Notes from the Jaipur Lit Fest, day one

The Jaipur Shuffle

The Jaipur Shuffle is a well-known manouevre executed in obeisance to the local gods of fog and missed flights, and it was done with expertise on the first day of the fest. Wole Soyinka—“Mr Woyinka”, says a distracted organizer, and the contraction shows every signs of catching on–Girish Karnad, Jamaica Kincaid and Andrew O’Hagan are among the authors felled by the elements, though Karnad and Mr Woyinka are rumoured to be likely to join us tomorrow. Not so Louis de Bernieres, whose passport was dispatched by the Indian Embassy in error to a shop in Brighton. It was recovered—and then he discovered that it had no visa. So no Bernieres, either.

Undeterred, the fest organizers reshuffle panels with the same careless élan that Indira Gandhi once employed with her cabinet, and authors dash in at the eleventh hour to the rescue. This is a very good thing for some of us. When I stroll in at 10 am, I’m looking at moderating The Art of Criticism panel at 11 am with one participant, ie me. Fascinating as the prospect of interviewing myself may be, it’s a relief when Amitava Kumar (Husband of a Fanatic, Bombay-London-New York, Evidence of Suspicion) trots in, followed soon by Geoff Dyer. We turn this into a two-author conversation on Writers as Critics (general consensus: Better Than Critics as Critics, a view shared by all but the critics in the audience), and then Amit Chaudhuri joins us fresh off the Delhi-Jaipur highway.

There are horses behind the Baithak Tent, which offers Amitava Kumar an opportunity to air his critical acumen. On what critics and writers think about popular but Not Literary bestseller writers, such as a certain Shobha De, he gestures at the horses:
“From where we sit, the refreshing smell of manure wafts in from time to time and we breathe this air, along with the very pleasant breezes of Diggi Palace. But we might not want to breathe it all the time.”

It says “fiction” on the back cover

Geoff Dyer, author of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, on the difference between writing fiction and writing autobiographically:
“My character is called Jeff with a J, whereas I am Geoff-with a G.”

The Gulag Archipelago
Anne Applebaum on the difference between gulags and Guantanamo Bay:
“Guantanamo Bay was set up for prisoners of war, at the time of Afghanistan. The gulags imprisoned ordinary Russians, in a deliberately random way.” She admits the deficiencies in the Guantanamo Bay prisons, refers briefly to the ways in which it has gone wrong, but adds: “I do believe in using language accurately. There’s a difference between a prison, a concentration camp or a Nazi camp, and a gulag.”
Gulag, her authoritative history, is published in Russia by a small academic press. It’s available in 25 languages across the world—including, she stressed, most of the Baltic countries—but hard to find or read in Putin’s Russia.
One part of the discussion, ably and gently directed by Tunku Varadarajan, was especially moving. Applebaum spoke of how the era of the gulags, once documented by Solzhenitsyn, had vanished from the media and from the official histories—but not been wiped from the collective memory. “It’s still so close—only a generation away. Your taxi driver may have an uncle who was in the gulags. A neighbour knows a cousin who died there.” In libraries across Russia, she met with an almost frantic eagerness, once the staff discovered what she was working on. “Have you read this? And this?” librarians would ask, pulling out histories, journals, diaries, letters. “Let me find that volume for you.”
That eagerness reflects the need to make sure that a history that may not be spoken of will nevertheless be documented; as Applebaum noted, the truth of how the gulags were built and run were only released over the last decade. The agreement to erase, or maintain a silence about, or forget the gulag years is then only an agreement to wipe it from the official memory; not the folk memory.
In the little gulag literature I’ve read, a curious detail: there are relatively few references to “a gulag”, almost always to “the gulags”. At some point in the history of the Holocaust, the camps were referred to by their names-Auschwitz, Belsen, Dachau—but most often collectively as “the camps”—few are dispatched to “a camp”, or “a gulag”. You might go to “a prison” in a normal country; but it will be to “the gulags”, as though we understand that these structures have acquired a collective horror that wipes out individual differences between one place and another. I could be wrong here, but I would like to re-read the gulag shelves to make sure.

It’s all about the navel-gazing
It is also confirmed that, as in his author photograph, H M Naqvi (author of Home Boy) believes in wearing his tops unzipped to either navel or at the very least, chest. This is perfectly acceptable fashion, and Naqvi can carry it off. But by evening, I notice at least two photographers, blessed with far more flabby embonpoint than Naqvi, with their shirts unbuttoned to below-chest levels. I am contemplating adding this to the list of Things Writers Should Be More Responsible About.

Packing them in

The organizers were apparently worried that they might not have much of an audience on day one, what with the weather and the traffic and uncooperative airlines. The morning sessions, with or without Soyinka and company, are packed: over a hundred people squeeze into the Baithak for the criticism session and the Applebaum session, and at least 50-70 for the Claire Tomalin/ Austen sessions, twice that for the Adaptations session (with Rahul Bose, Michael Frayn & co). Gulzar, Shabani Azmi and Om Puri reading from Tughlaq draw audiences in the hundreds.
Overheard, from a Jaipur local on his cellphone: “Yes, yes, fest is a big success. (He looks from the Baithak to the packed Mughal tent.) Lefthand tent AND righthand tent. It is popular on BOTH sides.”

The old razzle-dazzle

The day closes with the Alexander McCall Smith session, called Tea Time For The Traditionally Built. (William Dalrymple, conducting the conversation, explains carefully that the title has no reference to the girth of either of the gentlemen on the podium.) It’s a hilarious, you-had-to-be-there session, but here’s a small sample. McCall Smith is asked whether he found it difficult as a man to write about women, of traditional builds or otherwise.
“Authors have to get into the shoes of very many characters.” Then he thinks about it:
“I think some male authors quite enjoy getting into a woman’s shoes.”
Literary cross-dressing, says William D, and the evening continues with enough in the way of Jaipur brass bands, sparkly lights, fire-jugglers and Rajasthani folk dancers for me and Dilip Simeon to argue that this isn’t really a lit-fest, despite the august presence of the likes of Roberto Calasso, Nayantara Sahgal, Tenzing Tsundue and some of the most interesting of the Dalit writers. This, we agree, is really the Great Indian Wedding in masquerade, right down to the squabbling biradari, the grumbling auntyji who needs constant appeasement, and the flourishing of clan feuds and alliances among the various branches of high and low literature.





3 responses to “Notes from the Jaipur Lit Fest, day one”

  1. umi Avatar

    Thank you for this, I feel like I was there! Rather you than me, literary g-literati scares me… but this was just lovely ti read. Thank you, will follow it as you unfold it, I love your quiet humor and quirky eye…

  2. Space Bar Avatar

    lovely! waiting for more updates.

  3. Paddy Avatar

    Brilliant, enjoying this. Hope you will find the time to keep blogging while there..

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