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Friday, 27 January 2012

The stamina for Pink City


The eager wait for talk show host Oprah Winfrey at the festival.

Pink City looked warm, festive and inviting on a bright Sunday morning as we drove past a bunch of runners taking part in Jaipur's annual marathon race. On our way to Diggi Palace, we passed many more, admiring their strength and stamina — we could have done with some of it.

You certainly need the endurance of a camel, the constitution of an ox, and the wits and wiles of a fox to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival.

After five frenzied days of literary fever, that's my single biggest takeaway from the festival. It's not just the crowds that sap your energy. There are also the tough entry barriers, protesters trying to distribute the Holy Koran and disrupt proceedings, liberals wanting you to sign freedom of speech petitions, people trying to buttonhole you into a debate on the Rushdie drama, and the fact that you need to stand for hours and hours without a loo break in order to catch snatches of the riveting discussions going on. You also need to have a quelling eye to shush the chatterers in the audience, fight long lines to get a cup of tea or morsel of food — and constantly stop in your tracks and wait patiently for people to finish posing for snaps with the celebrities in attendance.

But if you can do all of the above — and, perhaps, outlast and outstay the crowds of socialites from Delhi, who only arrive here for the weekend anyway — then you are in for stimulating sessions by literary heavyweights, lyrical thoughts of poetic geniuses, views and counterviews from across the border, heated political discourses on everything from Palestine to Arab Spring to gender, and riveting ideas of talented new authors. It's fascinating to watch a whole new world unfold through the lens of African authors, get insights into new media and chance upon juicy, gossipy anecdotes from colourful personas.

Imagine five biographers of Obama (David Remnick), Gandhi (Joseph Lelyveld), Stalin (Simon Sebag Montefiore), Subhash Chandra Bose (Sugata Bose) and Aung San Suu Kyi (Peter Popham) in a lively discussion on how they managed to paint such unique portraits of their subjects. “You have to be obsessed about what you are writing,” said Montefiore, who has opened up the life of Young Stalin, and is now writing the biography of a city — Jerusalem.

Or imagine hearing Fatima Bhutto and Ayesha Jalal speaking out vocally against former cricketer Imran Khan's brand of politics and describe life under the army's rule in Pakistan.

Or Tom Stoppard and Sir David Hare describing the playwrights' challenge in keeping an audience engaged.

With several sessions on in parallel — each exciting in its own way — it was a game of chance picking the right one. Sometimes, it was the quest for a chair to rest your aching feet that landed you in a hall with free chairs — as, for example, the R.P. Goenka Tent, where the baithaks for regional authors were held (a sad comment on the short shrift our local language litterateurs get compared to their English writing counterparts).

But the accidental entry turned out to be fortunate, as one was soon drawn into the discussion on epar bangla and opar bangla (Bengali spoken on either side of the border), and the writings from both sides on the aftermaths of 1971.

It was an eye-opener listening to gentle voices such as Rajasthani writer Om Prakash Bhatia, who was taking part in a session on dialogue and storytelling in Rajasthani. The Jaisalmer-based banker was quite resigned at the lack of attention that regional authors like him got, but once he got going he captivated you with his nostalgic tales of watching Satyajit Ray shoot Shonar Kila (the now crumbling Jaisalmer Fort) in his native desert town, and his own book on one of the residents of the Fort.

Even the heavily populist sessions — from Oprah Winfrey to Anupam Kher to tiger mom Amy Chua to the trio of Chetan Bhagat, Shashi Tharoor and Suhel Seth describing their survival strategies in the age of Twitter (a Nobel peace prize for the social networking media for its role in fostering Arab Spring was the recommendation!) — admittedly had their role in providing light relief.

And, if you were lucky enough to strike conversations with a book lover with similar tastes as yours, a schoolteacher who did translations in her spare time, then it was also a place to strike unexpected friendships.

Well, the five days of madness is over, and now the discussion is inevitably turning to the future of the Litt Fest. Festival organiser Sanjoy Roy of Teamwork Productions admits he has to rethink the format. Regulars who have been coming here from the early days, when it was a small affair with just a few thousand attendees, bemoan the circus it has become and shudder that this wonderful platform for writers might disintegrate and be lost for ever.

Even the mild-mannered poet and critic K Satchidanandan, emerging out of a rousing session on the Literature of Dissent, rued the loss of intimacy — though he admitted that the crowds augured well for the future of book publishing in India.

Final thoughts — infuriating at times, in-your-face at others, irritatingly intellectual occasionally, but inspiringly Indian, above all. We are like that, only!

Page 3 at Diggi Palace

Success has a way of spiralling out of control, if one is not prepared for it. The huge publicity that the Jaipur Literature Festival elicited, drawing a crowd of socialites and celebrities from Bollywood and Delhi, might in the end have worked against the interests of book lovers. The participation and non-participation of the likes of Oprah Winfrey to Salman Rushdie turned a select gathering of literary heavyweights into a Page 3 open house party. The miscalculation in terms of the attendance was apparent from the packed venue and the permanent queue outside the ladies' washrooms.

“There's no place to sit down and have a chat here, and there's the risk of being denied entry into the next session. It wasn't so chaotic last time,” a disgruntled woman with greying hair remarked in a conversation at the bookstore.

Delhi's elite and high society turned up in hordes — after all, an ‘artsy' tag can prove handy, to be flaunted later at a closed-door Chattarpur farmhouse party over wine and jazz. Curious onlookers tumbled over each other to hob-nob or have their picture clicked with Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Vishal Bharadwaj, Shekhar Kapoor or Shashi Tharoor, even as literature buffs struggled to catch a glimpse of their favourite authors.

During a discussion on the Palestine-Israel conflict chaired by William Dalrymple, a “wall” of burly security personnel barred many interested folk from entering the hall. While some gave up and others peeked between the gaps to catch stray bits of the conversation, it was impossible not to draw parallels between this human wall and the barrier separating Israel from the West Bank — perhaps, it was all a clever ploy to sensitise us to the plight of the Palestinians! - ROUDRA BHATTACHARYA

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