Jaipur Lit Fest – Vignettes

Waiting for the Dalai Lama

Heavily pencilled-schedule in hand and books in backpack, I walk past the lines of people waiting to greet his Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and navigate past the formidable bodyguards (a new addition to this year’s festival). The Dalai Lama, wagging his finger informs the packed front lawns that money fails to bring inner peace and the ultimate source of happiness and joyfulness lies within ourselves. There’s a curious disconnect between the shadow of the lurid pink tent, the large sponsor banners and the calm spiritual leader as he draws parallels between science and religion (both seek reality through investigation) and solemnly informs us that corruption is the cancer of the whole world.

Under normal circumstances and armed with a healthy supply of scepticism characteristic of our times, most people might have dismissed this as rehashed wisdom but a quick glance around reveals that the sheer charisma and endearing simplicity of His Holiness has the audience absorbed. He shared anecdotes with writer, Pico Iyer about a life of eternal learning and anecdotes about his early years. Themes of home and belonging shadowed most of the sessions at the festival and the reminder that the 77-year-old who has devoted his life to the promotion of secular ethics, human happiness and inter-religious harmony has spent 54 years in exile is a sobering one.


Walking in to the Diggi Palace this year was like coming back home and finding the furniture rearranged in your absence. You’re a little disconcerted but then it starts to grow on you. The ingredients for the sixth edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival consisted of five days, 174 sessions (with new locations being added to the existing venue, hence the initial bewilderment), 275 speakers, a footfall of 200,000 visitors, a handful of music events and customary hullabaloo all shaken and stirred.

From debates on the literatures of 9/11; the role of the writer and the state to Sharia Law; nationalism and Arab Literature as well as an added emphasis on Buddhism and literature, the political and religious overtones which occupied a chunk of the schedule seemed curiously apt. The concept of readymade religion dropped out of heaven devoid of cultural and political influences was swiftly unpacked. As was the idea that religion has a monopoly on violence around the world. The cheerful conclusion of a majority of these sessions was that humans don’t need a reason to kill each other.

Decor at the festival 2

The strands of academic thought emphasised during the run up to the festival in an effort to make up for last year’s pomp were augmented with academic heavy weights Gayatri Spivak, professor at Columbia university (old literary theory joke about Spivak’s convoluted writing runs along the lines of ‘it’s not a question of whether the subaltern can speak, but whether they can Spivak’); literary and cultural theorist Homi Bhabha, head of the Humanities Centre at Harvard University; Diana L. Eck, from the Harvard Divinity School and political philosopher Michael Sandel, also from Harvard University. Michael Sandel was a personal favourite as he held forth on the cost of market economies warping into market societies where anything can be bought if you flash the right amount of cash.

My gift to you today are two fun if slightly startling facts from Sandel’s session. A prison cell upgrade at Santa Barbara prison will cost you about 80 dollars and writer Fay Weldon was paid a hefty sum to advertise the jeweller Bulgari, taking product placement to whole new heights. The 2001 novel titled ‘The Bulgari Connection’ mentioned the jeweller 34 times and was studded with literary gems such as ‘A Bulgari necklace in the hand is worth two in the bush’.

British born author of Indian origin and currently residing in Japan, Pico Iyer sums up the concept of home poignantly “Home is not a piece of soil but a piece of soul”. Laleh Khadivi likens her hyphenated identity to a migratory bird. Author of Cutting for Stone Abraham Verghese bluntly acknowledges that medicine is his first love and that he could give up writing but not practising medicine. The schoolgirls in front of me debate whether to get Ariel Dorfman’s autograph as he shuffles in front of us. After minutes of furious whispering, they shyly approach him with their well-worn exercise books. Dorfman peers at them and obliges. “Have you read any of my books though?” he asks. They smile and shake their heads.

Audience at the Festival
The phantoms of Homer and Vyasa deign to make an appearance in Jaipur as the Epic is dissected -“Mythology lives by retelling. It is constantly renewing itself. To retell the myth is to honour the myth”. College students hold up the line for Madeline Miller’s book signing by vociferously airing their opinions on Achilles and Patrocles. A session on ‘Reimagining the Kama sutra’ is well attended. I wonder if it is perhaps a little too well attended as a five – year- old perched on her mother’s lap stretches in boredom. Both panellists have reimagined the Kama sutra in two very different ways. Pavan Varma insists that it empowers women while K.R. Indira refuses to budge on the stance that it sees women as objects. The audience leaves happily divided.

Madeline MillerMadeline Miller

The steady stream of sessions continues and as the weekend progresses, the literary tourists have swollen in numbers. “Nobody knows this but we [Latin American writers] are very funny,” quips Santiago Roncagliolo. Roncagliolo compares himself to a dictator (“My characters do what I want them to do. If they don’t, I kill them”) as he and Ariel Dorfman banter about writing and their Latin American identity. Both speak about the deep seated relationship Latin American writers have with their readers – something I wonder if those of us of the subcontinent will be lucky enough to have. As evening descends over the festival, the silhouette of a boy on a rooftop attempting to fly a kite is projected on the blue backdrop of the tent.

Five novelists on stage debate about the novel of the future which deviates into a conversation of the future of the novel. All of them unsurprisingly agree that the novel isn’t dead. They touch on the curious case of the decline of reading and the surge in writing – clearly everybody wants to be a writer, but no one wants to read other people’s writing. At first, words come hesitantly to British-Pakistani novelist Nadeem Aslam (“My deepest conviction is that there is nothing extraordinary about me”) who then proceeds to charm the audience – “Novelists don’t tell you what to think, they tell you what to think about”. Booker Prize winner Howard Jacobson dismisses most readers plaintive request for ‘likeable’ characters – “When did you last read Shakespeare and want to have Macbeth & Lady Macbeth over for dinner”- and uncannily hits the nail on the head about the tragedy of our times – “Has the literary event replaced reading?” A festival favourite this year, Jacobson had his fans from the moment he cheerfully tore into fifty shades of grey.

Jeet Thayil wins the DSC prize for South Asian Literature and dedicates his award to fellow nominee Jamil Ahamad. The 10 finalists for the Man Booker Prize (which is given for a body of work by an author, not an individual book) were announced at the festival, with three writers from Asia making the list. Aminatta Forna, Ahdaf Soueif, Zoe Heller, Sebastian Faulks, Reza Aslan, Christopher Ricks, Elif Batuman, Gary Shteyngart are few other names which punctuate the list of speakers at this year’s JLF.

Sebastian Faulks obliging a fanSebastian Faulks obliging a fan

I bump into one of Sri Lanka’s additions to the festival. Ashok Ferrey and I bond over a mutual nostalgia for spicy Sri Lankan food (This is starting to sound like one of those name-dropping gossip columns. A thousand apologies) Ferrey describes his first time at the festival as “absolutely mindboggling” and remarks on the expansive demographic and democratic nature of the festival.

The pen may be mightier than the sword but it paled in the presence of the bat and Bollywood as Rahul Dravid and Sharmila Tagore proved to be two stars of the festival. A section of each session is devoted to questions from the audience. Unfortunately there are questions and then there are solipsistic life précis. The sense of power a microphone bestows on a person boggles the mind and is every moderator’s nightmare. After the end of one particular session, we receive the literary equivalent of a move trailer – a slim booklet with the first chapter of a book soon to be released in February.

A visitor at the festival

A visitor at the festival

Sitting on the lawn on the final day and observing the mixed bag of humanity which makes up the festival, it’s a little hard to imagine that the first edition started off with 2500 people. The economic repercussions of the loss of 1.5 crore (278,000 dollars) this year however poses a credible threat to the festival bubble. Where is the festival headed next year? Simultaneously the larger the festival, the larger scope for ruffled feathers, sulks and tantrums. The political repercussions in the past certainly haven’t left the festival untouched. The festival was preluded by threats of violence from Muslim fundamentalists if either of the four authors who read excerpts from Rushdie’s Satanic Verses last year, attended this year. Not to be outdone, the Hindu right-wing group RSS and the national opposition Bharatiya Janata Party promptly warned Pakistani writers from participating in the festival, citing escalating tensions along the ‘line of control’ – the border separating Kashmir. During the course of the festival, academic Ashish Nandy’s remark about caste and corruption was stripped of context, taken in its barest literal meaning and used as a vaulting pole for stirring agitation. The absolutist response to the controversy (I’m a little tired of this word becoming synonymous with the festival now) garnered by a poorly articulated remark is reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s foul tempered monarch’s refrain “Off with their heads” in response to the slightest offence. Who says life doesn’t mirror literature?

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On rereading

I wish I could tell you that I regularly revisit Proust. I wish I could tell you that I peruse Swann’s Way frequently and that I get reacquainted with Tolstoy, Joyce and Kafka every now and then. I really do. The truth is while I try and read as much as I possibly can and my book case is brimming with my recent purchases, very rarely do I revisit everything I read.

I feel like some context is necessary so let me backtrack a bit.

When I walk into the British Council in Colombo, the old hands at the library greet me like an old friend. I’ve been going there since I was 8. My ideal Saturday outing was a day at the library (I was easy to please). I would curl up in a beanbag in the children’s section and then went home and read some more. As a child, I used to be the kid who had a membership in four different libraries. I didn’t just read books, I ate them for breakfast. I lived in books. I conversed with characters.  My best friends were fictional. I stubbornly read in candle light in between the electricity outages which plagued us a few years back.   Somewhere down the line, life got in the way and books became a luxury instead of a necessity. The only books I read these days are the ones related to my academics.  My 12 year old self would be spectacularly disappointed.

I’ve made a conscious effort to get back on the reading bandwagon again and despite my growing ‘to be read’ pile (the age old lament of the bibliophile – so many books, so little time) I’ve noticed a tendency every now and then, to gravitate towards old favourites. The thing is, reading and rereading are two very different things. We all have our reasons for reading but why do some of us (I’ve met many people who refuse to revisit books) reread? Why, when there are so many undiscovered books waiting to be read and savoured, do we sometimes almost instinctively pick a well thumbed favourite in favour of a new one? And more, importantly what do we reread and what is it that keeps us coming back?

I can’t vouch for other re-readers, but it isn’t always literary merit which keeps me coming back to a book. Nostalgia plays a large part in my rereading. Old favourites include Enid Blyton’s Faraway tree series (the day you’re too old to climb an enchanted tree which leads to magical lands is a sad day), Agatha Christie’s Poirot books, Austen, the Narnia series, the dark materials and Sherlock Holmes.

Jean Webster’s 1912 novel ‘Daddy Long Legs’ has always been a firm favourite and was the initial book which kicked off my fascination for epistolary novels. Sometimes, revisiting old books and characters are bittersweet experiences. Over the years, you’ve changed and sometimes your interpretation of the novel may have changed. My most recent re-reading of the novel left me perturbed by the fact that Judy refers to her future love interest as ‘Daddy’ through the course of the novel but it probably won’t stop me from reaching out for it in a few months.

I’ve found that Roald Dhal improves with age. The older I get, the more I tend to marvel at his expansive imagination. A child who is gifted a chocolate factory, a boy who stumbles onto a witches’ conference and a woman who murders her husband and feeds the murder weapon to the police investigating the murder – You really can’t go wrong with Roald Dhal. I’m yet to reconcile myself to Quentin Blake’s illustrations though. I was a puritan with my illustrations and Blake’s scrawls left me feeling cheated as a child.

The Anne series (Oh, Walter, Walter, Walter) was also a favourite. As I reread them, I preferred the later books in the series – teenage Anne talked in such huge, chunky paragraphs, it got annoying sometimes. Her kids were far more interesting. Rushdie’s Haroun and the sea of stories, more of L.M. Montomery’s books, Grimm’s and Anderson’s fairytales , Harry Potter and Asterix are other frequent revisits. Asterix was another series which improved with age.

I grew up on a steady diet of gender centric, good-conduct fiction. I’m still guilty of glancing through them every now and then when I go home and am in need of a quick read. Rediscovering old poems is another favourite past time– Grace Nichols, Cummings, Dickinson, Neruda, Atwood, Bukowski, Wendy Cope, Plath, Agha Shahid Ali, Vivimarie Vanderpoorten, etc  are all old acquaintances.

Growing up, I was blessed enough to inherit a vast collection filled with books my family had amassed. With access to four more libraries, there was really no necessity to buy books either. Whatever few books I purchased were tried and tested before buying and carefully added to the library. When I started working, the hedonistic prospect of being able to spend my carefully earned money on books blew my mind. I started buying books a few years ago and I haven’t been able to stop.

While, there are few things more satisfying than a well-filled collection of books, what I’m uneasy about, is the initial conundrum mentioned previously – the fact that I don’t always revisit most of my recent purchases. Apart from Perec and one or two names, I haven’t been inspired enough to pick up and reread any of my recent reads which has me wondering if I’m reading the right books or if quantity has taken precedence over quality.

Do you reread books? If yes, which ones and if no, why not?

Ps: wrote this a few months ago.  Dug it up after coming across this post of PP’s and this recent article on authors and their rereads. With people rereading the great Gatsby, Proust and Toni Morrison, I feel a little ashamed to own up to the fact that I reread Enid Blyton and fairy tales.

On Book Dedications

When I pick up a book, one of the first things I instinctively do is glance at the dedication. I blame CS Lewis for this. I picked up ‘The lion, the witch and the wardrobe’ as a kid and remember being bowled over by his dedication to his granddaughter. Ever since, I’ve been fascinated by the idea of having a piece of literature dedicated to someone. It’s also intriguing trying to disseminate the relationship between the author and the person their oeuvre is  dedicated to – at times it’s public (For X, my loving wife and rock solid pillar etc etc) and at times, i’ts fantastically cryptic (A few initials, a private message, an inside joke)

10 points to Hufflepuff if you can guess which books/authors these are from. 50 points if you write a book and dedicate it to me (My nine year old self would be over the moon)

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