Back in Delhi, I caught up with Ira Pande, who read from Diddi, her book about her mother, the writer Shivani, at the festival. “There is something very special about reading in a place like Jaipur,” she told me. “In the small towns, I don’t have to explain who Shivani was, they know her work, and the local reader comes to hear about writers like her.”
It was “local” readers who turned out in huge numbers for authors like Bhanu Bharti and Sheen Kaaf Nizam. It’s true that some of the people who packed the hall for Sheen Kaaf Nizam’s reading were there to keep their seats in anticipation of Rushdie’s reading, which was on next, but as one of the organisers told me, “He is one of our best poets. People have come from Jodhpur and Udaipur just to hear him.” I met one of Nizam’s fans, quietly exiting the hall instead of waiting for Rushdie’s reading: “After this poetry,” the gentleman said, “I have no appetite for prose.” Publisher and author Urvashi Butalia was a little upset at the imbalance between the two groups–the “Englishwallas” and the “desi writers”. While Bhanu Bharti, Seemantini Raghav (who read from the works of her father, the late Range Raghav) and Anupam Mishra attended sessions by a range of English-language authors, the courtesy was not always reciprocated. It was the “local reader” who came through for their authors, instead. Sitting at the back of the hall during Anupam Mishra’s session, what struck me was the involvement of the audience. Most of them had read his book, Aaj Bhi Khare Hain Talab, and all of them had strong opinions on his work. I left just before the Q&A session–Hindi is not my first or even second language, and the questions were difficult for me to follow–but took away the sense that this was probably one of the most enriching, if under-reported, sessions at the festival.
Here’s Ira Pande on the “little languages”:
“I can dream in all three languages, English, Hindi and Pahari…. Kumaoni has different words for smells, just as the Eskimos are said to have 17 different words for snow. There’s a word for the smell of an imperfectly cleaned bathroom. A word for the smell of an unaired room. I worry about the little languages. Hindi, Marathi, Bengali-these will always survive. But the little languages, like Kumaoni, that provided so much richness and texture to our lives, these are dying… “