AT THE JAIPUR Literature Festival this year, one writer stayed mostly in his room in Diggi Palace, demurring from the jampacked author sessions. Instead he spent time catching up with friends and peers on his balcony and brooding upon the strange phenomenon blaring under him — one of the major events in the global literary calendar, right here in tinny Jaipur. The balcony overlooked several rhyming treetops from where, every few minutes, rose a flash of stillness, as if the eager crowds below had forgotten to breathe for a moment.
Whether there was that much to hold your breath for this year depends on whom you ask. What is undeniable is just how much the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) aims for — and achieves — every year. Its success is both wondrous and monstrous, a marvel of author-and-crowd-engineering. Over the years, we’ve come to eagerly anticipate this January pilgrimage and cherish the space it has nurtured for us — a heroic feat in the midst of the culture’s moronic inferno. Today, JLF’s central gamble has become its scale — over 200 authors colliding and careening in 114 packed sessions over five long days, with youth events and evening concerts. Authors arrive from across the world, as does the press. You leave every day both drained and charged, and somehow the energy pours in again the next day.
JLF creates a buzz because of the premium international authors it entices every year — Nobel laureates like JM Coetzee and Orhan Pamuk alongside names like Martin Amis, Candace Bushnell, Ahmed Rashid, Richard Ford, Chimamanda Adichie and many others this year. But the writers, readers and organisers are quite clear — they’re here for a desi festival — with the emphasis on both those words. There are also bhasha sessions with vernacular and translated literature from across the country, and a spatter of the Indian visual arts with this year’s representative sessions with SH Raza, Dayanita Singh and Sarnath Banerjee.
On the other hand, scale was also the recurring complaint one heard in the JLF lunch queues in 2011, and the clichéd comparisons will not be denied: Mela. Circus. College fest. Carnival. Rock concert. The Haj. But while many came expecting a massive mela, they didn’t anticipate another alarming development — the JLF has become a bored elephant.
This year’s sessions were the most underwhelming yet. The topics were often too basic to yield anything beyond a vague explication from authors, especially in the bhasha sessions like ‘The Idea of Rajasthan’ and ‘Marathi Theatre’. Many were just readings from or discussions of an author’s book, where not much was revealed if you were already familiar with the work. Some authors did quibble, as when Orhan Pamuk spent valuable time explaining how his proposed topic ‘Out of West’ had been misunderstood. Then there were the moments when panelists rounded upon their moderator and rubbished his assumptions about the topic, such as when Jay McInerney, Junot Díaz and Richard Ford refused to allow Martin Amis’ contention that with Bellow, Updike and Mailer dead, American fiction is in crisis. Moderators were often beleaguered or just badly matched with their nimbler panelists, such as Sonia Faleiro trying to interrogate Díaz or Rupika Chawla agreeing with everything Dayanita and Sarnath told her. There were the honourable exceptions like Mani Shankar Aiyar, who actually seemed to have read his assigned book and asked MJ Akbar pointy questions about problematic sections and statements. But these moments were few. Mostly, the festival seemed designed for the fresh and starry-eyed newcomer.
For these first-timers, it’s still a deep thrill to gawk at favourite celebrity authors, to learn new ways of writing and thinking when they speak, to learn the possibility of a differently committed life, to stand behind them at the bar. The frisson of access still works, whatever the size of the crowd around you. Spectacle is native to such a set-up — we’re pleased when Orhan is grumpy, when Junot swears, when Amis drawls his vowels, when Coetzee grimaces. Or the quieter exhibits like Vikram Seth nodding attentively during a session, leaning against a wall since he couldn’t find a seat. Or someone like A Revathi, attending her first festival, is exuberant in her praise for the JLF, contrasting it with academic conferences where people point and gossip about her being a hijra. “They wouldn’t want to eat at the same table with me,” she says. “Here there’re no gender biases or stigma, everyone is together. It’s a different spirit here. There’s alcohol but no fights, no sexual harassment. I want to live in this world!” While she mildly points to the mistake in her session’s title (‘eunuch’ instead of ‘hijra’), Revathi wonders at how the festival manages its convivial spirit: “I was a bit lonely on the first day but after my session I suddenly had lots of friends. I learnt how other writers think and what they think about.”
THE JAIPUR Lit Fest certainly justifies its boast of being democratic — no tickets, no reservations, no carded access, and lots and lots of people. Vikram Seth praises this aspect particularly: “There’re no reserved seats here, anyone can come, which is wonderful.” Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie disagrees, saying, “I’ve been to many fests. This one has more of a factory feel, it’s not as intimate. I came because I wanted to come to India.” Tamil translator and writer Pritham Chakravarthy points out a finer distinction: “This is an absolute mela. The Kala Ghoda and Edinburgh festivals are more democratic and people-friendly — it’s more street. Maybe’, she adds impishly, “because this one’s held in a palace. It’s very classy very programmed and nice. I’m not into the star-gazing!”
Spectacle is native to such a set-up — we’re pleased when Pamuk is grumpy, when Díaz swears, when Amis drawls his vowels, when Coetzee grimaces
English language and bhasha writers have mostly been kept cleanly apart at the JLF so far. Dominican-American Junot Díaz also points to another problem with such an insecurity with translation when he sums up his experience: “Festivals can always work better, they can’t connect with every level of society. A festival plants seeds for its betterment. India seems exceptionally difficult because of its linguistic heritage. I’d have preferred more sessions of bhasha translations instead of so many American writers. Why wasn’t I in conversation with Indian writers? The international writers were on panels that could have been in New York. I didn’t come to India for this, though I enjoyed it.”
The festival’s egalitarian spirit has also pushed its content more and more towards pageantry and further from focussing on the writing. No writer, it seems, has stage fright anymore. Those in the audience looking for intenser fare are left to their own devices in the crowd — to peek an impassioned Dayanita Singh handing out copies of her ‘reading list’ to the public, to have private epiphanic conversations with an author, or to just discover a writer (playwright Mahesh Elkunchwar) or genre (Pakistani pulp) in a session or the bookshop. Most writers like Adichie say they’re energised by the prospect of meeting their audience at such festivals — and the affirmation of discovering new ones in places not on their mind’s map till now. Adds Díaz, “Festivals don’t energise me as a writer, they energise me as a reader. My tribe is readers. I’m with my team here as if at a sporting event!”
So should a festival this size beget a literary culture? Can it? Or is it fated to remain just a celebrity event, where the public comes to gawk and the harried media frazzles the harried authors for those gawkers — several reporters asked Adichie, “You’re African, aren’t you?” One asked Díaz if he was Goan. (Vikram Seth recounts how he was besieged by so many interviews at the JLF last year, this year he refused to do any.) And while the swing of celebrity might be giddy, it has its benefits: one American writer half-joked that he used to be considered a big gun but isn’t anymore, which is why he was shunted to a B-grade hotel instead of Diggi Palace.
What JLF has begotten for certain is a rash of new festivals and provided energy for older ones. The Kovalam festival started promisingly in 2008, while The Hindu group is rumoured to be planning its own. DSC Prize winner and Pakistani author HM Naqvi comments, “I didn’t come for a small and insular festival here (and I’ve been to those kinds). I came expecting this, and it’s great.” While Naqvi praises the diverse audiences at the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) back home, Pakistani editor and writer Faiza Khan says KLF feels more like a wedding reception — immensely cliquish in a country of few writers and poorly organised. In the distance between the inane and the profound at such festivals, there remain the very basic benefits — accrued again more for the novitiate littérateur — such as reclaiming a space in the culture where books are taken seriously and writers are a big deal.
JLF is an indicator — and measure — of what is now possible in India. Many of the conversations, on stage and off, referred to Indian culture’s global ascendance. But there’s another, more universal theme that persisted across the five days: the speed of modern life, the invasion of technology and media chatter into our private selves, the shrinking of contemplative space — and literature’s struggle to compete with and evoke this condition. Excited as she was to attend JLF, on arriving Faiza Khan stayed in her hotel room most of the first day, finishing a Bret Easton Ellis novel she’d picked up at the airport. For some of us, the only antidote to a literature festival is to read and write. And stay on the balcony.