(I promise, this is the last of the updates–my column for the Business Standard, which reprises some of the stuff in the blog posts. For a really thoughtful critique of the festival, see Namita Bhandare’s take. It’s funny how possessive all of us who’ve been attending the JLF from year one or two onwards feel about it.)
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 lit fest 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 literary festival, and has 220 speakers and writers, and about 15-20,000 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 penciled “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. On 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 empire.
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, H M 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.