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Inside Jaipur Literature Festival 2023: authors share quirks, anxieties and more

Going beyond serious discussions of their books, writers found other ways to connect with bibliophiles at the 16th edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival

January 25, 2023 05:48 pm | Updated January 26, 2023 10:42 am IST

Lyricist-poet Javed Akhtar and actor Shabana Azmi at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2023.

Lyricist-poet Javed Akhtar and actor Shabana Azmi at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2023. | Photo Credit: PTI

Pomp and splendour and teeming crowds define the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) now. But co-founder William Dalrymple recalls how dismayed he was at the first edition when he saw just a trickle of book enthusiasts. As panellists stared at rows of empty seats, a Japanese group suddenly walked in, Dalrymple says, causing delight and also some confusion. But soon the organisers learned this was not a bunch of literary aficionados but lost tourists who had wandered there on their way to Amer Fort.

Jaipur Literature Festival directors William Dalrymple and Namita Gokhale. 

Jaipur Literature Festival directors William Dalrymple and Namita Gokhale.  | Photo Credit: Courtesy JLF

British novelist Lawrence Norfolk had once described JLF as “part circus, part post-graduate seminar and part revolutionary assembly”. It offers an excellent opportunity for bibliophiles to connect with authors, for books to be discussed in detail, and for neglected areas of literature to be highlighted.

But festivals like JLF are also much more than that. The sessions offer insights into the lives of the authors, their processes, quirks, desires and anxieties. In some cases, they allow you to get acquainted with their skincare regimes, the habits of their cats and their favourite drinks.

What’s in a name?

American-Canadian author Ruth Ozeki at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2023.

American-Canadian author Ruth Ozeki at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2023. | Photo Credit: Courtesy JLF

During her session on her novel  The Book of Form and Emptiness at the 16th edition of the festival, American-Canadian author Ruth Ozeki reveals the delightful story behind her name. Ruth Diana Lounsbury, as she was earlier known, had travelled around India many years ago and met and dated a Japanese man called Ozeki. Eventually they broke up, but Ruth plucked his second name and attached it to her own. It was liberating for her, she says, a person of mixed heritage who was struggling to belong somewhere, to have a Japanese-sounding name.

Author and columnist Shobhaa De spoke of her dislike for her own name during a session at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2023.

Author and columnist Shobhaa De spoke of her dislike for her own name during a session at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2023. | Photo Credit: PTI

It is important not to get bogged down by, or obsessed with, identities, says Shobhaa De, while speaking of her dislike for her own name during a session on her book,  Insatiable. De’s birth name is Anuradha. She describes Shobhaa as the most “banal, pedestrian, nauseatingly popular name”. It may have brought her fame, but she declares she will always “die an Anuradha”.

Names may also not be what we associate with them. The audience at the Javed Akhtar-Shabana Azmi session is thrilled to hear the couple not only discuss the books  Dhanak and  Daaera, and Akhtar’s masterclass on the differences between  ghazal and  nazm, but also, unexpectedly, their banter.

Azmi says young girls often go up to her and tell her how lucky she is to be married to Akhtar, whose name is synonymous with romance. “But let me tell you this,” she grumbles good-naturedly, “not once has he written anything for me. This man doesn’t have one romantic bone in his body.” To this, the perennially witty Akhtar remarks: “If a girl is a trapeze artist, does she come back home and hang upside down?”

Author Durjoy Datta at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2023.

Author Durjoy Datta at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2023. | Photo Credit: Courtesy JLF

Names also carry the baggage of image, which interactions at festivals can either solidify or change. Well-known authors, for instance, are sometimes believed to be egotistical and insecure. At his session, Durjoy Datta admits that he suffers from impostor syndrome. “I got my first book published at the age of 21. People told me they loved my book. I used to tell them, ‘That’s only because you haven’t read other books.’ The gap between what I read and write is still huge,” he says.

It is perhaps because of this brutal honesty, especially at a largely highbrow event, that readers find Datta relatable and refreshing.

There are many barbs thrown at the literature festival: one participant complains to me of the excessive commercialisation, another groans about the sheer scale of the event, held over five days with 350 participating authors, and how exhausting it all is, and an author-friend is shocked that I am not allowed into the exclusive lounge to have a cup of chai with him.

Some of the criticism is valid: the festival is getting too big for its books. But what stays after the never-ending stream of sessions on the big things in life — democracy, forms of writing, art of translations, freedom, and so on — are often the little things: the ones that make us all human.

radhika.s@thehindu.co.in

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