The fifth and last day of the Jaipur Literature Festival is always the least terror-inducing. The crowds have gone down to manageable levels, given that the weekend is over; most of the crowd that had come in from Delhi has returned to their day jobs; and the Festival's campus, Diggi Palace in central Jaipur, becomes incredibly easy to navigate. For regular Festival-goers, it is like being a decade younger, reminiscent of the time when going to Jaipur for the festival included a reasonable chance of having a real and intimate chat with an author whom previous there was absolutely no likelihood of ever having a conversation with. On the fifth day, a random schoolgirl from Jaipur could conceivably walk up to Helen Fielding, the author of the Bridget Jones diaries, and tell her how much they love her books. This is an opportunity that is not usually available to Indians in Tier-II towns; it is a reminder of how much India has changed over the past two decades that a child in a government school in Jaipur is capable of speaking to an internationally renowned author unmediated and uninhibited. Journalist Christopher de Bellaigue in a session during the Jaipur Literature Festival at Diggi Palace in Jaipur | Photo: PTI On Monday, JLF had a series of sessions that challenged the audience to think beyond their standard perspectives. After lunch, for example, Chris de Bellaigue spoke to a sceptical Jaipur audience about the Islamic Renaissance, the point at which Muslim countries from Spain to central Asia led the world in terms of their innovation and cultural vibrancy. Panelists in a session on social media and discourse, including journalist Swati Chaturvedi and former Planning Commission member Arun Maira spoke about the degree to which the public is responsible for the deterioration in discourse because of their unwillingness to pay for news. The panel also argued in favour of the notion of "active listening" — suggesting that one major problem in the public sphere today was partisans' failure to listen to each other. The American journalist Matt Frei, in one of the earliest sessions of the day, insisted that it was possible for reasonable people to support Donald Trump's presidency, and urged his audience to understand their motivations.
The journalist and Middle East specialist Christopher de Bellague challenged the audience's understanding of Islam by discussing the Muslim Renaissance of the Middle Ages. Delegates click selfie at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2018 at Diggi Palace in Jaipur. Photo: PTIAbove all, the star of the closing day was Sujatha Gilda, a New York City subway operator who has written a much-discussed memoir, Ants Among Elephants, about her Dalit ancestry. Gilda, who has less stake than many others in the status quo, was remarkably open about her dissent. She questioned the commitment of all existing major national political parties when it came to Dalit upliftment; she was blunt about the position of Muslims in Indian society; when her African-American co-panellist mentioned that Mahatma Gandhi was one of his inspirations, she was refreshingly outspoken about the Dalit view of Gandhi's impact on Indian thinking. The Jaipur Literature Festival has traditionally ended with a debate on one of the burning issues of the day. It is the only even held after 5 pm on the closing day of the festival, and even though the last day is traditionally the one that has the lowest attendance, the closing debate sees a large number of people turn up to see an open discussion about one of the burning issues of the moment. Past discussions have focused on the freedom of speech, on India's secular nationhood, and so on. This year, the discussion was about the #MeToo movement: the topic was 'Do Men Still Have it Too Easy?' The discussants, who included the Bee Rowlatt — a British journalist now settled in New Delhi — as well as the veteran journalist Vinod Dua, the writers Sandip Roy and Ruchira Gupta, the magazine editor Manu Joseph and Additional Solicitor General Pinky Anand, were given four minutes each to lay out their view before the discussion was thrown open. Roy pointed out that legal remedies were not enough: "Vishakha [the Supreme Court requirement for sexual harassment committees in workplaces] is after the fact, how do I change the fact? how do I change the culture that enables sexual harassment?" Joseph argued that men in workplaces today were not sure how to behave; to which Rowlatt responded: "Then sit down, be quiet, and listen. If you don't know what to do, you haven't been listening". The Jaipur Literature Festival thus concluded with a plea to listen to alternative views, different perspectives, and unusual stories — the theme, perhaps, of the previous five days.