Monday, January 29, 2007

Absolutely the last post on the Jaipur festival

Here’s the link to a fly-on-the-wall piece I wrote about the fest for Business Standard. Includes stuff I’ve already put up here and here (especially the “Session Snippets”) but I’ll still post the whole thing a little later – because the BS website, there’s no polite way to say this, is crap. Para breaks are random (because of a ridiculous notion some people have that no one will read a paragraph that’s more than 5 lines long), words that are supposed to be italicized/in bold aren’t, and the links keep changing. I was told more than a year ago that improvements are underway but it doesn’t ever look like happening (which, to be fair, is true for the world in general).

Update here's the piece, minus the Session Snippets:

“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. For starters, 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 (, 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 books 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 moments came when authors Ira Pande and Namita Gokhale, cousins, began 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.” However, this didn’t stop the ladies from embarking on a thoughtful conversation about the work of Pande’s mother Shivani, the acclaimed Hindi writer. In the final reckoning, this balance between intimacy and serious discussion is what makes the Jaipur festival a success.


  1. And now it sez 'Sorry, No News Available' or something to that effect. Interesting.

  2. and in case u didnt notice or noticed and chose to ignore(cant really blame you), shilpa girl won the BB thing. You have to be here to see the festive atmosphere amongst not just the desis but all from the asian brethren... i work in ireland and was at this chinese takeaway during lunch hours and the chinks there were all over me just because that B list actress happens to be asian and has triumphed over the evil whites!!

  3. huh?! what's with this shilpa thing creeping into every comments section?

  4. Space Bar: you know how it is. I mentioned her in the diary post just before this one, so now Shilpa-comments will appear on unrelated posts as well.

    Revealed: the link was working last I checked but I've pasted most of the text here now, just in case.

  5. Enoyed ur series on the "Jaipur festival".
    May be some nice pictures of the fest along with the writeups would hv been more intersting.