The papers carried some uncomplimentary things about the profile of some of the people at the Jaipur Lit Fest. Glitterati, they smirked, and ran mini-versions of ‘JLF for dummies’ in their supplements, spelling out what most people already knew.
Of course there were the ‘Dalhi’ types, all togged up in heels, faces caked with make-up and eyebrows plucked so high that their perpetual quizzical look was suitably apt for this high-brow do. But this was a tiny minority.
Gauche school students in navy-blue uniforms, grungy collegians making fun of one speaker whilst declaring someone else aaaw-some, busy journalists, artists of all kinds, and writers of course, made up the crowd.
And women. Scores of them. Old, middle-aged and young. In tight jeans and pashmina shawls or wrapped up in thick over-coats, with beautiful sarees peeking through. Housewives, members of book-clubs, some solo adventurers – whose husbands took care of children, home and hearth whilst their wives made this trip, because they knew how much this meant for their partner. Everyday people like you and me, for whom the call of literature was too compelling to ignore.
This democratic medley was to me, the best part of the festival. Everyone was welcome and everyone felt at home. And like a friend pointed out, it felt like we were back at college, footloose and carefree.
As for the writers – Vikram Seth, A.C. Grayling: a modern day great in the world of philosophy, Chimamanda Adechi:, a young Nigerian woman who reaches into your heart and gently squeezes it as she writes about her troubled homeland, William Fiennes: who in ‘The Music Room’ describes life, death and all that is in between with such sensitivity and compassion that it makes the story your own, and our very own beloved Gulzar – what struck me most was their humility and the strong sense of rootedness that emanates from people who have looked within, and found what they were looking for.
On a lighter note, here are a few things that I want to share.
- Carry less stuff. Four pairs of shoes and loads of sweaters are not essential. A comfortable (and hopefully smart) pair of walking shoes, a nice sweater, one thick over-coat and a few shawls are enough to beat the Jaipur cold. And look nice.
- Do your homework. Read at least one book of the authors you really want to hear or are famous and should be heard. It enhances the entire experience and makes the pleasure of reading that particular book come to life right there in front of you. It’s worth it and was one of my biggest regrets not to have read enough.
- Talk to the greats. All the authors head off for book signings after their sessions, and that’s a great time to chat them up a bit. I spoke with William Dalrymple, Rana Dasgupta and CP Surendran – and survived – and this is because the egalitarian atmosphere at the festival encourages people to talk. To anyone.
- Shop on Saturday if you can, as that’s the most crowded day at the festival. And darling, you are going to shop, so don’t even bother to deny it.
- Don’t ask stupid questions. J.M. Coetzee, wise man that he is, refused to take any questions from the audience. And that is because most people:
a. don’t know what they want to ask in the first place and just want to hear the sound of their own voices
b. ramble on until they have forgotten what they wanted to ask by the end of it
c. simply ask dumb questions
That said, the sessions are really incomplete without audience participation, and most times there are a few really good questions that help draw the speaker out. But sadly, these are rare. So unless you want to be laughed at, or mocked at ever so slightly, or rudely, as in the case of Orhan Pamuk, Martin Amis and CP, shut up and listen.
Obviously every thing was not perfect. Some of the topics were wishy-washy and did not cut any ice. A good example was a debate on ‘The Crisis of American Fiction, where one of the panellists actually apologised later, as he said he ‘never even knew there was something called The American Novel!’
Javed Akhtar, Gulzar and Prasoon Joshi spoke to a full house on the rise and fall of Hindi film lyrics, and whilst they were funny and witty, the topic seemed to be the age-old lament of society losing it’s culture and all that jazz – which every generation begins to grumble about as soon as it crosses the age of forty.
Some of the moderators sucked, and we were forced to hear more of them than the poor author, who was often left politely nodding at all that conjecture. The venue also seems to be shrinking now that the festival is having a growth spurt, and was uncomfortably full on the weekend.
On the other hand there were some outstanding sessions. Javed Akhtar wanted to know why young people always end their sentences with ‘You know what I mean…’ No, he said, I don’t.
Martin Amis, the bad boy of the literary world, looked and behaved like a superstar and drawled on about sex and more sex, and was all in all a wonderfully attractive man.
But the best session for me was M.J. Akbar and his views on Pakistan. It was animated and full-on as he was challenged on almost every point by Mani Shankar Aiyer, who was almost as good as he was, but not quite. He ended – to a standing ovation – with an anecdote about his father, a Muslim from Bengal, who for a few months had gone over to Pakistan when it was newly formed with the intention of settling there, but who then returned to India. ‘Why did you do that?’ his son asked. ‘There are too many Muslims in Pakistan,’ the old man replied.
When the audience burst into laughter at this, Akbar raised his voice and explained that it was no ‘laughing matter.’
‘My father was a simple man. He did not mean to disparage the Muslims. He meant that he missed the wonderful multiplicity of India and that he could not live without his Hindu brothers.’
‘P.P. Singh has been my best friend all my life,’ the old man had explained. ‘What is life without P.P. Singh?’
So it’s all of this – the energy, the atmosphere, the bonhomie and message of hope and peace, the broadening of your mind and heart, through talk and conversation, the wonderful weather, the friendly Jaipuri’s – that makes you thank your lucky stars that you made it here.
And you guys – go as well.