Am rushing through the rest of the Jaipur fest report, because 1) I'm lazy and 2) my agent tells me I've written an average of 4000 words per day in the last week, which is over the legal limit. So here's a point-by-point summing up.
- Predictably, the largest crowds showed up for the Shobhaa De reading. Watching the level of audience participation at events like these really does give food for thought to those of us who are snobbish about certain kinds of writers. When De read out wry passages from her books, many shoulders could be seen convulsing with laughter; college girls exchanged excited looks whenever she said anything mildly entertaining, this was clearly a high point in their lives. (One of them stood up and gushed "Ma'am, for me you are the epitome of life and feminism!") A young boy said her very presence made men feel "humble", admitting when asked that he felt so himself. An elderly man called her column "uncharitable, liberal and sarcastic". De nicely played off her image as an attention-soaker too: "A little reaction please!" she exclaimed in mock-indignation when no one clapped after she'd finished a reading. ("We were too breathtaken to react, ma'am!" a front-bencher stammered apologetically.)
- De also drew the biggest applause when she remarked that on a daily basis she encountered at least four or five exceptional women doing exceptional things – "but I don't see an equivalent number of exceptional men. Where are you, guys? Join us at the winning goal (post?)!" Rah rah.
- Hari Kunzru read from The Impressionist, a passage where Pran Nath manages to dissemble as an Englishman because of his unusual skin colour. As a half-Indian who's grown up in the UK himself, Kunzru talked about how he often gets slotted by critics and journalists. "It feels odd when people say oh you're so lucky, you have the best of two cultures – like I've been handed two goodie-bags. But no one experiences culture like that: it's more like the sum of everything that makes me what I am."
- "I'd like to write a futuristic book," he said, mentioning his fascination with the ways in which human beings interact with the technology of their own making. "We treat the Internet more as a moody living organism than as a cold machine. It's like discussing the weather, we say things like 'oh, it looks like it's going to be slow today'."
I was a little put off by Kunzru's condescending remark that the kind of sci-fi he'd like to write is "literary sci-fi, like Margaret Atwood does for instance – not the kind of sci-fi where you have these strange characters in an invented setting" – here Kunzru waved his hands about in a less-than-convincing attempt to evoke the kind of "stereotypical sci-fi" he was talking about.
Had a decent chat with him later though. I find his treatment of the theme of lack of communication (in the brilliant short stories he's written for Mute magazine, for instance) quite compelling, and I wanted to know when he's going to get back to short fiction. "Probably not too soon," Kunzru said. "I'm a lazy writer and I can't write short stories side by side with a novel – which is what I'm working on now." He thinks Jaipur is a wonderful place for literary events of this sort – "the right atmosphere, enthusiastic people and a lot of venues scattered over a relatively small area".
(My review of Kunzru's Noise here.)
- One of the charms of the fest for me was that it wasn't a lavish, media-infested event with journos crawling about the place like maggots on rotting meat. What this translated into was small but enthusiastic audiences and a merciful lack of cameras and microphones - meaning it was possible for the writers to mingle with the crowd and discuss their work relaxedly rather than switch into P3P mode every now and again. This gave the festival a flavour that's usually missing from the ostentatious book launches/readings held in Delhi. I've become fed up of those types of events and was quite happy not to run into a single other lit-journo at this one.