Where words took centrestage

Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri speaks during Jaipur Literature Festival 2012.   | Photo Credit: PRAKASH SINGH

Your average bookworms do not hide behind thick glasses and unwashed pyjama-kurtas, jhola languidly fallen at their feet and seen poring over large tomes in dark cobwebby libraries anymore! That's passé! Instead, they head to literature festivals all over the world, decked in Fashion Street's latest, brushing up on their Kindles as they queue up hours ahead, to catch a glimpse of their favourite writers-squealing and fainting when their stars arrive!

The world of books has changed with changing times. And that was on display this year, yet again, at the immensely successful and much-talked about DSC Jaipur Literature Festival 2012. It was five days of literary extravaganza at the classy Diggi Palace between January 20 and 24. With over 262 authors in discussion and many thousand footfalls every day. One is scared to make conversations with strangers at a Literature Festival. Who knows which author you have bumped into?! The fear of miffing them with one's ignorance always persists.


If you were one of the many admirers of Michael Ondaatje's writing, his conversation in the opening session was an absolute must-do at the JLF.

Speaking of how more than one voice narrating a tale helps the “politics of any situation”, he also shared his discovery of “how the scene shouldn't be too fulfilled”-art that he uses in his own viscous textuality.

He read out to a rapt audience, the most endearing, vivid and memorable excerpt from his recently released book — The Cat's Table.


If the speakers present brought out ‘wows' and the ‘aahs' from the crowd, there was one absent speaker who ended up being the talk of the town. Salman Rushdie, having been denied his entry into India for the JLF, somehow featured in nearly every session. This is what we call presence in absentia! History was made when excerpts from Salman Rushdie's banned Satanic Verses were read out by Hari Kunzru and the ever-entertaining Amitava Kumar. Thanks to the speed of internet equalling that of thought in today's world, Hari instantly got an e-mail (that he read to the audience) from Rushdie, thanking and lauding their act. Ruchir Joshi and Jeet Thayil repeated this act in the session that followed.

While the world that had assembled applauded him, Hari's mother Hillary, who was seated to my right, was worried about the repercussions of his act. Indeed, there are always two sides to a coin!


If Oprah was a one-session wonder, who spun the organising team to work like there's no tomorrow, Gulzar was clearly the star of the JLF!

Every session of the wonderful poet was so packed, that the crowd was spilling over! The poetic symphony that he unleashed with the brilliant Pavan Varma, aptly called “Do Deewane Sheher Mein”, was something everyone would lock up in their memory chests forever! The doyens of poetry, one after the other, read out the original and translation of their works, mesmerising the crowd into delirious applause.

And when the Shahenshah of lyrical lore takes stage along with tinseltown's bests— Javed Akhtar, Vishal Bharadwaj and Prasoon Joshi — to ask “Kahaani Kisko Kehte Hain”, story, script and screenplay was demystified to the crowd that had gathered.

The inimitable Gulzar, sprang a surprise to the audience by releasing Javed Akhtar's book of poems Lava on stage. And with all humility, he declared that today was Javed saab's day and encouraged him to read out from it.


There were voices that spoke refreshing perspectives on the ways to view writing coming from Africa. Ben Okri, Teju Cole and Tayie Selasi, honestly and beautifully encouraged the audience to view writing as good or bad, and not tag a country or race to it.

In a conversation on the theme “The Afropolitans”, based on Taiye Selasi's earlier published essay, the three engaged the audience on the topic of identity, reading out from their works as the audience cheered them for their views.


The book tent was a crowd puller at the JLF. Books from all the speakers, as well as a few other best sellers, were piled up for the visitors to buy. It was delightful to keep running to the book tent, after every new speaker one discovers, and to dig out their books and read their blurbs.

All the speakers had obliged to sign books, post-session, and the author signing desks had long queues of excited fans waiting to interact with their favourite writer whose words had always mattered! Who said writers were not larger than life?!


If many of the sessions in the morning were themed on Bhakti writing, evening had some more devotion to art in store! Performances ranging from the classical and traditional to world music and poetry readings filled the evenings.

With tickets priced at Rs.200 per evening, the speakers and visitors alike, unwounded to the tunes of the Jaipur Kawa Band, the Coke studio bandwagon, Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhat, Dub Collosus and the like- a little food for the spirit after food for the mind.

Ultimately, the JLF lived up to expectations. One only wished that there was enough space to accommodate the teeming masses!

However, there was one lament that every one who attended the JLF echoed — of having wished to have been able to attend every session on the cards. But that is probably why there will be yet another literature festival once again next year, to have some more book-talk, to hear speakers you had missed out on the last year round, and to let words take stage once again.

The Oprah Winfrey show

Oprah Winfrey unleashed her charms on Rajasthan's capital much before her session at the JLF actually began. Her fans, wanting a glimpse of their star, managed to queue up from 6 am, even as temperatures dropped to 2 degrees on that chilly morning outside the venue. A bunch of girls pose-spelt ‘ O-P-R-A-H' for the press — a letter each from her name emblazoned on their tees.

I overheard someone say that many fans went home crying on having missed their star, taking back the gifts they had bought for her. There were still many others, stuck in the serpentine line that stretched for at least a kilometre outside the venue, even until noon, relentless yet, to meet American Television's goddess.

At noon, the literati loudly complained that glitterati had no place in a fest such as the JLF. Having come to attend the other sessions, many had to miss their share of book-talk, thanks to Lady O.

The setting

The Front Lawns, Durbar Hall, Mughal Tent, Samvad and Baithak — five places, whose names rolled off everyone's mouth through out the five days of literary fanfare, at the JLF. Each space had its own characteristic identity that one grew to associate with, over the five days.

One remembers the Front Lawns as bustling, effervescent and with Pushkari chai available in its fringes. Four men, dressed in authentic Rajasthani wear, served the piping hot and absolutely delicious Pushkari chai through the day. Priced at a meagre ten bucks, these were served in terracotta cups. Next to the sessions, the chai stalls were the stellar attractions!

The Durbar Hall was dramatic and almost like a set out of a Bollywood period film replete with jharokas and crystal chandeliers. One almost expected the speakers to be dressed in regalia when they took stage and were mildly disappointed when they arrived instead, in their cosmopolitan clothes.

The Mughal Tent in its white and blue stripes was bursting at the seams with people. It almost carried the air of a picnic, what with the seat-less sprawled outside, soaking in the sun and listening to the speeches.

The Samvad was a small den for some serious discussions, the workshop on Democracy Dialogues, and the photographic exhibition titled ‘Bridges through Bromides'. Well-lit and tucked in a corner, it had a certain air of exclusivity about it, as if it was available only for those who seek it.

The Baithak was somehow the cosiest of all spaces at the Diggi Palace. A tented amphitheatre with chairs lined up in front and with a stage further ahead for the speakers, Baithak had an artistic and conversational air about it that even the dramatic Durbar Hall slightly missed.

Different types of chairs to seat the authors in each of the five halls at Diggi Palace. One, white with black markings, like ink ran riot. Another, a plush sink-in-me sofa with peacock feathers, fit only for the kings and queens of words. Yet another ornate, old fashioned and purple-cushioned-on-metal- rich and authoritative-regalia for the writers.

Sandhya Ramachandran is a freelance writer-illustrator-designer and filmmaker from the National Institute of Design.


Freedom of speech?

This year, the Rushdie row became more prominent than the Jaipur Literature Festival itself. The Booker Prize winner was asked to stay away from the event as there was a serious threat to his life. His video chat with Barkha Dutt was cancelled fearing violence. Last week, a group of miscreants vandalised a newspaper's office just because they were upset over a piece of news. Jay Leno, “Top Gear” Clarkson and Paul Henry have all been demanded apologies for their various “crude” comments. Is India really a democracy or is it just a myth? GAURAV DANGI of SRM University speaks to a few youngsters in the City.

A lthough it may sound clichéd, India is the world's largest democracy. It is due to this democracy that the various scams have come under public scrutiny. The recent Rushdie row has highlighted the miserable failure of Indian system in safeguarding freedom of speech. A highly disgraceful act — the Rajasthan government playing it safe. Indian democracy is more of an illusion than truth. A funny country filled with unexplained paradoxes. - PRATIK DOSHI, III Year, BE

D emocracy is the best available means of governance in the present world. Some of us may argue against the myth of the democratic notion and provide an unending list of socio-economic problems created by it. Even then, the fact of the matter remains that throughout the world we cherish democracy and we demand democracy. Rushdie was not given the chance to exercise his rights, because the government kept in mind the safety of hundreds of people and the smooth flow of the fest which was the right thing to do.

- NIKITA PUNWANI, III Year, MOP Vaishnav College for Women

T o keep pace with the world and its ideologies is what a modern man should do. The truth is always hard to digest. To co-ordinate, consolidate and to maintain harmony is the secret of bringing things to equilibrium. Indian laws are very democratic. The educated must stress upon writing books that make people view and understand the situation instead of making them retaliate or indulge in fights. Salman Rushdie has a right to pen down his views but not at the cost of any ones feelings. People should listen to understand and not listen to reply. Our perceptions may vary but our aim is the same. - VISHAL P. MEHTA, I Year, Civil Engineering, SRM University

R ight to freedom of speech and expression remains just a phrase rather than a fundamental right provided in the Constitution of India. A nation which boasts of democracy does not guarantee a citizen liberty to voice his opinions let alone giving him equal rights. However, blaming the system cannot be justified because a fair number of anti-elements misunderstand and hence flout the freedom norms. In a nutshell, each individual needs to be responsible in a democracy to bring about a positive change. - SIDDARTH JAIN, III Year, SRM University

A s per the “freedom of Speech and Expression” goes I personally don't think that it is given full rein when it comes to our country. I feel that the writers and the media in particular ought to be given more leverage when it comes to doing what essentially is their job - bringing out the real, ugly truth behind stories! Vandalism and other atrocities must be ended and an awakening of a united front favouring freedom, in true spirit, should be brought about in society. Democracy should not only be enforced in the political sphere but also in other spheres; which would eventually help us DEVELOP in true worth. - PRERNA TARIKA DIWAKER, B.A. Corporate Economics, Women's Christian College

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