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JLF Day 4: Science, Osama bin Laden and calls for courageous journalism

Highlight of the day was the institution of an award by the writers' organisation PEN for courageous reporting, in memory of the murdered journalist Gauri Lankesh

Mihir Sharma  |  Jaipur 

Suki Kim at JLF
Investigative journalists Suki Kim and Michael Rezendes in conversation with Charlie English on ‘Piercing the Veil of Secrecy' at Jaipur Literature Festival (Photo: @zeejlf on Twitter)

On the fourth day of the eleventh Literature Festival, it turned back to its roots -- with sessions on the craft of novel-writing, on the methods of investigative journalism, sea birds, music culture, botany, Egyptian queens, maritime policy and rivers, tigers, and Virginia Woolf. Early in the day, and were in conversation with Charlie English. Kim is a South Korean journalist who went undercover in North Korea to report on how the Pyongyang elite lived their lives and saw the world; is, of course, the reporter who worked on the investigations of child abuse in the Roman Catholic Church that were depicted in the movie Spotlight. Multiple other sessions of interest were on early in the morning. The writers of two books on the search for Osama bin Laden and his life after 9/11 -- Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, writers of 'Exile: the Flight of Osama bin Laden' and Peter Bergen, who wrote, 'Manhunt: the Search for Osama bin Laden in 2012' -- were in conversation with India's former ambassador to Islamabad, TCA Raghavan. Naturally, the subject of Pakistan's complicity with bin Laden came up, though the panelists suggested that incompetence was perhaps a more compelling explanation. Meanwhile, the historian Victor Sebestyen took the audience through recent discoveries and old truths about the life and career of Lenin, 100 years after the Russian Revolution. The crowds then flocked to listen to and discuss the past, in a session called 'Those Were the Days'; Sanghvi tried to push De into admitting that her early potboilers, like Socialite Evenings, were wildly unrealistic, but De was willing to admit only that they were "slight exaggerations". Sanghvi was on stage again shortly thereafter, in an incarnation more familiar to younger festival-goers: as a food writer. He moderated a session with Kota Neelima, Sarah Raven and Lathika George.

Neelima has written a book about prasad in Indian temples, Raven -- a doctor -- has written a book about healthy, vegetarian recipes, and George has produced two masterful books about Kerala cuisine -- specifically, that of her own Syrian Christian community, which she said she began to understand better through the recipes. At lunchtime, Shashi Tharoor, the hardest-working speaker at the festival, took the stage to discuss his past bestseller 'Inglorious Empire'. This discussion, however, was in Hindi; the MP from Trivandrum, known for his use of the English language, performed creditably as he went again through his thesis about the perfidious English colonisers and the "age of darkness" that they brought to India. It seemed likely at the fourth day of the festival that, among younger attendees, there were as many girls as boys -- and perhaps more. Unusual in an Indian public space, this may have been because JLF is very clearly a safe space, with a very visible police presence. The best-selling author -- who dashed in and out of the festival arena over the weekend like a movie star, surrounded by private security, police, and adoring fans — tweeted his thanks to the police, saying that they were "doing an excellent job at the crowded quietly providing security at every corner of the fest". The strong female presence added an additional savour to a session on women om science that closed out the day, with the British journalist and author of Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong Angela Saini, Harvard physicist Lisa Randall, Biocon's Kiran Mazumdar Shaw and Namita Bhandare. Shaw was acerbic about the ladder of success in science, pointing out that while near equal numbers of men and women enter scientific and technical fields, men seemed to find it easier to rise to the top of a peer-reviewed profession in which most of the reviewers, and others in authority, were male. Notably, the organisers had to shift around sessions to fill a hole created by the absence of censor board chief Prasoon Joshi, who kept away from the fest because of threats from violent Rajput outfits incensed by his decision to clear the movie Padmaavat. In one of the sessions that replaced Joshi's, the comedian Mallika Dua said that it was unfortunate that she had to be on stage at all. The theme of threats and violence was taken up at other points; had already compared the current Delhi media negatively to those who resisted the Emergency. For many, the highlight of the day was the institution of an award by the writers' organisation PEN for courageous reporting, in memory of the murdered journalist Gauri Lankesh.

The Literature Festival will conclude on Monday.

First Published: Mon, January 29 2018. 00:52 IST