Javed Akhtar explaining the nuances that distinguish a ghazal from a nazm, and reciting a heart-rending poem at a session in a recent edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF). Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprising address to the nation on November 8, 2016, and the farce that ensued. India’s historic tryst with the Goods and Services Tax within months of the ban on ₹500 and ₹1,000 currency notes. The emergence of new right-wing apologists (some of whom may have held leftist leanings till it stopped paying the bills) — the very intellectuals who now defend India’s recent economic bungling as well as statistical skulduggery with élan...
The real meets the fictional effortlessly in what has been billed as “a love letter to the greatest literary show on Earth.” Being the founder and co-director of the JLF, which has now metamorphosed into a global phenomenon with offshoot fests held from Colorado to Edinburgh, Gokhale may not have had to look far for inspiration for this delectable patchwork on the inner (and outward) lives of writers — published, unpublished or shy of being published. Yet, it would take more than sheer proximity for her to be able to conjure up the delightful motley crew of characters whose paths intersect at the annual cultural jamboree.
There’s the 52-year-old anthropologist trying to construct a novel with the mythical protagonists Yama and Kama, the gods of death and love, respectively. Single, yet divorced from a non-marriage relationship, she retains her American ex-partner’s name as it lends “more gravitas” to her identity when doubled up with her maiden Indian name!
There’s the controversial queer novelist passionate about gender fluidity and pan-sexuality, devoted to her monogamous wife (or is she?), but has a problem with Simone de Beauvoir’s work being called ‘seminal’. After a panel discussion on The Second Sex goes awry, she is haunted by a secret purple missive that calls her out for being a pornographer, plagiariser and an ill-spelt rhyme of a witch.
Then there’s the mystical beat writer type who had a spiritual (or was it traumatic?) tryst with India in the flower power 60s. From being around when The Beatles stayed in Rishikesh to another stint in Varanasi when she was obsessed with death, Vajrayogini — as her guru called her — hasn’t been in India for decades. Until now.
Yet another narrative strand belongs to the Bihari boy who has moved on from his father’s life as a ladies’ tailor (who stitched all his client’s clothes too tight for comfort). Now a burglar par excellence, having tapped particularly rich pickings in the aftermath of the note ban as thefts of ill-gotten wealth would go unreported, this namesake of a bawdy real-life comic act is perhaps the most amusing character residing in this irresistible page-turner. Please do note that this Javed Akhtar fan is, however, not so hot on Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry.
There’s the teenage author for whom reading and writing are a means of escaping the tyranny of parents and the school education system. And an artist on the prowl for subjects at the literature festival that would feed his secret graphic column in a newspaper. That is when he is not adding to his collection of saris and petticoats, or drawing what’s on people’s minds while appearing to outline their appearance. Last but not the least in this crowd of solitary artists is the loneliest of them all — a septuagenarian from Dehradun (a royal descendant in exile) whose first short story was inspired by Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to heaven’. Her life’s masterpiece remains ensconced in her inseparable jhola, revised and updated many a time but safe from the eyes of potential publishers and readers forever. Or maybe not...
Gokhale attributes the “seed of an idea” for this book to famous literary agent Lynn Nesbitt (who has earlier represented Toni Morrison, Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe). But her mastery of the craft levitates the idea of a book around a lit fest’s inhabitants to a work of art, evoking an intimate, intermingling landscape of what John Cheever referred to as the “cafard” writers are haunted by — executed with her tongue firmly in cheek.
Jaipur Journals; Namita Gokhale, Penguin Viking, ₹499