Monday, January 30, 2006

Last notes on the fest: Hari Kunzru, Shobhaa De

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.


  1. Good updates Jai. I was just going thru another blog, this one popped up. Keep it up!

  2. When Solzhenitsyn was in India on a private visit, Ms De was the one Indian writer he wanted to meet on the basis of the cover photo of "Desperate Daughters" or whatever the fuck it was he'd bought off the pavement.

    There was a glint in his eyes and his beard quivered as he made this wistful request. Though I would suspect "humble" would be the wrong word to describe Sasha's reaction to La De.


  3. The festivals does sound so delightful. And to keep flitting between one palace and another. La dolce vita!

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  5. Just homing in on Hari Kunzru's throwaway comment on science fiction, of which I've been a student for the past three decades: by the yardstick of the SF canon, Atwood writes terrible SF. If hers is the doorway Kunzru wants to go through, he's knocking at the wrong one: writing good SF is a discipline of exceptional rigour and ostensibly outre, but in actuality in-depth study, of the various sciences that not many have mastered, and that not many will. I should know - I'm writing one, and my cranium is a parched-land webbing of cracks and the walls of my home dented where my head's been having a go at them. As for the Internet: despite the anxieties of those who fear an AI eventually ruling the world, the Net is turning into a "living organism" (the definition, of course, depending on your religious, irreligious or non-religious disposition) - your computer is one neuron among 100 million and counting, its connections with other computers and servers the synapses; the various search and metasearch engines are being upgraded weekly into closer and closer approximations of AI. How long will it be before the Internet turns into a "living organism" conscious of itself, its purpose, and, inevitably, its intent? Good question.

  6. what does 'lit-journo' mean? a literate journalist? or just a journalist who reads a lot of fiction? i can't figure out which of the two you are. you sound somewhat literate (bad grammer, but that's not your fault), but you seem completely overwhelmed by fiction and have mistaken it for literature. i really am confused. a nice post though :)

  7. Thanx for the extensive coverage--it was next best to being there---I had fond hopes of attending, but it was mainly wishful thinking. Sigh--maybe I can go next time, or the next---!

  8. Swati: well, actually it was a small affair and we were at one "palace" throughout (didn't go for any of the other events in the Heritage Festival, which were scattered across many venues) - but yet, it was fun.

    Kajal: the bit about the Internet-as-living-organism also reminds me of Clarke's short story "Dial F for Frankenstein" - written in 1963!

    "Stuti": thanks for the laugh. It's grammar btw, not grammer.