It’s easy to knock the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF). In many ways, the biggest, phattest, namedroppiest cultural winter camp in the overbooked and undercooked annual calendar, is everything that the act of reading ‘literature’ is not.
It is unabashedly democratic, catering to footfalls that belong to readers as well as to non-readers; to people wishing to listen to authors they admire or want to discover and to autograph-hunting schoolchildren alike; to famous, big-time authors and to smallsy writers who are mistaken sometimes for bigsy writers. The JLF is a spectacle-cum-satsang, even as reading is a solitary activity that has little value for the media or other spectators.
And yet, one thing that the JLF 2014 returned to the tent was the single idea that at the centre of all the razzmatazz, elbow-pushing and ‘JLF 2014 I was there!’ tee-shirt was the book. There was no rush to catch an hour-long glimpse of Oprah or Amitabh this time because there were no Amitabh-Oprahesque figures. There wasn’t the mandatory gaggle of protesters last week protesting about what some dastardly writer symbolised through his writings for their community, or any author who made breaking news on telly out of a molehill. (The sad little protest arranged by a local Rajasthani group didn’t make the grade even as a group shouted slogans against Ekta Kapoor and threw a shoe or two for her ‘depiction of Rajput women’ in her tele-series Jodha Akbar.)
JLF 2014 was almost strangely about only listening to writers discussing their ideas, talking about their books, chewing cud about subjects that ranged from the life and works of Habib Tanvir, and the so-called ‘global novel’ — that Jhumpa Lahiri in her session dismissed as a “commercial term” — to comic writing and writing biographies. The 175-odd sessions (Mary Kom and Javed Akhtar could not make it to Jaipur) had enough things for everybody to make one feel a bit more wise and enriched in a palpably old-fashioned way. It was like going home with the intellectual equivalent of a Prada handbag.
For the however-much-in-the-minority wide-eyed lover of ‘literary’ books, a daily time-managed eeny-meeny-miny-moe across the foldable programme sheet — most days having as many as six sessions on simultaneously at different venues in the Diggi Palace precincts — could provide a darshan of feminist writer Gloria Steinem, economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, author of Zealots, a political biography of Jesus Christ, Reza Aslan, historian Antony Beevor, the latest biographer of Delhi, Rana Dasgupta, writers Vikram Chandra, Amish Tripathi and Joseph O’Neill, and many others usually found static on the back-flaps of books.
Some of the best sessions were the ones where the audience got to hear about processes and devices that go into the making of a book. At the launch of Dayanita Singh’s File Room, the photographer with a writer’s mind spoke about how she never chooses a subject in a ‘project’ sort of way, but makes her choice depending on what she’s been reading, listening or watching instead. Urvashi Butalia spoke about how multiple narratives about ‘Partition’ should coexist without being strapped by the ‘either-or’ness of one grand Partition narrative.
Such performances at JLF can act as a catalyst for a member of the audience to turn into a buyer of a book and, ultimately (one hopes), its reader. Writers here come out of the cave of their books. So rituals such as book-signings and taking photos with authors (a lit fest ritual that usually doesn’t involve buying the author’s book) add to the quasi-mystical ties between a book and its author and the ‘telepathic’ relation between a writer and his reader.
There were more than a few book club members at JLF. As a lady from south Mumbai hanging out with her girlfriends over drinks said after a hard day of JLF-ing, “Last month, we had chosen Samantha Shannon’s The Bone Season as our ‘Book of the Month’ book. And here she was today!” Here were the literary reverse-window shoppers.
But how could a lit fest be different from a lit conference if not for the fun bits? When Amar Singh, not a name that comes to one’s mind when talking about anything to do with books, walked into the JLF bookstore, an admirer requested him for an autograph. The former Samajwadi Party partyman, having fallen on barren times for a while, was happy to oblige. Picking up the nearest book, he opened it and signed his name. His admirer was, thereby, forced to buy the book bearing Amar Singh’s signature.
The book was Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland. Sure, there were other less convoluted ways by which the ninth Jaipur Literature Festival brought people closer to the world of books and reading. But surely there couldn’t have been a more novel one.
Hazra is the author of Grand Delusions: A Short Biography of Kolkata