Tuesday, March 02, 2010

on the jaipur literature festival 2010

[I wrote this for the March issue of Verve Magazine, which is out now on stands. Please assure yourself of a copy, Mum. A direct consequence of this piece is that I have eschewed the first-person plural forever.]

Paper Trails

‘What’s that?’ we are asked when we inform a native of Jaipur of our primary reason to touch down in this storied city. ‘A literacy festival?’ We perish the thought. What does reading and writing have to do with education? At any rate, we have come to the Jaipur Literature Festival not in search of enlightenment, but satisfaction. We want drama. We want action. And we want it to come straight out of a book.

To the traditionalist, using a phrase like ‘The Greatest Literary Show On Earth’ to promote a literature festival may seem a little bit like saying ‘The Biggest Birthday Party On The Planet’ to describe Christmas. It infuses an appallingly cheerful vigour into something that ought to be the rarefied, quasi-spiritual experience of communing with great minds and ideas. Alas for the traditionalist, there is truth in advertising. The Jaipur Literature Festival is unapologetically, vividly, a show. Rumour has it that this was not always the case. Festival co-director William Dalrymple reminds us in his opening address of their major coup in 2006, when ‘we invited our first international guest, Hari Kunzru, who was passing through India on his way to visit his girlfriend in New Zealand.’ The festival organisers have always emphasised its unique charm as a space where readers can, free of cost and compunction, rub shoulders with the great and good of the writerly world. It becomes a sort of Disneyland for readers, inviting the literary tourists and the thrill-seekers who might hope to sit next to Salman Rushdie at a Kiran Desai reading, or steal the last gulab jamun ahead of Vikram Seth in the lunch line.

In fact, the appeal lies in its genteelly Woodstockian mood. It’s in the existence of a place where writers are treated like rock stars. ‘Vikram Chandra breathed on me!’ ‘Alexander McCall Smith autographed my book!’ ‘Hanif Kureishi was rude to me!’ Whether or not you think writers merit this sort of treatment, or whether the truly serious Ideal Reader is also capable of being a crazy fan, is not actually relevant in the context of the Jaipur Literature Festival. Those who have been here since its modest beginnings at a reading in Jaipur University may find it losing its quiet, homespun vibe (as indeed, more than one plaintive veteran was heard to say).

Its true triumph this year was its ability to remain fresh and free of stuffiness. This cannot be an easy task when your schedule is bursting at the seams with Nobel Laureates, Harvard professors, newspaper editors and celebrity polemicists – and that’s saving the presence of the novelists. This is part of the genius of the festival. The one-hour sessions, the glorious January weather, the informal but tightly-organised discussion areas; all of these are calculated to take one so far into the realm of ideas and no further. We have no statistical data on how many casual attendees ran away from the Diggi Palace, tempted by the Chance Pe Dance and Veer movie posters splashed across the entrance to the venue, but we were glued to our seats practically the whole time.

The festival’s opening, like the crystal ball of a mediocre fortune-teller, was lost in a haze of mist. The skies were clear and the nagaras were sounding in sunny Jaipur, but the festival’s major locus was Delhi, from where festival catalogues were being printed, audiences were being transported, and practically every speaker, Indian or international, was being offloaded – and which had been choked up by fog. Coming from Mumbai, where winter is something that happens to other people, we had travelled through the effects of the inclement North Indian winter and were already reeling from nights huddled under razaais and layers of woollen clothing when the news came that several of the speakers scheduled for Day One, including keynote speaker Girish Karnad, were at various stages in the process of arrival: some in a terminal at a Delhi airport, some in airplanes seeking a landing at a Delhi airport in vain, others stuck on the Delhi-Jaipur road, memorably described by Tunku Varadarajan as ‘your own personal Gulag’ in conversation with Anne Applebaum about her book, Gulag: A History. The festival, chugging along on time and re-organising sessions with a zest and creativity, turned up unexpected treats: the very first session on the front lawns was a hastily patched-up but delightful conversation between novelists Chandrahas Choudhury and Vikram Chandra, on the subject of Chandra’s opus Sacred Games. We like that Chandra’s self-consciously literary concerns have never come in the way of his central concern with the meat-and-potatoes of a good novel: his work has generally been a thoroughly satisfying confluence of idea and sentiment. As a speaker, he strives for the same effect, achieving clarity and perspective with a humourous, gently professorial air. Choudhury’s focus on the novel’s literary qualities just about balanced out the audience’s curiosity about the juicy bits of Chandra’s gangland research. We grew conscious of being in a local minority when Chandra illustrated one of his answers with a hypothetical love story ‘between Rakesh and Maria,’ and we were the only ones laughing in the audience (For those who don’t follow the adventures of the Mumbai police in their dailies, the city’s commissioner of police is named Rakesh Maria).

The fiction writers did not hold sway on the first day, though: that honour went to the poets and lyricists who held court in the eyeball-witheringly yellow and very pretty confines of the Durbar Hall, overflowing this year with schoolgirls in blazers and the flower of Indian publishing alike. An afternoon of Pavan Varma and Gulzar in conversation was followed closely by Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar waxing eloquent on the subject of the poet Kaifi Azmi and Shabana’s mother Shaukat Kaifi’s memoirs. On an audience perfectly capable of slipping back and forth between spoken English, Hindi and Urdu with aplomb, the effects were electrifying. It was a note that struck with abiding sweetness through the festival again and again. It threaded through the multiple panels at which Gulzar and Akhtar made their presence felt, either on stage or among the audience. It came most fully into its own at one of the standout evening performances of the week, a brilliant and moving tribute to the great Faiz Ahmed Faiz on the third day, anchored by the poet’s eloquent daughter, Salima Hashmi, and burnished by Akhtar’s warm, hilarious anecdote of making friends with his hero on one of the great man’s tours of Mumbai. To recount it in print would rob it of its sparkle – let us tell you only that there was ticketless travel, reckless alcoholic courage, and a deep conversation about the Urdu script involved.

Gulzar and Akhtar’s presence and thumping popular successes at the festival seemed to broaden its scope, but not merely in the poets’ capacity as Hindi cinema’s stalwarts (Rahul Bose represented the more glamorous fringes of the Bollywood-literary partnership fully enough). Their enduring influence on the way a Hindi-language nation thinks, speaks and perhaps dreams, represents live literature in a way that the purer, narrower channels of book publishing do not. This idea extended to many of the Indian-language panels on what is known, in festival parlance, as bhasha literature. With poetry, drama, protest writing, short stories, non-fiction and novels all finding representation in one way or the other on these polyglot, multidisciplinary panels, both the writing and its meta sprang to life.

The abundance contrasted with the more intensive English forums, where you could pick a broad scheme and follow its thread from panel to panel, sometimes through all five days of the festival. For those interested in political journalism alone, the festival offered practically a highlight reel through its five days: from the political biographer Kai Bird, to old Cairo hand Max Rodenbeck, to Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower and most recently in the news for his stellar narrative reportage from Gaza in The New Yorker – you could catch an unprecedented mingling of the star rosters of Foreign Affairs, The New York Review of Books and global newspapers of record, often on the same panel. The polemical thinker Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s unpublicised talk on doctrinaire Islam’s incompatibility with the modern world left audiences offended and thoughtful. Her own dogmas aside, we think there is a lesson for the liberal establishment in the fact that Hirsi Ali had to fly down in secret, stay at her hotel under an assumed name and had almost no English-language daily report her views without heavy censoring.

Neoconservative historian Niall Ferguson horrified us by turning out to be an incredibly charming and engaging speaker; we applaud the festival organisers for having the sense of humour to fly in an academic whose most famous work is an emphatic argument in favour of the positive aspects of the British Empire. (Ferguson’s talks at the festival largely confined themselves to some of the less explosive areas of his expertise, such as economics, which justly few people who come to attend a Literary Show would pretend to know anything about, and his home country Scotland, whose tradition of satirical humour rivals that of its near neighbour Ireland.) Perhaps the only other speaker to make an equal impression on the straight women present was young Ali Sethi, whose sprawling debut novel The Wish Maker, written in the finest subcontinental tradition of tragicomic, navel-gazing sprawl, did not prepare us for his eloquence, erudition, and one of the finest ghazal-singing voices (he presented a moving recital of some of Faiz’ most famous poems at the evening performance) we have heard of late.

Travel writing also received its fair share of the spotlight, with the presence of the sublimely funny Geoff Dyer, followed around everywhere by fans and journalists like the slacker-lit god he is. Dyer’s is an awesome intellect, but one that chooses an ironic simplicity over seriousness and complication when he is called into conversation. ‘I’m not very good at plot,’ he offered, as a reason for his books’ sublime preoccupation with place on a panel called ‘Visible Cities.’ ‘The only plot that occurs to me is boy-meets-girl.’ The enduring popularity of the theme was indicated by the overflowing numbers at the Baithak tent who came to chat with Lonely Planet’s Tony Wheeler. Who knew that India’s first psychedelic disco, The Fertilised Egg, was run in the basement of the Ram Bagh Palace in the happy haze of the late 1960s? Wheeler, who could very well have encountered it in his initial backpacking trips across the subcontinent, did not, but the information came from another quarter, as it did repeatedly through other sessions: it was offered by super-mod William Dalrymple, who kept conversations up throughout the fest with personalities ranging from Wheeler to the Tibetan poet, Tenzin Tsundue, to Steve Coll, to Alexander McCall Smith. Dalrymple’s assumption of the position of co-conversationalist, rather than mere questioner or moderator, was largely a boon to the audience. With the confidence of a television anchor (which he has been) and the focused curiosity of the historian (which he continues to be), he succeeded in drawing out his panellists as well as the audience, to foster some of the festival’s most delightful sessions. If there were festival-goers who might have preferred to hear other authors speak wholly uninterrupted by Dalrymple’s own wealth of anecdotes and opinions, we didn’t hear the murmurs.

Alas, murmurs abounded in other sessions where moderators were less successful in charming their listeners or their distinguished interviewees. Time and again we spoke with delegates and guests who felt that speakers’ potential was often inversely proportionate to their moderators’ ability to draw them out. Often this seemed to be a matter of circumstance, rather than capability: the witty, polished Rachel Holmes appeared to be operating in a vacuum as she attempted to carry the conversation on literary adaptation with three of the most accomplished and eagerly-awaited speakers at the festival: the novelists Hanif Kureishi and Roddy Doyle and director Stephen Frears. Doyle, who in his previous sessions established himself as perhaps the nicest writer alive – a kindly, ultra-hip high-school teacher to Chandra’s genial professor – recounted to us the story of Zanjeer, which he had watched on the flight over, and remarked on how miserable the story might have been had it come out of Ireland. Kureishi’s final session, a one-on-one with the writer Amitava Kumar, whose acquaintance with both the author and his works was extensive enough to warrant just the right mix of comfort and provocation, proved to be delightful – at least for those of us who were sitting far enough away to enjoy Kureishi’s magnificent grumpiness. At a festival where good humour and earnestness infected speakers from session to session (and quite rightly), Kureishi’s laconic, sarcastic public face put even the extraordinarily reverent audience on the back foot. We at Verve celebrate the corrosiveness of bad temper in small doses: to be fair, our and Kureishi’s darkest doubts about his appearance in a Literary Show were realised when an elderly gent in the audience stood up to ask him, in all seriousness, if he had been circumcised. ‘No one’s been this interested in my genitals in a long time,’ said Kureishi after a pause during which his cast-iron frown almost – for a second – wavered into a smile. ‘What a country.’

But the Great Moderator Question is ultimately a circumstantial one, and has no serious implications for the festival’s future. A more pernicious tendency on the schedule this year was the urge, like an anxious tourist, to over-pack: the full-to-bursting, shifting rosters of speakers for high-visibility sessions. A potential cracker of a debate on the Internet and books, filmed for TV and moderated by Barkha Dutt, was packed with big names, from Gulzar to Tina Brown, and ended up achieving nothing. In spite of the brilliance of individual speakers like Zubaan Books publisher Urvashi Butalia and moderator Shoma Chaudhury, a panel on publishing in the next decade paddled in the shallows and gave up before it could ever tread water. These are exciting, complex issues; at a festival where even potentially inflammatory texts were discussed with poise and aplomb, they deserved better.

We hope to see future editions of the festival cave in less to the over-packing urge: if there’s one thing Jaipur no longer needs, after all, it is gimmicks to capture an audience. Practically the whole world seems to be watching, certainly the whole country. If many of them were looking just for a peek into the swinging Tina Brown dinner do (‘Darling, Delhi was empty on the evening of Tina’s party,’ reports a friend) – well, who doesn’t love a good soirĂ©e after all that emotional wrangling about Naxalism over tea? On a more serious note, if there is a part of Jaipur’s own population that isn’t quite sure what all the fuss about a ‘literacy festival’ is, there is also a substantial and growing number for whom the festival has transformed the city calendar. As during a gripping Test match, the weekend and evening sessions were packed with the local gentry. This is excellent. In spite of its milling with exceptionally diverse audiences, in some of whose hands guidebooks vie with the new Andrew O’Hagan, the festival actively resists becoming a tourist attraction in a city filled with tourist attractions. For Jaipur’s increasingly ‘glocal’ identity, one that seeks to be as fulfilling for its citizens as it is for visitors, there could hardly be a brighter indicator. For readers and writers and, yes, drama-seekers in the field of Indian publishing, the future looked as rosy as the Old City.


  1. Why did you use that style of referral anyway?

  2. It seemed to me a befitting tribute to the tone of my esteemed publication. I have now revised my opinion - I know the magazine is wiser than I am.

    And how are you these days? It's been a while!