It will never be official, but the largest crowd at the 2018 edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival was probably gathered at a Twitter handle. Specifically, the one of JLF Insider.
The still-anonymous Twitter account, which has been satirising the (often-pompous) speakers at the festival since it stormed the timelines of snark-lovers and writer-groupies alike in 2014, was in particularly good form this year. Conceited panelists, soporific discussions, selfie-pilgrims, and pretentious parties – they were all fair game, lampooned with the handle’s trademark mix of delicious wit, sharp commentary and keen observation.
Among the best-loved traits displayed by JLFInsider – the handle usually comes to life only during the Jaipur Literature Festival – is that it is run by people who do not respect reputations (undoubtedly, helped by the anonymity) .
In fact, many big names in the literary world were subject to JLFInsider’s merciless observations, most of them impossible to contest. Here are some of the most scathing tweets about this year’s participants:
If the term “equal opportunity offender” had to be applied to anyone in the context of India’s literature festivals – which, let’s face it, have increasingly become arenas of major sponsorship – it’s this Twitter handle. As a result, the title sponsors of the Jaipur Literature Festival were not spared.
Naturally, the partying and/or pontificating audience were at the receiving end as well.
The handle even got a shout-out onstage. A little after it posted a smirky comment about Vir Sanghvi’s sartorial choices, the journalist mentioned them in his introduction to his next session. “JLF Insider, if you’re here this is for you,” he said, before putting on his ubiquitous sunglasses.
Sanghvi’s acknowledgement came even as the festival’s organisers claimed to not be overly concerned with the Twitter handle that asked them some difficult questions as well.
“I’m not really sure what he’s up to,” said William Dalrymple, founder and co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival. ‘There’s so much Twitter buzz at this time and I haven’t really focussed on him.”
But even as Scroll.in’s reporter walked away, he asked suspiciously “Is it you?”
But who is behind the handle? For those chortling along with JLFInsider, the only thing more important than a hot take on Shashi Tharoor’s innumerable panels (and startlingly glossy hair) was the identity of the person(s) behind the handle. “Is it you?” echoed through Twitter, the press terrace where interviews with authors take place, the venue lawns as well as the swish parties throughout the literary festival.
Speculation was rife, with a number of journalists being mentioned as possibilities. While it’s understandable that the real people would like to stay anonymous – the snark must go on – it’s hard to imagine that well-known journalists would have the time.
As far as Scroll.in has been able to establish, the handle is actually run by several people, ensuring that concurrent sessions can be covered at the same time, leaving nobody safe from being stung. But their identity remains a mystery.
“I have my suspicions about who one of them is but the only clue I can give is that there’s a swish of hair involved each time before this person begins typing,” said writer Sandip Roy, who was a speaker at the festival about his book Don’t Let Him Know.
Another speaker insisted that JLF Insider was a frequent moderator on the panels, one who had been eviscerated by the handle to throw people off the scent.
Through the conspiracy theory frenzy, followers began to listen to sessions more closely. “I didn’t moderate what I was saying on stage but I did find myself attending sessions and hoping JLFInsider would be around when something particularly ridiculous was said,” said Roy. “The handle says things you’re already thinking but might not say publicly.”
Thankfully for us, JLF Insider had no qualms sharing these thoughts, with nobody being off-limits.
Absolutely nobody. Except the one who asked if he had considered writing for intellectuals.
And there was no guarantee that a favourite would remain so. “I enjoy the love and I enjoy the snark.” said journalist Snigdha Poonam, who fell from grace (and the handle’s wild adulation) when she moderated a session with comedian Mallika Dua. She did, however, regain her brownie points with JLFInsider when it came to the observations on her panel with UP Chief Minister Adityanath’s biographer Shantanu Gupta.
Since’s all fair in love and lit fests, several people declared their romantic interest in JLFInsider, besides using the handle as a conduit for declaring their love for other participants.
Despite the light touch, though, JLFInsider made telling points, providing some much-needed perspective on the festival that calls itself “the greatest literary show on the earth”.
Akhil Katyal, a Delhi-based poet who was a speaker on several panels said he followed JLFInsider only for one day and one night but he loved it for that time because the intensity of the festival had got to him by that point.
“I think the handle is so popular because it helps localise the festival and ground it. In an interview somebody asked me ‘yeh festival kya kranti layega?’ [what revolution will this festival bring?] which was such an exaggerated question to ask,” he said. Koi kranti isse nahin aayegi. [No revolution can come this way.] You can call it the Kumbh Mela of ideas but it’s mostly, if not exclusively, people who are mirror images of each other. This JLFInsider helps bring it out.”
No wonder the appreciation came from far and wide.