“At a festival this chaotic,” a friend remarked during one of our many chai breaks on the Diggi Palace lawns, “you have to keep a look out for the small pockets of pleasure – a clever remark made by a favourite writer at an otherwise middling session, an impromptu conversation with someone you chance to meet over lunch. Seize that moment and use it as oxygen to tide you over the next few hours.”
I spent most of this year’s Jaipur lit-fest in a haze, looking for sitting space and finding none, being shepherded hither and thither by a sea of people, or fretting about the panels I was moderating. More than once, I envied the hundreds of book-lovers who had come with plenty of time on their hands and with absolutely no agenda other than to sit down and hear authors talk. For such people, the JLF must be heaven. Not so much for the reporters hunting for “exclusive” quotes or filing multiple stories on harsh deadlines. Or for someone, like yours truly, who can only take so much of crowds.
So after a while, I decided that the only way to survive the madness was to take my friend’s advice and greedily accumulate as many of the nice little moments as possible. A few personal highlights, randomly listed:
– In the course of a warm discussion with Zac O’Yeah, the Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell told a funny story about his experiences in a Mozambique town where a police force had only just been introduced, and the protocol between the confused young men who were inducted as policemen and the small-time thieves they had to apprehend was unclear. Thus, you might see a policeman walking down the street holding a freshly caught thief by the scruff of his shirt, but then casually stopping to have his shoes polished – while ordering his detainee to fetch him some cigarettes from a nearby shop, with the latter dutifully complying.
For Mankell, a writer who trades in methodical police procedurals with clearly drawn lines between detectives and civilians, this must have been quite an eye-opener; no wonder he remarked, “It’s fashionable nowadays to say that the world has become very small, but that isn’t true at all – it’s still just as big as it is, and people in one part of it can’t begin to imagine what daily life is like in the other parts.”
– There was also the pleasure of hearing Martin Amis speak about “the myth of decline” – the tendency to look at the past through rose-tinted glasses, going as far back as pre-historic cave writings that lamented “Where are they now, the heroes of old?” Discussing the supposed death of the novel, Amis quipped that when the second edition of Cervantes’ Don Quixote was published in the early 17th century, there would have been critics who said, “Well, that’s it, that’s the end of the novel – it has no future.” (Note: if the human mind is hard-wired to think of the past as being forever glorious and the present as being bleak, little wonder I spend so much time reminiscing about the cosier days of the Jaipur lit-fest.)
– Amis being sardonic during his introduction of a talk dramatically titled “The Crisis in American Fiction”: “I’d like to begin by asking these three struggling, panicking American novelists about the ongoing crisis in American fiction.” The writers he was speaking to? Richard Ford. Junot Diaz. Jay McInerney.
– I was unhappy about missing the “Cinema Bhojpuri” session moderated by the incomparable Amitava Kumar, but was gratified when I later heard (from Amitava himself) that he said “Dabangg ek Bhojpuri film hai, behanchod” during the course of the session. (On the other hand, it wasn’t nice to hear about the censoring of Faiza S Khan's reading at the “Pulp” session.)
– Thoroughly enjoyed Jeet Thayil’s reading from his forthcoming novel Narcopolis at a session where I introduced him and CP Surendran. (I think this was shortly before poor CP was attacked by an offence-taking sardar.) Jeet’s reading included a lengthy stream-of-consciousness passage where the word “chut” is used almost as a poetic refrain; the drug-addled narrator employs it to describe all varieties of Indians (except for Maharashtrians). After the session, an audience member asked Jeet the inevitable question “If you hate India and Indians so much, why do you continue living here?” Sigh.
– Had a brief chat with the novelist Marina Lewycka, who joked that when she wrote serious books that intended to probe the human condition, they ended up being nominated for comic prizes, and vice versa. Lewycka, incidentally, leads a fairly quiet life in Sheffield, Yorkshire, and she looked understandably dazed by the largeness of the festival. (While on that, poor Ruskin Bond! He probably saw more people in a single day in Jaipur than he has his entire life in Landour.)
– Following the Popcorn Essayists session, a group of schoolboys came up to me and asked me to sign their lined registers. “Sir, are you involved with Bollywood?” one of them asked as I scrawled my name for the third time. I considered telling them I was Aamir Khan but instead shook my head. Boys and registers vanished in a puff of smoke.
Such was Jaipur.
[If you don’t already have festival reports coming out of your ears, try Google: there’s plenty of media coverage, good and bad. Some really good photos on Mayank Austen Soofi’s blog, for example (the ones above of Kiran Desai and Martin Amis are from him). And the official website is putting up videos of sessions, though some of the links are wrong.]