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Scenes from a festival

Jai Arjun Singh  |  New Delhi 

plays fly-on-the-wall at the Jaipur Literature Festival
"I get the impression," poet Jeet Thayil deadpans, "that India has discovered the literary festival and is going to make up for the past with a vengeance."
Thayil is referring to the sudden preponderance of lit-events being organised in the country, but he might as well be talking about the blink-and-miss pace of activity at the one we are at "" the Jaipur Literature Festival, held in the Diggi Palace between January 19-21.
Inside the hall, a few feet from where we are standing, a reading-cum-discussion is underway, one of many scheduled for the day. We are by the lawn outside, near the little book-stall and coffee-stand, having decided (like many others) that it's impractical to try and attend each session; it makes more sense to choose your events and spend the rest of the time soaking in the general atmosphere.
The Jaipur festival allows for such an approach, being relatively informal in its structure "" the sessions are free-flowing, not centred around a specific theme, and the event descriptions usually not more elaborate than "So-and-so well-loved author reads from her work and speaks with so-and-so".
Of course, informality does start to disappear as an event gets bigger in scale. At last year's edition of the festival it was possible to meet someone like Hari Kunzru at the door as he left after his reading, and shepherd him to a deckchair for an impromptu five-minute interview.
This year things aren't so simple. With a larger audience and (more pertinently) larger media representation, authors tend to be chary and stick to their own comfort groups "" though it's ridiculous to suggest, as some news reports did before the event, that Salman Rushdie has a security contingent accompanying him around.
The man is usually surrounded by a clique of friends, fellow authors and festival organisers, but it isn't uncommon to see him blithely entering the hall all by himself and occupying the nearest available seat.
The quality of the actual events stays consistent most of the way through, though minor irritants do show up. Pramod Kumar, former director, Jaipur Virasat Foundation, is candid about the areas that need to be improved on.
"We've had seating problems, especially for the highest-profile events," he says, alluding to the Kiran Desai and Rushdie sessions where the audience spilled over onto the lawn; Desai's conversation with Barkha Dutt was especially frustrating for those who didn't get good seats because the TV set installed outside the hall played Twinkle Twinkle and the acoustics weren't up to par.
"I'm also disappointed by the lack of questions from the audience," Kumar says, though this does also stem from the need to hurriedly wrap one session up so the next one can begin.
At any rate, you can be assured of strange and wondrous sights at a literary event spread over three days, especially if you're uninitiated to cocktail book launches and the lit-party circuit. To start with, the image of the author as a reclusive beast cooped up in a room with pen and Muse goes rapidly out the window.
There are games of one-upmanship between writer and writer, agent and agent, journalist and journalist, and various permutations of these. There is groupism, bitching, backstabbing, canoodling. Two heavyweights who might not be very happy to run into one another are steered away at key moments by the organisers.
Wannabe writers pursue publishers and agents with large manuscripts in their hands. Caferati, the online forum for aspiring writers (http://www.caferati.com/), has its own stall set up in one corner, where there is much (good-natured) hard-selling of the group's first book, the self-published Stories from the Coffee-Table.
At the other end of the lawn a schoolgirl talks excitedly on her cellphone: "Haan, uncle? Rushdieji mere peeche baithe the!" Other students take photographs inside the hall with flash-enabled cameras (despite a strict injunction not to) and whisper loudly to each other: "Damn, I clicked that guy's picture instead of that guy's! Which of them is the main guy for this session?"
And in the midst of all the fun and frivolity, there are even some provocative discussions about literature "" authors reading from and talking about their work, sessions that cover legacies from the past (in the form of a moving homage to the late poets Dom Moraes, Nissim Ezekiel and Arun Kolatkar) and possible directions for the future (Penguin India editor Ravi Singh cautions that all the talk about explosive growth in Indian publishing is "ridiculously overstated "" the average print runs for mid-list hasn't changed in the last 10 years", but Zubaan publisher Urvashi Butalia is more optimistic about the increase in the number of bookstores, genres and the growing importance of literature for young people).
One of my favourite vignettes: when authors Ira Pande and Namita Gokhale, cousins, begin a session by chattering jovially amongst each other and then apologising to the audience: "Sorry about this, when Namita and I get together we turn into a Johar Mahmood show and forget all about the audience."
But this doesn't stop the ladies from embarking on a thoughtful conversation about the work of Pande's mother Shivani, the acclaimed Hindi writer. This balancing act between intimacy and serious discussion is what makes the Jaipur festival a success.
SESSION SNIPPETS
  • William Dalrymple's zeal as a presenter, the way he brings 19th century Delhi to life in his writing and his lectures, and the PowerPoint slides that he uses to illuminate his talks on White Mughals and The Last Mughal are all commendable "" but one's enthusiasm wanes after having seen and heard all this half a dozen times, at previous book launches. Some of Dalrymple's material was an exact repeat of his presentation at the last edition of the festival "" such as the bit about Sir David Ochterlony who went for evening promenades around Delhi with his 13 Indian wives, each of whom had her own elephant. In fairness though, this would have been a delight for a first-time viewer with any sort of interest in the historical period.
  • Kiran Nagarkar's reading was a disappointment, partly because of the sound quality and partly because Nagarkar, who can be very entertaining when he's in the right mood, seemed uninspired as he read passages from God's Little Soldier. The discussion that followed was too brief, largely inaudible and went off into odd tangents, such as who Nagarkar's favourite Indian directors were. The session was moderated by Shoma Choudhary, who also anchored Nagarkar's high-profile book launch in Delhi a few months ago "" but there was no Aamir Khan in attendance this time around, which is just as well seeing that the hall was already packed to the seams.
  • In what was easily the highlight of day one, Keki Daruwala, Jeet Thayil and Jane Bhandari took turns to read from the work of Dom Moraes, Nissim Ezekiel and Arun Kolatkar, and interspersed the readings with little anecdotes and asides. Thayil was particularly good "" his presentation included a series of evocative photographs such as one of Kolatkar sitting in the inn where he received his visitors ("his apartment was so tiny he couldn't meet people there "" sometimes he had to take them out to the balcony").
  • "You're allowed to laugh. These are funny poems," he told the overly solemn audience, a welcome comment to make at an event that's always in danger of being shrouded in gravitas.
  • Suketu Mehta's conversation with Dalrymple was very entertaining, with Mehta reading out some of the funnier bits from Maximum City, proferring his thoughts on non-fiction ("it requires many years of trudging in the dirt "" and a big advance") and relating stories about meeting gangsters, bar girls and movie stars for his research. The audience was livelier than usual, one gent in particular causing much mirth for the way he worded a question: "One of the most fascinating portions of your book was about meeting Satish and Mickey "" remember?"
  • In reference to Mehta's story about discovering that the police staged "encounter killings", someone else asked if he felt any conscience pangs as an Indian citizen. "Well, I'm not an Indian citizen," Mehta quipped, before quickly adding "In any case, what was I supposed to do here "" call the cops?"
  • Amit Chaudhuri has this quiet, serious look but he can be very funny in his understated way. When Anita Roy, moderating his session, cautiously said, "I hope you don't take offence, but it seems you're something of an oddity in the pantheon of Indian writers...", Chaudhuri promptly retorted with a faux-offended "How dare you!" Shortly afterward, he was asked what he thought of Suketu Mehta's remark that Indian writing in English is more interesting and dynamic than in other languages because Indians who are thinking/writing in English are seeing more rapid change. Chaudhuri looked around with mock-surreptitiousness. "Is Suketu here? No? Then it's safe to disapprove?"
  • Roy observed that Chaudhuri seems to belong to a different time-zone from the other major Indian writers of his generation: "On the one hand there's been this prevailing notion that only big, sprawling can capture the reality of this big, sprawling country," she said, "but on the other hand your work is almost miniaturist."
    Chaudhuri responded by discussing his discomfort with "the triumphalist nature of Indian writing" and by mentioning some of his early influences, including Arun Kolatkar's Jejuri: "This lineage is as important as the huge monuments of Rushdie and Midnight's Children."
    "The old language of literature is being replaced by the language of the market," he said later, alluding to the blurb culture. "There was a time when it took a while for a book to develop a reputation. Today we're being told even before a book's release that it's a masterpiece. Time has turned around."
  • The undoubted centrepiece of the festival was the Salman Rushdie talk, the audience for which prudently took its seats more than an hour before it even began (which meant that the session just preceding it, a reading by the Urdu poet Sheen Kaaf Nizam, was the second-most-heavily attended in the festival). Rushdie was in excellent form, his warmth and enthusiasm coming as a surprise to those who might have thought of him as a forbidding figure. He regaled the audience with a stream of anecdotes: about seeing a London church as a youngster that was so ugly he realised it was nothing more than an empty house ("I ceased to believe in god thanks to neo-Gothic architecture!") and promptly rushing out to buy a ham sandwich to celebrate his newfound atheism; about an Egyptian maitre'd who told him he had read "that book" (Satanic Verses) and "though it is completely banned in Egypt, everyone has read it!". Rushdie also held forth on the lack of responsibility in the Indian media. "Our have 'a novel' printed on the front page to indicate that they are fiction," he said. "But newspapers and magazines don't use the same disclaimer."
  • First Published: Sun, January 28 2007. 00:00 IST
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