Jaipurnama: Jaipur Literature Festival 2011

An elegant lady, with her Gucci and Prada in place, who was walking beside me as I was on my way to Diggi Palace, tells rather excitedly to her friend, “You know I am dying to check out its store. I have to, have to buy some shoes.” Shoes? Didn’t you think it was a literature festival? But then the Jaipur Literature Festival, perhaps, is a festival with a difference. It’s about writers as much as it’s about those who have little or almost nothing to do with the written word. While it is, of course, a window to the ways of all sorts of writers — the way they talk, the way they walk — it is also about schmoozing, networking or just having a gala time even as raconteurs and storytellers tire of endlessly talking about their books, their writings and their places in the world. A major draw, far from what you would ever have imagined, happens to be what the elegant lady’s friend told her: “You know, what I like about the festival is that almost anyone who is someone is here,” as she set her eyes on a famous author she said she couldn’t recognize. The author in question was Kamila Shamsie, the well-known Pakistani writer who had a session with her mother, Muneeza Shamsie, on whether literature can subvert the national narrative.

The elegant lady’s conversation really set me thinking. What is it that makes the JLF really work? What is it that the show keeps getting bigger every year, drawing about 35,000 to 40,000 people (according to the organizers, though you have no ways of reaching any accurate figure) to its five-day-long celebration of literature? While it is good news for the organizers, it spells a chaos that spirals out of control. It is particularly crowded and chaotic this year. The interactivity quotient, the hallmark of a festival like this, has hit rock bottom. You kept losing yourself all the time. And grateful if you could find a corner where people were not jostling, where you were spared of the push and shove. The authors, who would ideally be open to informal conversations, were too hassled by the bursting-at-the-seams venue and were seen running to quieter zones for some moments of tranquility. The mela that the JLF has become might perhaps force it to look for another venue sometime soon. For, while it feels good to see Vikram Seth standing behind you in the long, long queue for food, it is not quite a good idea to stand for hours in a queue that knows no ending under a scorching sun. While some of the festival regulars I know left Jaipur on the very first day — intimidated by the swelling, burgeoning crowd of gung-ho school kids and other young and old literary enthusiasts —- finding themselves a little lost at the show, running far from the madding crowd. There was no ebbing the ire of the scribes, most of whom were made to stay at a hotel, 25 km away from the venue, on the Jaipur-Ajmer Road, giving them a glimpse of the JLF’s logistical nightmare.

A couple of weeks before the 2011 chapter of the JLF flagged off on January 21, a news magazine had opened a pandora’s box on the literary scene in India that, it suggested, was still beholden to the Raj. “If Jaipur matters as a festival, it is because of the writers from Britain it attracts,” it mentioned. William Dalrymple, the co-founder of the festival, was termed “the pompous arbiter of literary merit in India”. The open indictment of the festival, and its co-director, led to a flurry of reactions from authors, journalists and critics. Some said the writer of the piece had a point. After all, the Indian authors did hanker for the British approval, they argued. The festival regulars, among them many publishers, said Jaipur was much more than a British affair and argued that they had begun to plan their annual calendar keeping the festival in mind. Many book releases were timed in a way that their authors could make it to the festival. The piece, however, did not go down well with Dalrymple who accused the scribe of engaging in racism. “Does our liberal historian know what racism is,” wondered the magazine. If you have been following it, you would know how ugly it got after Dalrymple’s rejoinder coupled with the magazine’s response. Still others joined later to question whether Dalrymple was not giving credit where it was due for conceiving the festival and holding it successfully every year. Dalrymple has gone on an overdrive ever since, giving interviews to publications that matter and writing pieces on the festival in various national and international dailies and magazines, giving credit to anyone and everyone in a recent piece he wrote for Hindustan Times. JLF works, he reiterated, because “we are a lot of fun”. For many people, however, partaking of that fun came with a certain price this time round.

Many feared the controversy would cloud the festival this year, it remained a part of the private conversations between some authors and scribes who descended on the decked-up Diggi Palace, which had tents, buntings, festoons in place to keep its annual tryst with the literary moths and lights. “I think this is a shortcut to cheap and easy popularity,” said a member of the literati on condition of anonymity. Many wondered what such a reputed magazine would achieve with what they thought was a rather salacious piece.

The JLF, however, managed to stave off the issue that threatened to, or that is what we thought, dominate it. (And when the writer of the piece in the magazine made it to the festival on Sunday, the question on everyone’s mind was whether he had accepted Dalrymple’s offer to come to the festival where the latter would “buy” him  a drink).

The $50,000 DSC South Asian Literature Prize, which was given to Pakistani-American author H.M. Naqvi for Home Boy, seems to have created a lot of excitement among the writers of the region.

The lure of the JLF, for many, is irresistible. There are authors from all corners of the world, writing in many languages: This year, it is Orhan Pamuk and J.M. Coetzee who are among its major draws.(Coetzee’s reading session on Sunday was jampacked, even though it was not an interactive sesson, with Coetzee declaring that he did have opinions, but his opinions didn’t matter that much to him). It is a festival where there are publishers and agents. Jaipur remains, even though it is not the perfect place to be, an arena where publishers strike deals with authors, promising debutants are poached upon by rival publications, agents sought, authors found. But all this happens as a sideshow. The primary pretension is about ideas on literature. In the coming years, the festival will have to ensure that it is not literature that becomes a sideshow. For if that happens, it will lose out on the serious lovers of literature who care more for substance than symbols.

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