Books Do Matter. Or Do They?

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Reading into the Jaipur Literature Festival
The Jaipur Literature Festival is an event for the sort of person who is worried that she is not reading enough or the right things, and is convinced it is important. I am that sort of person. I spent five days swaddled in a shawl and my absurd, neurotic preoccupation with literature in a palace full of writers only to emerge with a greater urge to read and a deeper anxiety that I won’t. I probably deserve it.

The absence of controversy illustrated why one is useful: being attacked is the best reassurance of worth. The Rushdie Episode of 2012 gifted everyone in attendance that year the feeling of being part of the bastion of free speech, and that is nice. Absent such a sense of purpose, all you have left are books and the unsubstantiated sense that they matter.

No matter how certain you are that they do—and that talking about them matters too—it is hard to escape a sense of self-indulgence while attending a literature festival. It’s one thing to be earnestly devoted to literature in private, but owning up to it in public feels unseemly. ‘Look! We’re readers!’ It’s the sort of thing you want people to know, but you don’t want to have to say, mostly because you’re afraid someone might turn around and ask ‘so what?’

The calmest people at the festival were those unconcerned with projecting literariness, like the cluster of five dudes in shades breaking the flow of the Sunday crowds. I cut in to ask them if they have come to see anyone in particular and one of them lowers his sunglasses to explain they are just here for the, um, atmosphere.

During a quick drive-by chat on the festival’s final day, Philip Hensher reasoned cheerfully that a festival is a great place for young people to “get off with each other” and I wonder whether the sea of young faces so many writers find so encouraging are indeed here to have a bit of a gander not at the books, but at each other. There are worse places to have a romance, though the coffee could be better.

The best way to identify an actual ‘young reader’ is by the copy of The Immortals of Meluha under his arm. The Sunday afternoon session with Amish Tripathi was the clearest, most engaged interaction between reader and writer I witnessed during the whole festival. It was clear from the pointed philosophical questions asked and the patient counselling answers given that Tripathi had become somewhat of a sage, a position he was serious about. Not so serious that he couldn’t admit to being ‘a Shiva worshipper’ in response to a question about marijuana, but serious enough that he ended with, “Try spirituality. It’s a much longer lasting high.”

He is mobbed immediately after and sportingly signs book after book. A woman in her fifties emerges triumphant from the signing booth with three brand new copies; they are for her son in England, who is a big fan. She grabs my arm repeatedly as she explains how important it is that children read and how proud she is of her doctor son who reads “even on the toilet”.

That young people be made readers of seems a high-stakes concern across the board—even writers are worried their kids won’t read. Peter Godwin says valuing literature is “evidence of a soul” so it isn’t hard to understand why he was worried his 14-year-old son Thomas wasn’t a reader. After watching Life of Pi last year, Thomas read the book several times and wrote to Yann Martel. To Godwin, his son’s future as a reader hinged on Martel’s response, and he considered intervening through an agent, but to his relief, Martel wrote back—a handwritten four-page note now framed on Thomas’ wall.

A literature festival, Godwin says, is important because it “encourages and proselytises reading and writing”. Whether or not it actually makes new readers and writers, it certainly confirms those already inclined. What could be more persuasive to an aspiring writer than a palace in which a writer is the greatest celebrity? On the other hand, what could be more ridiculous?

Among those not bestowed with the special privileges of a press or delegate badge were passionate attendees disappointed at how paltry the interaction with writers was. This year, the security detail outside the writer’s lounge was fiercer than ever, protecting the festival’s precious minds from its fervent crowds, ravenous for handshakes and selfies. An eager child shepherded by his eager mother stands outside, notebook outstretched, trying to catch someone going in or out. He spots me and asks me for my autograph. I gape. His mother asks if I am not Manmohan Singh’s daughter.

But lest I get too high on my horse, I should admit I felt the same sort of impulse when confronted with Katherine Boo’s delicate frame at a publishing party on the first night—a weird non-specific urge to make contact, to approach and say something, no matter how generic and absurd. This impulse is the glue that holds an event like JLF together.

There was genuine anger at the signing booth after Jhumpa Lahiri’s sedate solo panel.

Apparently there were signed copies of The Lowland available at the bookstore, but the writer herself would not be signing books. The signature, of course, is never the point. The point is to discover that notorious grump Jonathan Franzen is, in fact, quite affable, even while signing his hundredth copy of Freedom.

“When Jonathan and Jhumpa are done, they disappear,” says Reza Aslan after an hour spent at the bookstore taking photographs and speaking to someone’s dad on the phone, “I don’t.” Aslan was one of the big hits this year, winning hearts with his American ease and animated, emphatic way of speaking. A group of grey-haired ladies from Delhi pronounce him a rockstar, which probably has at least in part to do with his aviators. He is utterly at ease with his function at the festival, happy to “go out of my way to honour the people who like me”. “This is not a job,” he says, “digging a ditch is a job. This is thinking out loud for money.”

Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, author of What if Latin America Ruled the World? and sole representative this year of the Spanish-speaking world, was another of the more visible writers at the festival, easily spotted by a distinctive haircut.

Optimistic about the exchange of ideas a literature festival facilitates, he was also inclined to agree with his friend Jon Franzen that it was a good opportunity to carve out some time after panels to write, musing that Franzen must have slipped out early to go birdwatching.

Oscar entertained several of my needling questions about whether it was possible to have a global literature not centred on the English speaking Atlantic, and his spirited discussion of the conversations within Spanish-language literature buttressed my suspicion that our best chance of an alternate axis for such a global literature lies in Latin America.

Though I will be accused of not paying enough attention, it did seem that there were a disproportionate number of English writers this year, and far too few non-diasporic writers from the Rest of the World. But it feels passé at this point to criticise JLF for narrowness, and naive to expect that it be exhaustive. Organiser William Dalrymple comes across exasperated and bruised at the criticisms, and seems genuinely committed to the festival’s mission to showcase global literature to India, and Indian literature to the world—but I wonder if it ought to be untethered from the latter responsibility.

Perhaps we might shift our attention to the scores of other literary festivals emerging across the country, curating the best of Indian language literature. One festival cannot be all things, and after all, the preferences of JLF’s urban middle-class audience cannot be laid at Dalrymple’s door.

Year after year, meticulously assembled ‘bhasha’ panels are overshadowed by the appearance of some global literary star or other. Though this year, the inclusion of Irrfan Khan in a panel on Dalit literature was a genius attendance boost—and he wasn’t just a pretty face either. In another panel on the Rajasthani writer Vijaydan Detha, Khan spoke of the ‘explosive’ capacity of a kahaani, and how Detha’s writings helped give Rajasthani the status of a language.

After a Hindi panel, I spotted a near-blond head rising from the audience. I asked if he spoke Hindi. “Main Hindi samajhta hoon,” he responded. An American studying Dalit literature, he said he’d found the Hindi panels at the festival much more engaged and conversational. I certainly found them much less defensive and tense.

At an intimate session on the final morning, Ashok Vajpeyi diffused a charged question on the hegemony of English by making a distinction between English as an imperialist language and English as a great and useful language. Later, in a casual conversation, he reassured me I needn’t join in the IWE handwringing over the death of Indian language literature. He spoke of translating Polish poetry into Hindi, bypassing English entirely, but also acknowledged the intermediary function English sometimes served.

A couple of days earlier, sitting on the ‘global novel’ panel with Franzen and Lahiri, Chinese writer Xiaolu Guo said she chose to write in English so she could have a voice to speak of something ignored; language, she said, could be a passport, but it was “a dubious, dangerous passport, too”. Minutes later, she asserted that American literature was “massively overrated”. An American near me smirked, but Guo won me over for sheer gumption. I bought her book.

It became clear that past the shiny global names that get top billing in press releases, a whole range of conversations was going on. Marcus Du Sautoy wondered if prime numbers were the most macho, and Jim Al-Khalili taught people how to time-travel. Benyamin, author of Goat Days, spoke of reading Marquez and Coetzee in Malayalam, and of how much he enjoyed the panel titled ‘Three Women, Three Africas’. I too enjoyed hearing Maaza Mengiste, Nadifa Mohamed and Taiye Selasi-via-Skype take apart absurd literary labels and resist the expectations that come with being called an ‘African writer’, a ‘woman writer’, a ‘war novelist’.

It was particularly heartening to hear Nadifa Mohamed voicing the fear that writing might be irrelevant—that people could read her book, put it aside, and go on with the blindnesses she sought to address. She later answered her own question, and echoed Guo’s urgency, saying that just writing yourself could be a way of carving out space for yourself, and suggesting that the worth of literature was in its capacity to be political.

Which is odd because JLF this year seemed determined not to be. There were fewer panels this year on ‘the challenges facing India’ and so on, perhaps as a way of avoiding everything boiling down to the question of who should win the coming general election, but angst did not go unexpressed. Coded warnings against tyranny and conservatism appeared everywhere—most powerfully, perhaps, in Gloria Steinem’s assertion that “you don’t get democracy outside the home until you get democracy inside the home.”

Organiser Sanjoy Roy joked that reporters had expressed concern they wouldn’t be able to justify the trip if something didn’t jump off the books pages soon. He also said he wasn’t surprised the festival had become a platform for protest, considering the sheer number of journalists there, but he did take the mic after one session to tell the Aam Aadmis in the crowd that the Jaipur Literature Festival was not about “group politics”, but “individual thought”. Nevertheless, after a mere three days of pamphleteering outside the festival gates, even the man selling kachoris was wearing an Aam Aadmi cap.

On the festival’s final evening, the determinedly political Jim Crace confirmed my private suspicion that writing and reading, though valuable, were minor endeavours, confessing that he often wakes up in the morning and is ashamed of what he does for a living. He talks about his discomfort of living a life that is “not as stitched into the real world as one would hope.” But he goes on, “because I can, and because it’s fun and because I’m weak and because I’ve been trapped by my own success.” And with that, cheerfully, he heads off to Ranthambore to spend time with the natural world. I wonder if he’ll find Franzen there, looking through a pair of binoculars. I doubt either of them will worry about what to read, or whether it’s the right thing.