Saturday, January 29, 2011

In Jaipur with Biharis, Swedes and all the other 'chuts'

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.]


  1. “If you hate India and Indians so much, why do you continue living here?” Sigh.

    But seriously, how does one answer that question? In the language of the person who asked it. So that he really understands. I have often struggled with this.

    Loved the reminiscing! Thank you for putting this up :)

  2. I understand CP Surendran's anguish at being assaulted. However, it does seem to me that his response to the incident is intended to provoke rather than encourage a debate about public behaviour in India. I, for one have often felt the coarseness that accompanies human interaction in some parts of our country but would not venture to blame Punjabis/ Biharis/ Malyalis etc for this problem. And obviously CPS is referring to Hartosh Singh Bal's piece in Open magazine when he refers to "illustrious-if-embittered journalists". I dont think Hartosh's piece ever spoke abt white supremacy or infact ever blamed WD of being racist. Sorry for the long rant but thoughtless analysis/comment pains me; even more so if it is by people one expects to be the voice of reason and balance in an increasingly polarised world.

  3. I totally understand CP Surendran's trauma. The assault on him was awful and indefensible. I do want to ask, though - does he live in India or outside? I mean, those of us brought up in India would never dream of asking a Sardar for a light or for a cigarette. Would be in as poor taste as asking an orthodox Muslim or an orthodox Jew if they had some pork on their table. Not criminal, mind you. And certainly not as criminal as the man who assualted him. Just curiously uninformed, that is if he lives in India.

    Still, at the end of the day, I do want to see the book being thrown at the assaulter. One doesn't respond to insensitivity (especially if unintentional) with any kind of violence.


  4. Mankell came to Jaipur and you spoke to him !!! Pss do a blogpost on only him. Inspector Kurt Wallander novels are apart from being great thrillers the best representation of Sweedish society. Love all his work

  5. But wait a sec, forget all that other stuff, aren't you Aamir Khan?

  6. I mean, those of us brought up in India would never dream of asking a Sardar for a light or for a cigarette... Just curiously uninformed, that is if he lives in India.

    Sharmishtha: I've lived in India all my life and was born into a Sikh family, yet I didn't even know about this tobacco proscription until I was in my early 20s (probably some combination of a general lack of interest in religious taboos plus having had a father who himself engaged in all sorts of substance abuse). If I had to ask for a light at a crowded mela like the JLF, I'd probably just stumble to the closest table and ask, without thinking about (or even noticing) the types of people sitting on it.

    That probably makes me curiously uninformed too. But I'm sure there are many others who are similarly uninformed - including people who have Sikh friends who DO smoke or Muslim friends who DO eat pork (I have quite a few), and who therefore don't realise that it can be such a huge deal for the majority of the community.

    Anyway, like you say, the violent response is indefensible either way.

  7. Ambarish: just for the record, I'm not endorsing most of the general things CP has said here - it IS very clearly a piece written in kneejerk anger, which combines his response to this unpleasant experience with his general annoyance about HS Bal's (equally messy) piece.

    Bishu: no, I didn't speak to Mankell - just reporting some of what he said at his session. There were several writers there whom I would have liked to speak to for 5-10 minutes (including some like Amis, Coetzee and Diaz, who I might never see again), but it would have been way too much of an effort at an event of this size. And given that I'm generally quite content to sit and read the books of writers I admire rather than meet and talk to them, no major issue.

  8. Dilip: you're wangling for an autograph, aren't you? Get a lined class 4 register first!

    Dr Gonzo: to be precise, what the questioner said was "If you hate India and Indians so much, why don't you go and live somewhere else?" To which Jeet very tersely replied "I have lived in cities in other parts of the world. I choose to live here." That's it. (CP then got angry and said a few other things to the questioner!)

  9. @Jabberwock: You're probably right on the uninformed bit, especially if you were raised in a big city. Maybe because I spent so much of my childhood in small Punjabi towns, I am hyperaware of this taboo, even though (as you can guess from my name), I'm Bengali.


  10. if the human mind is hard-wired to think of the past as being forever glorious and the present as being bleak

    I think the present is viewed with greater objectivity and attention to detail. Whereas, when we assess the past, the details aren't always remembered and we tend to generalise a lot more. Which is why there are two attitudes towards the past - either a tendency to glorify or a tendency to condescend and dismiss.

    Also, there is the well known problem of survivorship bias. We only get to hear the best music, watch the best films and read the best books of yesteryear. Whereas, the present always throws up a mixture of good, bad and atrocious!

  11. The other problem I have with the Amis argument is that it tends to bolster the rather simplistic view that all eras are practically the same and any attempt to grade eras is a form of "Golden Age-ism".

    All Art forms do have their crests and troughs. It is a shame if historians fail to recognise the same for fear of being branded as "romantics".

  12. The other problem I have with the Amis argument...

    Shrikanth: it wasn't an "argument", it was a single sound-byte from a session where some very fine speakers and thinkers were given just a few minutes each to express their thoughts on a very broad-based subject. Such a situation isn't exactly conducive to drawn-out, nuanced arguments, which is why I take these panels with a jar of salt anyway.

    For a proper sense of Amis's views on this and other subjects, it's better to actually read his essays.

  13. "I'm not endorsing most of the general things CP has said here" Just to clear the air, my previous post was in reference to CPS's strident tone and not to you carrying it on this blog!

  14. There was a jingoism blast in the BBC session with Gurcharana Das as well. When the floor was opened to questions a young chap--must have been in his early 20s--let rip at the BBC presenter accusing her, and I assume all other white sorts, of not giving India its due when it was "Indians who did all the hard word and ruled the world". Mind you, this in a discussion about how the Mahabharat is relevant to the modern world or some such. Quite a fun moment, it must be said.

  15. Great to have finally bumped into you before your Kiran Desai session.

    Martin Amis session was a lot of educational though I dont endorse his undisguised disdain for the "magical Realism" or Science Fiction. Junot Diaz in all his sessions seemed to be too busy organising his words rather than contributing something profound.

    Ben McIntyre's session was very nice and I got persuaded into buying "Operation Mincemeat".

  16. I am very glad I read this comment thread. Even though I was born here and have lived here for decades and havent lived anywhere else for any length of time, I wasnt aware that asking a Sikh for a light could inflame him so much he would likely assault you.


  17. I just checked CP's blog post on TOI on this where he had some broadsides (understandable I would think) but the comments run 3:1 against him.

    Asking a Sardarji for a light *is* apparently a grave offence.

    I've spent some time in the North (enough to consider myself moderately informed) and seen smoking Sardars there and elsewhere but I realize again the deficiencies in my cultural education.

    I request the orthodox believers of every faith to help us all out by printing their taboos on their foreheads. It would be even more useful if the reactions to breach of taboo are also listed, such as:

    taboo X: i will insult yr womenfolk
    taboo Y : i will spit on yr face
    taboo Z : i will hit you

    Assaults such as this one reinforce the conservative belief that one needs to be very cautious when talking to anybody that looks any different from oneself, which logically leads to less interaction with people who dont look like oneself. Help the walls go up just a bit more.


  18. Jai_C: excellent comment, thanks. I'd add a proviso: the taboos and and reactions to breach of taboos should be tattooed onto the believers' foreheads without any use of anesthetics. (My faith forbids the use of anesthetics and I'm entitled to punch anyone who disregards this.)