Tuesday, January 26, 2010

[ZESTCaste] Dispatches from the Jaipur literary fest


Nilanjana S Roy: Dispatches from the Jaipur literary fest

Nilanjana S Roy / New Delhi January 26, 2010, 0:41 IST

Every great literary festival in the world leans on its location:
Edinburgh has its arts festival, the castles, the cobblestoned streets
and the pubs, Hay-on-Wye is the world's only literary town, paved with
bookshops, and Jaipur is a mela. The Jaipur literary festival (JLF)
has the regulation camels-and-elephants, fire dancers, the Kawas brass
bands and Darohar recitations, though this year it's overflowing the
bounds of the tiny Diggi Palace.

The crowds this year dwarf the 200-odd souls who used to make the trek
to Jaipur back in 2006 and 2007 to catch what was then a tiny fest.
This year, the JLF is probably Asia's largest lit fest, and has 220
speakers and writers, and about 15,000-20,000 visitors. Courtesy Om
Puri, Ketan Mehta and Gulzar, the film frat is here; Bina Ramani and
Ritu Kumar head a fleet of fashionistas. The Delhi social swarm
descend, and leave, on the weekend, so we have air-kissing all through
Saturday and Sunday. But the junta reader is here, too. I meet a
contingent of stalwarts from Calcutta, hordes of children from the
local schools, corporate friends from Bangalore, and foreign tourists
who've pencilled "Dhzaipore" into their India itineraries.

"The conversations are different this year," says a writer friend, and
I know what she means. With every session packed — the tiniest ones
draw about 60, the largest on the front lawns swell to a thousand-plus
— there's little chance to have a quiet chat. Authors are mobbed —
though Gulzar and Javed Akhtar draw even more fans than a certain Mr
Bhagat — but also left in peace. Roddy Doyle can sit quietly in a
corner and read; Anne Enright queues up in the egalitarian lunch line;
Alexander McCall Smith is interrupted by autograph-hunters, but
allowed to explore the palace in relative peace.

If, as a friend says, "The Jaipur Zoo is now open to gawkers", there
are also many ordinary readers. The Jaipur police chief asks historian
Maya Jassonoff a question about empire; three retired gentlemen who've
travelled here from Lucknow debate Steve Coll and Lawrence Wright's
rightwing politics fiercely; Dalit writer Sivakami draws collegiate
admirers as she speaks on what it means to be invisible, and placed in
invisible ghettos, in a country and religion you can never claim.

By day three, we're in overdrive. The writers who missed their flights
or were stuck on the road earlier have shown up. In the Durbar Hall,
Ayaan Hirsi Ali speaks with incendiary honesty about her view of
Islam. The front lawns host Wole Soyinka, delivering a poetry reading
in his deep, sonorously sensuous voice; on another day, Om Puri reads
from Girish Karnad's Tughlaq. The emperor's doomed reign shimmers into
the background as Basharat Peer, Steve Coll and others discuss a new
empire; and Niall Ferguson riffs on "Chimerica" — his view of the
dominant influence of China and America. A day which starts with
Vikram Chandra on the anti-thriller, continues to a magnificent
reading by Roddy Doyle, followed by Louis de Bernieres and Tina Brown
on adjacent stages, a critic of my acquaintance opts out. "Sensory
overload," he says. "All systems blown."

Gulags, conspiracies and empires (new and old) travel like viral memes
between sessions. Anne Applebaum describes the efficiency of Stalin's
gulags; the next day, we hear Isabel Hilton on the new barracks where
Tibet's nomads are being corralled by China. Maya Jassonoff speaks of
how the boundaries between occupier and occupied are not as rigid as
we had imagined; Tenzin Tsundue speaks of how America (and India) can
ignore the injustice and repression perpetuated by a modern-day

And always, it comes back to writing. The Dalit writers ask whether
even a tiny corner of "Sahitya" will ever be theirs, as they lay claim
to this category called "Dalit literature". Claire Tomalin conjures up
a vision of Jane Austen writing on very little pin-money, precarious
independence, no opportunities for travel and calls on her time: "If
she could find the discipline to write under those circumstances, we
have little excuse." Doyle makes us look at our lives again as he
speaks of walking around cities in Ireland, aware that the history of
Easter 1916 and the Second World War is one generation away, always
seeing people as living stories.

"Living as research," he says, capturing the writer's attitude to
life. Vikram Chandra waxes evangelistic about the new criticism, which
looks into the reader's brain. In one of the many performances that
mark the end of each day — Amit Chaudhuri, HM Naqvi and other authors
taking their turn on stage — there's an incredible moment when one
young writer makes his bow to a dead poet from another generation. As
Ali Sethi sings Faiz Ahmed Faiz's poems, you can almost see the baton
passing from one generation of story-tellers to another. Jaipur 2010
has the slightly insane feel of a festival that became a great Indian
wedding, but it remains true to the original promise: this is a
festival that's as much about katha as it is about tamasha, and it
delivers both in equal measure.



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