Jaipur Literary Festival called. Am I glad I went?

by shobasriaiyer

The Jaipur Literary Festival

Jaipur Literary Festival 2012 was a high, and gave all present a mass euphoria. About 70,000 people gathered over the 5 days to listen with great enthusiasm to writers from around the world – joyfully applauding good turns of phrases and bon mots. We all rushed between the tents and lawns, to follow up on favorites or discover new ones, based on the subjects to be read or discussed.

Here are some of the takeaways and joyful moments I had. Read on, remembering that no two persons’ experiences will be the same as choices abounded, and that our reactions were heavily by our own interests besides what was presented to us.Cricket lovers in particular are going to enjoy reading Shehan Karunatilake’s book, ‘Chinaman’ as it uses Cricket as a metaphor for life and he writes directly, and engages you immediately. Worthy winner of this year’s DSC Jaipur Lit Fest awards, I thought, after having heard all the 6 finalists read out sections from their respective books.

Personally I loved, and intend to follow the works of the following, in no particular order save what immediately jumped to mind, and what I had taken down notes on – yes, we were all students of literature and writing there in Diggi Palace, Jaipur over the festival.

Ben Okri and Taiye Selasi at the session "Afropolitans"

  • Ben Okri spoke like he was the God of writing. Everybody listened mesmerized by his ability to explain the most difficult nuances of writing. And when he read his poetry – we sighed. He read parts of his essay on “Form and Content” and it was divinely instructive. His heated debated with the very talented Teju Cole over the work of Joseph Conrad “Heart of Darkness” was illuminating. It broke Ben’s heart that this clearly great writing was depicting Africa poorly and that it would live on and mislead others just because of its artistry; Teju Cole’s response was to ignore it and not get het up about it, as it was just yet another book, and the more attention it got, the worse for Africa. Ben Okri talked fondly of how he wrote, and how he “took his sentences for walks” when reworking and rewriting. Oh, what would I not give to be able to walk with his sentences?
  • Taiye Selasi, coiner of the very adaptable term “Afropolitans”, spoke eloquently and with élan. I saw her first at a session she moderated, and regretted not having been at her reading at the prior session – hadn’t heard of her before, you see, glad I know of her now thanks to the festival. She moderated the session on books written on Africa  – participants were Tim Butcher, Philip Gourevitch, Philip Marsden and Ilija Trojanow – all of them protested against being clubbed with each other insisting that Africa was a vast, diverse continent with each country having its own flavor. Great session, and totally uncharted territory for me.
  • Linda Spalding, touching story-teller, read from “Who Named the Knife”, the true story of the murder trial of Maryann Acker, a teenager sentenced to life in prison for a murder. It was engaging, and brought forth questions about the American laws for murder trials, and the way the trials are conducted into question.
  • Richard Flanagan, award-winning Australian author published in many countries, read in a great baritone voice from his novel “The Sound of one hand clapping”. It had a casual, humorous touch. He said the most important thing in writing is that there be truth in it, and that truth would justify even bad writing and rise above the artistic limitations. I want to read him.
  • Ranjit Hoskote and Ilija Trojanow spoke about their book “Confluences”, the concept of which, I firmly believe, should be taught at schools and colleges where young minds are being shaped. Written with painstaking research over numerous years the book highlights how interconnected we all are, and how we have all influenced each others’ abilities and identities, how the world is not monolithic as many perceive and quarrel with those who, on surface, appear to be different from them. Fortunately for the world, it is the way many of us, global citizens feel, and the authors have encapsulated the idea to show the confluences over centuries of togetherness and exchanges. A must-read. They spoke calmly, so it was not a presentation that got a lot of claps and cheers, but you ruminate on the idea and feel wow, this is it – nirvana can be attained if we learn of ourselves what these two gentlemen have learnt of us all and summarized for us.
  • Everyone was all praise for Tom Stoppard’s play “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead” – mental note to watch this at London some day. The session with him and David Hare, very well moderated by Neelam Mansingh was gripping – arguably the very best playwrights of Britain living today. Tom Stoppard started answering a question, digressed, and then poked fun of his own self, saying how he meandered in his plays too and answered nothing. He confessed that, sometime, he would let creep in obscure bits of information that readers or viewers would have to later research to get the full gist of what he meant. He said his plays had warmed up as he grew older as he was no longer frightened about identifying with the emotions on the stage. It was interesting how Tom viewed the failure of Harold Pinter’s first play, which closed in 6 days; in Tom’s opinion it freed Harold from the tyranny of the world’s opinion and then he could go ahead and write exactly the way it pleased him. An interesting thought for any artist who is tempted to genuflect at the altar of mediocrity by pandering to the popular taste of his current milieu.
  • Javed Akhtar was full of insights and courage of conviction. He commanded respect, adJaved Akhtar was full of insights and courage of conviction. He commanded respect, admiration and love for his ideas and poems. The other extremely popular Hindi, Urdu writer Gulzar, released Javed’s book “Lava”. Of course, poetry readings by both Javed and Gulzar were very popular. At the session put together by the organizers after the Salman Rushdie video-link was stopped, Javed brought up issues about the Muslim community that really ought to be of interest to those engaged with their progress; he touched upon the unemployment rate among them, the difficulty they faced in obtaining homes to live in, and the ease with which a Muslim woman could be divorced in India, which is far more easily than her counterpart in many majority Muslim nations. He pleaded logic with Salim Engineer and his group asking them to not focus on Rushdie. As Salim waffled with vague answers, and platitudes, at one point even forgetting the question he had purportedly started to answer, having meandered too far from the starting point, Javed sat frustrated. He then threw down the gauntlet and said, “I will name 2 militant Hindu organisations – Bajrangdal and RSS. Now, you name 2 militant Muslim organizations” and handed the microphone over to Salim to thundering applause from the huge audience in Front Lawn. Salim still dodged the question. But, Javed’s sincere appeal to reason, his allegiance to rationalism and secularism were clear to all, and my heart went out to the man providing this positive image to the Muslim community and trying to make them focus on positive things. Shoma Chaudhry moderation at this session was balanced, sincere, yet gutsy, and focused.
  • Lionel Shriverspoke with much honesty on the panel about adaptations (of books into movies mostly). The book tha t bro u ght her fame and notoriety “We need to talk about Kevin” was discussed at much greater length at another solo session. The charming and cleve r Nilanjana Roy interviewed Lionel. It was a fascinating look into the mind of this very confident, outspoken writer who has a poker-face beyo n d belief; interestingly, she spoke about how it was unnerving for writers to be sitting at Lit Fests and talking, rather than doing what the y were most comfortable doing, which is writing. She was echoing the opinions of Mohammad Hanif and Michael Ondaatje who said the sam e thing, as perhaps many other writers too. The landscape of writing is changing to writing, reading, marketing, and talking at literary festiva ls. Hell, if writers are made such stars, there is a lot of good that will come out of it to encourage reading as well, especially among those who need a little bit of this human interface either to get started or keep going, so bring it on, I say. The evidence is there from the number of school children, college goers and Jaipur locals who came in busloads for the events, and sat enthused and absorbed the talks.
  • Richard Dawkins, he of the highly readable “The Selfish Gene” fame, who, incidentally, got maximum crowd appreciation out of all the speakers for his atheistic c onvictions was clear, sure, concise. Mental note to read more of his works. His question to an overflowing Front Lawn audience in Diggi Palace, who greeted his comments on why God does not exist with thunderous applause was “All of you cheering out here, why do you clap and cheer here, but go home and act differently?” Chew on that people.

    Lionel Shriver with Nilanjana Roy

  • “My Mother’s Lover”, by Swiss-German writer, Urs Widmer, translated by Donal McLaughlin is another to-read book.  Cheeky sense of humor this man has, writing the story of his mother’s lover’s death when he was still alive. (This is not a spoiler, the first line of the book starts with this information.)
  • Girish Karnad’s memoirs sounded intriguing. He has done some serious digging and unearthed hitherto unknown facts – not known even by many of his family members, the sharing of which facts they resent. Sudhir Kakkar’s memoirs drew me in due to the candor with which he spoke – isn’t that the nature of all truly good memoirs? Sudhir said the choice of events written about shows one’s level of courage in memoir writing and that no corners should be left hidden. He added that the most important memories are those of loves that evoked the deepest emotions. That it is not what happened that is important, but what we think happened, what we remember, our memories of them that is important. He ended saying we all have copyrights on our lives. Both Girish and Sudhir said it was important to write about sexual relations as well in a memoir, though they felt that, sadly, memoirs sold just for that titillation sometimes.
  • Mohammad Hanif was very popular and his self-effacing style of talk was much loved by all. He was so humble and soft-spoken that the contents of his talk elude me; my husband, a die-hard fan of Mohammad would have remembered all of it, I suspect, as would his eager, appreciative fans who thronged the Mughal Tent. Eminently likeable.
  • Geling Yan spoke about China. She told us about the ‘Black Girls’ of China – daughters born in rural lands, and not registered so their parents can continue to try to have a son. They have no educational access, as they are not registered with/in cities. In her opinion, these numbers are huge, undocumented and will be an obstacle to China reaching super-power status.
  • Raj Rao’s writings abound with energy, verve and a humorous appeal besides realism. Hoshang Merchant, who must have fought many battles, appeared to still be the rebel who struck with his pen. Long live the queer clan – they are beautiful. Minal Hajratwala moderated the session very well, asking apt educated questions, and moving the conversation along.
  • Meenal Baghel read out sections from “Death in Mumbai” about the Neeraj Grover murder case. It was well received, and sounded like easy, accessible reading. The chapter she read about the Diwali party cards game at Ekta Kapoor’s house had vivid description of the party scene and the people around her. My interest is piqued.
  • Chetan Bhagat was clearly very popular and unabashedly admits he writes stories that the layperson that studied in vernacular tongues can read in English. He had his pat answer to criticism about his average writing – “If you don’t like my books, don’t read them”. At the same time, he was vociferous in criticizing Salman Rushdie saying that he wrote things that hurt people and he should not be doing that; Chetan also added that he never wrote things that hurt people. How naïve to not know that those in positions of power, those with vested interest in maintaining status quo can always claim being hurt to stop the truth from being told. Watch out, Chetan, you could inadvertently hurt someone’s sentiments some day through writing, and then regret this childish take on the situation. Chetan forgets that people frequently squash discussions and ideas by an emotional retort rather than through logic.
  • The session ‘The Question of Jerusalem’ by Simon Sebag Montefiore, Sari Nusseibeh, moderated by Jonathan Shainin was very detail oriented, scholarly and gave in-depth information about why the city is so important to the 3 ‘Abrahamic’ religions as one of the participants called it. It was fascinating to see what faith does to people and what people will do for their faith and the reasons for it. The pity is, the writers themselves acknowledge, because the person who reads these books has a likely secular orientation and a thinking mind to start with, he/she is not the one to fear. It is those who refuse to read, and on the contrary make all endeavors to keep their minds closed, that cause the problems. I came away feeling there is never going to be a solution to this problem until an epochal, history-making price of a scale hitherto unseen has been paid through loss of mind-numbing numbers of human lives again. Which would be a great shame. Hope I am wrong.
  • James Shapiro was interviewed by Tom Stoppard in ‘Contested Will: Who wrote Shakespeare?’ James lived Shakespeare’s life for years while doing research and talked in very simple language about the proofs he had that could settle the controversy over whether someone other than Shakespeare wrote the plays he is famous for. He is sure and has proof that William Shakespeare is credited correctly for his plays. Not afraid of looking under the rocks, this James.
  • William Darlymple read from his new book set in Afghanistan. He spends time in the areas with the people and descendants of the people he writes about, learns their language, eats their food, wears their clothes and basically lives their lives. And the love and details permeate his work and make them incandescent, lively, and real. He deserves the wide-audience he gets.
  • Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier have collaborated yet again, as they have done several times in the past, and have done a complete translation of “Le Deuxième Sexe” by Simone de Beauvoir. They said they have kept true to the historical times while translating so there is no change of Simone’s intended nuances. The passage where Simone describes society’s definition of woman was hilarious; she describes how being female is somehow insufficient to be considered a woman, and how a female has to do many other things to merit the title of being a woman. It is a must-read for any humanist.

The best panel discussions were the ones that had good comperes and the ones who did the best job among those I attended are Shoma Chaudhry, Neelam Mansingh, Samanth Subramanian, and Malashri Lal.

I am still digesting all of the books, authors, ideas I encountered there. Slowly. Merrily. Jealously.  And I have a much longer, better-quality reading list now.

At the venue, people were mostly sensitive to others’ needs for space, did not litter too much, and turned off cell-phones. But, they still could not stop “reserving” seats for friends who were not there yet, to the eternal chagrin of the organizers. Surprisingly the literary crowd did not always clean up after its job was done at the toilet. A well-dressed young woman in jeans did not flush, and when I called her out on it, told me the water filled too slowly, and as I glared at her, went back and flushed. The local woman who kept the women’s toilets clean did an admirable job and fell at my feet when I handed over a fifty-rupee note to her on the fifth day. This broke my heart, as it seemed like too much gratitude for too little money for her work, and made me wonder if she was grossly underpaid.

The venue itself is getting a wee bit too small for the number of admirers it attracts, and Diggi Palace might, in the future, have to lose its star client, which has already put it on the map, so perhaps they are already grateful.

Richard Flanagan, Tom Stoppard, Girish Karnad, Lionel Shriver and Vishal Bhardwaj

I saw Hari Kunzru and Amitava Kumar‘s session when they read out sections from the Satanic Verses – everyone’s emotions were with them. I could feel the writer community’s pain at SR’s entry denial to the Fest, then the utter disappointment and dejection at the cancellation of his video-link. The huge question was – A book has been banned (bad enough), it is about time to lift the ban, and now even the writer’s face appearing on a video-link is taboo?? How constitutional is this? Why can’t people shed their intellectual laziness and fight ideas with ideas?

For writers and wannabes this is the take-away I got:

Write with utter honesty, and tell your tale as you want to without censoring too much; be careful, however, when naming names, unless you don’t care about burning bridges with those named or about the book being banned; and if you don’t care, woohoo more power-to-your-pen. You will get some bouquets and some brickbats, as do ALL writers, regardless of how you do it. That you dare to put your thoughts and opinions out there in print makes you a possible target as those with opposing interests and opinions have access to it, and IN PRINT. But, there will be those who appreciate your work as well, provided your Craft is good.

No consensus over whether Form is more important or Content is. Ben Okri writes at length in his essay “Form and Content” that Form is; Lionel Shriver swears that all that readers care about is progressing the story along, not letting form cramp the content.

In a nutshell: Write what you want, the way you want – but, sure as hell, do it well.

And people, please read, voraciously.

Shoba Sriaiyer can be contacted directly at Shoba.Sriaiyer@gmail.com