Literature: Notes on JLF 2015
Jaipur Literary festival is perhaps the biggest literary show in the world and getting bigger, but is it losing its focus?
On a cold, rainy day in Jaipur, Argentinian-Canadian writer Alberto Manguel exclaimed, “And I was told that readers were disappearing.” Despite repeated announcements to free up the aisles, they swarmed with people in cheerful abandonment; the Google Mughal Tent was brimming past its rain-secure ceiling, obese with listeners and enthusiasts who had gathered there to listen to the conversation between Manguel and Chandrahas Choudhury about the nature of reading, libraries, and digressions into Borges.
The (Zee) Jaipur Literature Festival is the largest free literature festival “on Earth” (as its official website playfully claims), thereby suggesting that any plausible competition lies in the extra-terrestrial zone. Considering its magnitude at the moment, this is not far-fetched, and it keeps getting bigger with every passing January. “From only 14 guests turning up in 2005, most of who were tourists who took the wrong turn… Last year, we had nearly a quarter of a million footfalls, and the success of Jaipur has inspired a whole galaxy of nearly 60 other literary festivals not only in India but in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal and now Burma,” writes William Dalrymple, writer, historian and co-founder of JLF, in the director’s note. It’s an anecdote he has recounted on several occasions, with the kind of delight that is also tinged with pleasant surprise. This year, JLF saw over 250,000 footfalls.
Since my first visit to Jaipur in 2010 as a graduate student, when one could still walk into a session midway and find a comfortable seat, the visitor demography has changed and diversified visibly. “The crowd is eclectic, an incongruous blend of the devout and the curious. There is also a palpable youthful feel to the assembled masses,” says Sebastian Taylor, for whom it was the first visit to JLF this year. On my overnight bus to Jaipur, about a dozen, cheerfully noisy, boys and girls ensured that the bus stopped at a McDonald’s on the highway for a 3 am snack. I learnt that they were B.Tech students, on their way to JLF. Nishtha, who was going for the second time, had decided to introduce her friends to the festival because “it is a great place to discover contemporary literature and even meet writers”. Although the visitors are not always literature enthusiasts, it is charming to see that literature can still elicit the kind of response JLF does.
“The idea was to bring the greatest writers in the world to India and to showcase the greatest Indian writing to the world,” says Dalrymple, about how JLF began. At the cost of reflecting my ignorance about regional writers, JLF perhaps does the former far more brilliantly. JLF has had a stunning list of international speakers: (to name a few) JM Coetzee, Tom Stoppard, Jonathan Franzen, Geoff Dyer, Howard Jacobson, Tim Parks, even the promise of Rushdie. This year was unquestionably VS Naipaul’s.
Farrukh Dhondy, who was in conversation with Naipaul, began with: “...neither is it going to be a critical session. I am not going to dissect his works or ask him for dissection.” Frail and crumbling, still elegant, though, softly nudged a few times for dropping the thread of conversation and relapsing into silence, forgiven for his opinions with the wave of forgotten, distant pasts and sincere celebration of the greatness of A House for Mr Biswas, Naipaul’s exchange with Dhondy was heavy with the weight of retrospection, of privileging the past over the present and the future, and made the thought of rebelling against the gerontological tyranny of the narrative embedded in the conversation pointless. As we listened, we realised that the moment was a collective one, not our own to claim, a part of a small, converging history in a great writer’s life, an evening with the litterateur in his labyrinth.
Another star-studded panel was dedicated to the 53rd year of publication of A House for Mr Biswas. On the first day of the festival, Hanif Kureishi, Paul Theroux, Amit Chaudhuri and Dhondy shared their personal relationships with the book. It was clear that it is a novel that has inspired many writers and launched a way of seeing the world that wasn’t possible before it was published. It also witnessed the end of a long literary feud when Naipaul and his one-time pupil, Theroux, shook hands in public for the first time in 19 years.
There were other conversations: on exile, gender, poetry, sexuality, cartoons and the right of humour to offend, and on history. It must be hard to keep curious listeners interested, and savants satisfied, and rightfully use the platform to push the boundaries of discussion, but many conversations managed to pull off all of that. On a discussion about sexual desire, Sarah Waters spoke of how difficult it was to find positive depiction of sexual desire and lesbian intimacy while growing up, and how it still “continues to evade language”. Deepti Kapoor also addressed the repercussions of depicting female sexual desire and liberation in Indian society.
The L in JLF may be slightly misleading. The sheer diversity of panelists and topics under discussion encompass not just literature but art, politics, philosophy, history, science and even music. “It is the range that differentiates JLF from other literature festivals in the world,” suggests Dalrymple. This year there were discussions on Pakistani and Rajasthani art. BN Goswami also delivered an illuminating lecture on the ‘spirit of Indian painting’.
There is also considerable effort towards, it seems, providing a soundtrack to the festival. The mornings begin with a performance by local musicians, there is another performance at lunchtime, and the packed, long day is wrapped up with yet another musical performance. Queen Harish (who I spotted a couple of times through the crowd, gloriously dressed), when asked about her favourite part of JLF, is stated to have answered, “The music stage.” This year too, an eclectic collection of bands from around the world performed at JLF: Tanuja Desai Hidier and Gaurav Vaz, Still Dirty, Transglobal Underground, Dub Colossus, Sain Zahoor, Rizwan Muazzam Qawwals, and so on.
The final day ended with a debate on whether ‘culture is the new politics’. A constant fixture at JLF, Suhel Seth boisterously claimed that there were more criminals in Parliament than in the jails, to which the crowd responded with cheers. Shazia Ilmi, a last-minute replacement for Swapan Dasgupta, feebly mouthed some arguments about diversity and tolerance although her recent entry into a party that does not even pay lip service to such ideas may have been too fresh in public memory. It was a somewhat sputtering end, rather than a soaring crescendo.
For many, the carnivalesque atmosphere with stalls selling jewellery, clothes, bags, and so on, may have been a cause for delight. I looked at the large Amazon stall, brimming with people — but who was I to complain. They were giving 20 per cent off on all the books, even hardbacks! I may be only slightly uncomfortable that my memory of Naipaul on that evening will be forever accompanied by the Rajnigandha logo firmly stamped on the background, but if literature doesn’t reflect the changing times, what will?