Over the past month, I’ve been asked one question repeatedly: “Are you going to Jaipur for the Lit Fest?” It’s actually more of a conversation starter than an actual question because everyone assumes I’ll say yes and that once that little formality is over, we can start talking about which sessions to attend and which parties to gatecrash.
Unfortunately, I’m not following the script this year. My response to the opening question is “No”. Why am I not going to Jaipur? Because in the past few months, every other week there seems to have been a lit fest somewhere in the country and I’ve had enough of them. At this point, people look at me as though I have confessed to torturing puppies in my spare time.
This year’s list of participants in the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) is as impressive as those for the past four-odd years. It includes Tom Stoppard, David Remnick and Michael Ondaatje. But even the (sadly quashed) possibility of Salman Rushdie’s presence didn’t alter my determination to be in Mumbai, happily curled up with a book instead — and I’m such a big fan of Rushdie that I chose to write a dissertation on one of his novels and even that didn’t lessen my fondness for his writing. Actually, I suspect if I hear of one more “lit fest”, I'll break out in hives.
Every now and then, urbane India gets caught up in a craze. The literary festival and its dizygotic twin, the “ideas festival”, are our most recent obsession. About three years ago, struck by how JLF had become a talking point, every media house wanted to have a festival of its own. So these events mushroomed all over the country. Regardless of whether the festival is in Kolkata or Kovalam, it’s a clone of JLF and impatiently looking to become as big a crowd-puller. Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Goa, Thiruvananthapuram, Kovalam — all these places host a literary or an arts festival. Some, like Goa, hosted two last year. Mumbai hosted three. There are plagues that have taken longer to spread.
The first edition of JLF was held in 2006, and it was a humble event. Then it grew in stature and ambition. Big literary names appeared in the panels, and now Jaipur in January is a Mecca for Indian authors, publishers and book lovers. The largest festival of its kind in Asia, it has consistently brought outstanding writers from all over the world to attend the event, which in turn has drawn increasingly larger crowds. JLF has become the place to be, particularly if you’re in publishing or want to be published. This year, more than 60,000 people are expected to visit Diggi Palace, where JLF has been held since 2006, all of them determined to see and be seen. As brand building goes, JLF is a fantastic success story, but the trend of festivals that it’s engendered isn’t quite as exciting for all festival-goers.
To begin with, the format of the festivals can easily monotonous. Sessions comprise writers who sit on a stage and talk to one another while the audience listens for tweet-able sentences. The larger the crowd, the more formal and consequently boring the conversation tends to be. Add to this the fact that few of our writers are good interlocutors, and you find yourself sitting uncomfortably in a packed venue, listening to an author say what they’ve said in a dozen-odd interviews, which you’ve probably already read if you’re a fan. If the author is famous, then the percentage of the crowd that knows the writer’s work is tiny. Most people show up with about the same mentality that makes a guy scrawl “My name is Varun” on the pillars of a heritage structure — because they’d like to mark themselves present in a place that they figure is important. The only difference is that Varun is unlikely to talk about his graffiti at the next set of parties he attends, which is precisely what the lit-fest audience will be doing. Generally speaking, the fancier the festival, the more ignorant the audience. If you can say you were at the Remnick event in JLF, who cares whether you’ve read his writing?
Bibliophiles flock to book readings and discussions in the hope of glimpsing how the mind of a writer works and of learning something about them or their work that isn’t public knowledge — and to see an author up close without the aid of binoculars. You hear the cadences in their speech, the way they use language. You find out the reasons behind what they write. They make little confessions and revelations. There’s an intimacy to these occasions, which may well be illusory, but the best of them leave the audience feeling they understand the author and their work a little better now. With so many being cranked out with monotonous regularity, India’s literary festivals, despite the different organisers and packaging, feel like a single travelling circus — emptied of literary encounters and filled with predictable performances.
The writer is a Mumbai-based author and critic.
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