JLF 2016: Word at Your Feet

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Stars, the star-struck and other delights and diversions at literature’s biggest carnival
It is easy to tell that the country’s most awaited literary weekend has arrived. All you need to do is spend time at Haldiram’s beyond Manesar situated on the Delhi- Jaipur highway. While hungry travellers tear into their puris, the words ‘hegemony’, ‘dialectics’ and ‘narrative’, ‘Anokhi’, ‘Amrapali’ and ‘Rambagh’ will waft towards you along with the steam of aaloo curry. The CD cars will pull up outside. The hand sanitiser will be passed around.

Ladies and Gentlemen, yet another Jaipur Literature Festival (or JLF), 21 to 25 January, is upon us.

The evolution of the JLF lanyard in many ways mirrors the growth of the festival itself. Seven years ago, names were scrawled on paper by hand. In 2012, a bar code was added to the name tag and the sashes were colour coded. This year, for the first time, a mug shot was splashed onto to all the ‘special’ passes such as ‘Author’ and ‘Press’. Similarly, the festival has grown from 300 attendees back in 2007 to 200,000-plus footfalls in 2015. On Sunday morning, Sanjoy K Roy, managing director of Teamwork Arts and the wheel behind JLF, said that they had seen a 40 per cent increase this year.

JLF, like its name tag, has morphed from an indie gathering of the literati into a behemoth of authors and audience. Just as it has increased in size with every year, it has also become better organised. It now runs like a well-oiled machine where a seasoned team, under the venerable leadership of Roy, festival directors William Dalrymple and Namita Gokhale, pay attention to every detail—from the quality of programming to the supply of water on venue to ensuring sessions start on time, authors are safely chaperoned, crowds are controlled and everyone leaves pleased with something.

The question of course is whether bigger is always better. Does more people translate into a more attentive audience? Do more sessions mean more interesting sessions? Is the festival getting too commercial for its own good? Do we need retail therapy at a books event?

It is the quintessential Bob Dylan crisis; is it preferable to be a folksy singer with a few ardent fans, or should one pull out all the stops to be… legendary? With worldwide attention, even adulation, what is the worst that can happen, Dylan might have asked. Someone should have told him, ‘Joan Baez might unfriend you.’

I did meet one of the Joan Baezes of the festival. Her name is Frida and she belongs to Cape Town, South Africa. A reader and translator who works with Afrikaans and English, she has been coming to JLF for the last five years. She makes this annual pilgrimage just for the festival, not for reasons of happenstance or tourism.

As we were squeezed together in the Sunday queue outside Durbar Hall, awaiting Basharat Peer’s conversation with James Shapiro, she tells me that she first came across an advertisement for JLF at the Ubud Writers & Readers festival, held in Bali, Indonesia. “The booklet was all blue and green, and there in the centre was an ad that was orange and pink and red. And I thought, ‘I need to go to this place, which has so many colours’.”

While the hues of Rajasthan might have lured her at first, the quality of JLF has ensured that she returns year on year. Unaccustomed to cool weather, she doesn’t while away time in the desert state. She attends the festival for five days and then rushes back to the warmth of Trivandrum or Kochi where she spends the rest of her India break. Even while remaining an ardent fan of the fest, this year’s crowds have wearied her and she is dismayed that she couldn’t get a seat at some of the sessions she’d marked on her schedule.

JLF, in less than a decade since it started, has become epic, like Dylan. The old-timers can and will bemoan the period when 20 journalists arrived by a minibus from Delhi and sat with Salman Rushdie out in the front lawn as he shot out one barb after another. Today the organisers try to shut accreditation at 750 journalists, meaning they reject half the received applications. JLF 2016 clocked in 400 speakers, 150 performers, 300 volunteers and 90 visas were obtained for the visiting authors. These figures only hint at its scale.

While it is impossible to hone in on the motivations of lakhs of people, one can divide the crowd into two— the serious and the anti-serious participant. The serious are those like Frida from South Africa, and Geeta Kaza from London who has been coming to JLF for the last four years. She attends the winter music and dance festival in Chennai and then makes her way north to Jaipur. Having lived in the UK for 17 years, she says there is nothing like JLF anywhere in the world. She attended one literary festival in the UK but soon got disillusioned because it was spread across different venues and each event was paid. “My husband swore he’d never take me again to a literature festival. He spent all his time trying to get parking. And I had to stand in queue after queue for tickets,” this former SBI employee bemoans.

I meet her at a session titled ‘The Global Novel’, held at Char Bagh, on Saturday, which includes the star cast of Margaret Atwood, Colm Tóibín, Aleksandar Hemon, David Grossman, Sulaiman Addonia and Sunjeev Sahota, moderated by Chiki Sarkar. When her phone rings before the start of the session, she mumbles, “No one is allowed to ring me today,” and curtly tells the caller to sod off. Kaza soon gets talking to the elderly woman seated beside her who is also from the UK. They share their appreciation for Atwood and then go into a heartfelt discussion about the feminist texts that had a defining role in their lives such as The Women’s Room and Fear of Flying.

The incredible feature about a space like JLF is that conversations on patriarchy and feminism, the word and the text, books and authors are commonplace. Naysayers will say (at times rightly so) that all this is pretentious poppycock. But reading and writing are deeply solitary practices. And JLF is an occasion when this pack of loners can gather under the sun and draw and share from that solitude. To read a book is a pastime, a form of leisure, but to discuss it with a stranger is to elevate a personal experience into the universal.

To write a book is nothing short of a madness. Even bestselling author Anuja Chauhan said at ‘The Craft of the Bestseller’ that she often tells distant relatives she works in advertising. People continue to recognise her for her Pepsi line ‘Dil maange more’ rather than her blockbuster books. Writing books is seen as the pursuit of daydreamers and idlers.

In the long lines for the restrooms, I meet a woman from Mumbai who has been attending JLF for six years. She and I think we are sneaky to wind our way to the facilities near Baithak, and away from the two main venues. But we quickly learn that even the veterans are outsmarted by the hordes.

In these crowds, the anti-serious reader runs rife. The Diggi Palace entrance becomes the vortex of the selfie. Here girls purse their lips into the duck face and boys raise their right eyebrows for the camera. “Yaar, itne selfies kyun,” one manicured girl asks her friend. “Kyunki hum bore ho rahe hain,” comes the reply. Another coiffured boy tells his friend, as he strikes out a V sign with his fingers—“Doh-teen hit waale photos lena.”

“It is like prom night,” a man whispers to me, staring at the youngsters, “look how dressed up they all are.” “Why don’t they go to some Romeo Juliet Park, instead of crowding up this place,” another woman suggests. Considering the sludge of kaajal, the swathes of lipstick, the blow-dried hair and the length of the boots, Diggi Palace on a Saturday morning could easily be Pretty Little Liars on a Friday night.

But for every adolescent who sits glued to his phone playing a war game and eating aaloo bhujia, there is a middle-aged ardent listener or a riveted student who will tut-tut at anyone who dares to whisper during the sessions.

To say that the sessions are top quality would be a platitude. But the sheer variety on offer can exhilarate even the most jaded viewer. It is not surprising that the biggest draws did deliver the most laugh-out lines. The Thursday afternoon show, ‘The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon’, held at the ‘Rajnigandha Silver Pearls’ Front Lawns with Dalrymple in conversation with Alexander McCall Smith, boomed with the laughter of not only the two ample gentlemen on stage but all those in the audience. The best anecdote of the festival was recounted by Smith who has just finished My Italian Bulldozer, which will be published later this year in the UK. Explaining the title, he said that his rented car from Pisa to Montalcino had been cancelled. Stranded in Pisa, he went to a car company, which told him that it had no cars. But it did have a bulldozer. “And it seemed that with my UK visa, I could drive a bulldozer in Italy,” he told the audience. “The interesting thing about driving a bulldozer in Italy is that Italian drivers are very respectful. And you get a great view of the countryside. And if there are any features you don’t like…”

Atwood too delivered some of the best lines, in the most deadpan of tones: “Under the Harper regime, the entire Canadian cabinet was zombified. We now have such a cool PM, we can’t get used to it. Canadians are not used to being cool, except in temperature. It is a big responsibility being hip.”

It helps to remember that authors by nature are not performers. They might be artistes, but have none of the panache of musicians or actors. Also, they don’t dwell on the hows and whys of their craft; they are more interested in interpretations of their own work than their intentions from it. As Atwood said at the ‘Global Novel’ session, “At gatherings of writers, authors don’t talk about writing, they are more likely to talk about car insurance….”

It is the willingness and fervour of authors to talk about matters other than their craft that makes them the pre-eminent public intellectuals of our time. And that is why JLF is such an important event in the annual cultural calendar. It provides a podium for the issues of today; whether it is Colm Tóibín on homosexuality, Ayesha Jalal on Partition, Atwood on the environment, Tara Gandhi Bhattacharjee on Gandhi as a family man, or Thomas Piketty on the politics of inequality.

Through the world of books, readers grapple with the core values of life, such as injustices and misrepresentations, nature and mortality. As Christina Lamb said during her session ‘Farewell Kabul: From Afghanistan to a More Dangerous World’, “The irony is that we [Western forces] went there [Afghanistan] saying we were making the world safer, but if we have Daesh taking control of parts of Afghanistan today, we have not achieved anything.” The award-winning journalist and bestselling author then chronicled in vivid detail the numerous missteps of the US and the UK in Afghanistan, a country where she spent years.

Atul Gawande, author of Being Mortal, a seminal book on ageing, spoke to the audience not as a leading surgeon and professor, but as the family pastor who might be bold enough to reveal truths that no one wants to hear. The essential question to ask anyone who is ageing or ailing, he said to the audience, is: what are you fighting for? The answer to that reveals not only personal motivations but also unveils the regimen of treatment that doctors can embark upon.

In many ways, the event also belonged to the attentive audience who paid heed, delved deeply and asked really smart questions. James Shapiro’s two sessions were the highlights of Sunday morning. On Shakespeare’s 400th year, he said, “Japan and India have been able to see something in Shakespeare, onscreen, that the US and UK can’t.” Maqbool and Haider reinterpret the playwright in a special and meaningful way, he added. Rich in anecdote and drama, his talk absorbed his audience. At the end of it, a three-and-a-half-foot-tall boy stood up and asked the Shakespearean, “I want to start reading Shakespeare. Which book should I begin with?” Pleased with the question, the professor replied, “Don’t read Shakespeare. Act him out. And begin with Act III, scene one, Romeo and Juliet.” It is the scene where swords and blood are drawn in rich measure and is certain to excite any 10-year-old.

If JLF 2016 has created one more reader, and convinced one more child to spurn the screen and pick up a book, it can consider its job done. It only needs to ensure that the Fridas of the festival return.