Notes from the Jaipur Lit Fest, Day Two

Khullar chai

At Flow, the fancy café in between the Baithak and the Mughal Tent, you get hot apple cider honey, green tea and acceptable freshly brewed coffee for a price. Authors and delegates get a decent facsimile of dhaba chai in the Diggi Palace dining room, and students lay siege to the tea and coffee machines near the book stalls. But the one we’re all waiting for is the khullar chai, served in tiny cups. Like the Bisleri water, it’s a junta freebie; I remember buying my own water and tea at Edinburgh.

Crossing the bar

Given that most authors have no limits when handed one of two things—an open mike and a full bottle—it may have been a mistake to offer free booze to authors and speakers. A dashing young author known for his taste in fine hats, women and wine reaches the bar first, aided by some nifty elbow work, asks for five beers, as an aperitif. He’s told his card entitles him to one drink at a time. By the end of the evening, though, the bar has crumbled, and I see the Authors XI (a mixed Delhi-Bombay team) emerge with most of its contents. For non-drinkers, we recommend the hot apple cider at Flow.

Conspiracy theories

The morning session on The Conspiracy has Tunku Varadarajan, Lawrence Wright and Kai Bird. Tunku, it is decided, is the official festival patch: he’s employed in any session that has sprung an obvious leak. I miss The Conspiracy, but am informed it was a Right-Wing, not a Left-Wing one. Over at Open magazine, Rahul Bhatia has the lowdown.

“No place for us”

Diggi Palace is filling up, with Wole Soyinka, the Queen of Bhutan and Tina Brown joining in along with Girish Karnad, Christopher Jaffrelot and company; but sometimes they’re not the biggest draws. The Dalit literature panel is packed to the seams, as O P Valmiki asks whether literature can be for Dalits as well. It’s a question that had to be asked about three decades ago, and the sad part is that Valmiki has to ask it again.
“When we are told not to be victims, who gave us that role? Caste never leaves us alone; it’s so deep-rooted that it lives on in our minds.” S Anand, who’s moderating the session, mentions that he passed a Vaishnava Bhojanalaya earlier in the day, and that he, along with most of us, wouldn’t be able to imagine a Chamar Bhojanalaya. There’s a rush at the end of the session as a score of foreign journalists head towards the Dalit woman writer, Sivakami, for soundbytes. But for me, what resonates is the way Kancha Ilaiah, O P Valmiki and Sivakami make a point of thanking the fest for inviting Dalit writers to join in “so early” in their history. Valmiki mentions that most regional language festivals don’t have space for Dalit writers. It’s not a literary category that counts.

Wole on The Road

On the front lawns, Wole Soyinka takes stage after Her Royal Highness of Bhutan. And for an hour, his voice, deep, sonorous, richly musical, fills the space as he reads from The Road. There’s a gigantic carved wooden door behind him, parrots darting out in formation in the branches overhead, and the bright circus-tent ribbons of the open-air pavilion. Sometimes you have to have the right backdrop.

Two Wole moments, since I can’t reproduce his poetry:

On the need for forgiveness post-apartheid:
“I believe what lends dignity to humans is an acceptance of responsibility. Forgiveness, yes, but also restitution. Not vengeance, not exaction, but restitution.”

And on the gods:
“The gods never really die. They just expand their portfolios.”

On boldly going and the Kindle

The Internet panel—“Can the Internet save books?”—moderated by Barkha Dutt, and including Vikram Chandra, Gulzar, Tina Brown & Prasoon Joshi wanders into the usual maze (e-books versus “real” books, the Death of Reading As We Know It). And rouses a massed horde of bloggers and Internet fiends who’re snoozing at the tables at the back, briefly, when someone says “You can’t take a Kindle into the loo,” referring to the portability of paper books versus the Kindle. Our table wakes up in violent fashion. The chorus of “You can!”s is topped by the one voice saying, “I did!”

Also packed: the Katha Kram: Readings From Rajasthan session, and the Tibet debate, with Isabel Hilton and Tenzin Tsundue—introduced by Dalrymple as “the most-arrested author of the festival”. More on that later; the khullar chai calls.