A queen is delayed, a man is run over, a festival begins

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The Jaipur Literature Festival is on—with more people and fewer authors than the organisers expected.

The Jaipur Literature Festival is on—with more people and fewer authors than the organisers expected. The Delhi fog played a major role in several delays, including the absence of Girish Karnad, the keynote speaker, as well as at least one queen, who is reportedly somewhere inside Delhi airport.

What resulted was an entertaining hour in which William Dalrymple, the explorer of dream lands, explained how quickly the festival had grown (“In 2006, we had 18 authors and Hari Kunzru, who was on his way to meet his girlfriend in New Zealand.”), why Louis de Bernières was not present (His passport was sent by the Indian high commission to a jewellery magazine in Brighton, four hours away from where he lived. Upon its recovery, he realised that the passport had no visa in it. And so on), the dilemma of whether to keep the focus on Pakistani writing talent in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks.

Namita Gokhale then took stage and talked about writers who do not write in English. There’s a definite attempt to put the limelight on non-English language writers this year. Last night, at the pre-festival dinner at Diggi Palace, one organiser said, “The biggest story this year is going to come from the language writers, the Dalit writers. When I told him I was personally curious about the Sindhi writing session, he said they had invited over 300 Sindhi families living in Jaipur. Having seen what happens when large groups of Sindhis come together, I wonder what will happen to the festival during the session. Anyway, that’s days later. (Meanwhile, the keynote turned low-key. Hence the digression.)

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra took stage then, and right before he opened his mouth to take the crowd through 2,500 years of poetry, someone thought it was a good time to start a festival promotional video. For a second there, and only for a second, it looked like Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, the wise and witty head of the English department at Allahabad University, was producing finished music from deep within.

He recovered ably and recited poems for the rest of the hour. Most of them were by Kabir, and a high percentage contained death. One was especially cheery—it was a poem about life, and I think it ends with a man being run over by a truck.

And there you had it. Death, delays, a speeding truck, a girlfriend in New Zealand, and 300 Sindhi families—all this is the stuff of literature festivals.

The Art of Criticism

(or what’s wrong with Indian criticism and why one hour isn’t enough)

Shortly after the keynote, a book’s throw away from the main hall, Nilanjana Roy, Amit Chaudhuri, Amitava Kumar, and Geoff Dyer talked about criticism. Chaudhuri thought India did not have a compelling literary journal. My interpretation of his explanation was that there’s no culture of criticism here. Which is something a lot of writers have said, adding that a lot of critics here have no culture. Dyer stepped up to say that 20 years ago a book would fail in accordance with reviews. It wasn’t clear if he was unhappy about this.

Then, as most conversations about criticism do, the talk veered to the joy of a good demolition job. The audience laughed. A good demolition job has the same satisfaction as a well-aimed grenade in a videogame. No victims. “Demolition has to be done interestingly,” Chaudhuri said, and added that he remembered only thuggery. Dyer spoke of how he demolished Julian Barnes once (that’s strike one, Mr Dyer), and then thought it was so well done that he’d do it again. But age has left him with less time. Rather, he now understands that a good demolition requires comprehensive reading. What they didn’t say, and what a lot of writers will tell you on the side, is that they don’t expect comprehensive reading from Indian reviewers; all they ask is that reviewers read the book they’re reviewing.

Before it ended far too soon, Mehrotra made an appearance. “I don’t think we should bother with this country,” he said. He made the point that Indian reviewing is handicapped by its reviewers. Were they around, a library full of writers would have agreed.
(For good reviews, you could do worse than, If you have to start at the very beginning, they’re a very good place to start.

Fighting the Whitewash

During an engrossing discussion between Anne Applebaum, the author of Gulag, and Tunku Vardarajan, a columnist for The Daily Beast, she talked about the peculiar reactions Russians had when she told them she was researching a book on the gulags.

“I took a boat trip once across the White Sea in September, when it was very, very cold. It was an overnight trip but it was a tourist boat. I was on it going to [some] islands where the first political prisons were. Everybody else was going because it was pretty there. So they were all very curious about who I was, and what I was doing there. And they asked me…they were curious about what an American was doing on their boat in winter. And they were all very excited. They had me at their table and it was a kind of cruise. When I told them I was writing about the gulag, and there was this instant drawback [pushes herself away from imaginary table for effect]. I later came to know it was one of four reactions. One is, ‘you foreigners, why do you write about bad things in our history. Why don’t you write about our space programme? We sent our astronauts to space before you did. Write about that!’

That was one reaction. Another was, ‘Let’s not talk about it. I don’t think we should be having this discussion at all’. Another one was ‘I can’t believe you’re wasting your time on this. It doesn’t matter! There are so many other problems. There are other things to do in Russia.’

And the last reaction was ‘oh, that’s so interesting. I wish I could read your book’”.

As she described the first three reactions, there were chuckles in the audience. You could see why. Replace Russia with India, and Russians with Indians. The impulse to whitewash is strong. More power to the Applebaums of this world.