshi condemning item numbers or even Amish Tripathi. On the other hand, you had enthralling minds like the young archiver Vikram Sampath, who is struggling to make ancient Indian music free and accessible to all via his website; the quietly dazzling Anjan Sunderam who is being hailed as a young Kapuscinski by Pico Iyer; the insuppressibly witty Howard Jacobson; and the thrill of watching Ashis Nandy and Tarun Tejpal expressively disembowel ill-informed moderators and audacious questioners.
This gets us to the “question rounds between the panellists and authors, after the sessions” — the one way in which JLF flattens the differences. If you somehow manage to finagle the mike, you can also join the elitists in drawing the fundamentals of our society. Or, like I did, watch with horror and bemusement as a young girl in cashmere shawl and horn-rimmed intelligent-looking glasses, actually argue that the Amazon Kindle doesn’t smell like a book.
And, of course, the hullabaloo that surrounds a fairly popular lit fest. How is a literature festival complete without press conferences to clarify the ‘controversies’? ‘Republic of Ideas’ was an afternoon session on the third day. It started off like any other.Tarun Tejpal, commented on corruption being ‘a great class-equaliser’. Ashis Nandy endorsed Tejpal’s statement, continuing with his earlier statement saying that, “In India, the most corrupt people are the OBCs, SCs and STs.” That’s when literature fest got right back on to prime time news, blurring the line between erudite panel discussions and masala bolly flicks. What started off as an innocuous discussion on utopia, spiralled into dystopia. The leftists and rightists booed Nandy. Before Nandy had a chance to explain, news anchor, Ashutosh, hooted that it was “a classic case of the elite that perceive the downtrodden as the oppressors”. That comment made, the crowd applauded, tagging Ashutosh as the messiah of the others castes. And Nandy the “callous elite”. Somehow in the resulting confusion, no one seemed to have bothered to comprehend the simple meaning behind Nandy’s speech that when the dalits, tribals and the OBCs are corrupt, they look very corrupt indeed.
Over the last week, mythologisation has taken place in the Indian press over the succession of events. Those journalists, who actually attended the festival, were able to write with closer precision about what happened, but the further away journalists and columnists were from the event, the more twisted their reports became. Tejpal had ended the saying that when the rich enrich themselves, no one notices. But if the poor use corruption as a tool in order to move socially upward, they are targeted. That’s where corruption becomes the great equaliser. “Engage with ideas. Open your mind. Listen to arguments. Not to banalities,” he had said.
Maybe Tarun Tejpal was being utopian in his wishful thinking that literature festivals are a place where the mind is tickled to evoke a thoughtful response and not to incite. How disappointing that, of all the places, it was at a lit fest that a quote was ripped apart and a festival got caricatured beyond all recognition. So here comes the point of reverence. It is no longer the literary equivalent of the Woodstock that JLF was happy to be. It’s just a little more than that. There is that curiosity of course, but still not enough cheek and dissection.
This year was special as one of my favourite writers, Pico Iyer, spoke about another of my favourite writer, Graham Greene. I have always associated them with the unglamorous side of a writer’s life. Ceaseless media-shy literary warriors, monks among the literary cheerleaders and exhibitionists. Eloquent, dignified with a soft, caring voice they may be, but are/were fast talkers too. They reconnect you with the fantastical world of imagination that is the utmost gift of being a child. And that’s what we love about authors: they are refined out of existence, superbly above it all, and provide no answers beyond the ones hidden in one’s books. But now that Pico Iyer has wrecked my heart by appearing in public consistently (I take solace in the fact that he refused interviews and claimed that he hated travel writing), I am running out of models and icons who will not cave in to the stress of the market or the enticement of taking a little dip in the puddle of celebrity-hood.
That is one big reason, if you ask me, why I ended up spending my evenings with dead writers under the orange and white awning of the Penguin store at the fest: Bronte, Dickens, Kafka, Tolstoy, Greene. They can’t come back from the dead to claim their share of the limelight under that neem tree close to the book stall. Far from the infuriating crowds, buried deep into the earth, they are comfy with their solitude and do not suffer from nervous breakdowns if denied the regular supply of the thrills of the mass media. I go to them, finger the beautiful new embossed collectible covers in bright hues of red, orange and yellow that Penguin has dressed them in, sip nimbu paani in their company and learn to cherish my solitude from them. And as advised by Einstein, look deep inside me, often to find profound shallowness. So there’s no point fighting it. I will deny it till the day before the festival begins, maybe even book a flight to Goa just to make sure I don’t get there on that day. But there is no point combating what the cosmos intends. I will go back again next year. And listen to Pico Iyer talk about his new journeys around the world.