The most interesting bookish/literary conversation I had at the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) was not actually at the festival. It was not even with a writer. It happened at a publisher’s after-party with a photographer. We discussed how Sufi literature is actually secular, what singularity means for our collective futures, the place of fashion in our socio-cultural identities, what really drives young India’s dreams, and a whole lot more. I got more happily drunk on this discussion than I did on the free booze.
Which is weird because I had gone to JLF to feast on the bright, unique ideas of many bright, unique minds coming together in a way that ought to have made the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
That said, JLF is so massive that there is indeed something for everyone. And I am grateful to live in a world where some of these writers and their works exist. Below, are a handful of sessions that have stayed with me. I attended several more but, in true JLF fashion, not all of them hit my “whole greater than the sum of its parts” criterion, subjective as it is.
Most fascinating topic
There was, as usual, no shortage of topics at JLF. Still, I wish there were fewer on “The Novel” and more on other genres and forms of writing: the literary essay, the review, the short story, hybrid fiction, experimental fiction, the screenplay, etc. Also, I tend to steer clear of any panel with Bollywood or sports or political celebrities because of both the crowd size and the sheer silliness of alternating adulation and contempt the crowd bestows on the panelist(s).
Anyway, “Dreamers: Looking at Young India” deserves this billing because of the excellent book by Snigdha Poonam and because of its timeliness and relevance within India’s socio-cultural and political landscape today. The panelists were certainly right for the topic but, at times, it felt as if they were pulling their punches. Of course, that is understandable given the volatility of the many conflicting political viewpoints in constant play.
Most interesting panel
Assembling a panel has to be a tricky task. Not only do you have to pick panelists who will draw interest but you also have to ensure they will work well together. This year had more groupings that made me scratch my head more than at other litfests.
That said, of all the sessions I attended, “Itihaas: Translating Historical Fiction” had the best panel with translators Rita Kothari, Abhijit Kothari, and Vikrant Pande, moderated by Tridip Suhrud. Putting aside my personal bias on the topic, I appreciated that the panelists stayed on-topic (even with their humour) and shared insights in ways that had the audience listening carefully. The moderator was not only a subject matter expert but well-prepared and organised in his approach. And the session ended with some decent audience questions. It helped, of course, that all four individuals know each other as colleagues within the literary translation community so that, rather than simply an ask-and-answer format, it became a fruitful four-way conversation and even when they disagreed, it was done respectfully. I could have easily sat for a few more hours with them.
Most insightful moderator
Moderation at JLF tends to be rather a hit-and-miss deal overall. This year, one of the sessions I attended had a moderator filling in for another who was missing in action and, to make up for the lack of preparedness, tried to add humour about binge-drinking, which did not work. Another moderator who had, arguably, the most illustrious panel of the entire festival, with all heavy-hitting award winners, chose to lob them softballs.
For me, Syed Salman Chishty who had a conversation with Carl W Ernst on “Sufi Martyrs of Love,” did the best job. The latter was, of course, extremely knowledgeable and even tended to wander into some obscure deep ends at times. But Chishty, with his well-modulated voice, wide smile, and soulful eyes, managed to not only bring Ernst back on track but also to direct him gently to certain themes and ideas to keep the flow coherent. There were so many interesting revelations about one of the world’s most misunderstood and maligned belief systems that, again, I wish it could have gone on longer.
Most compelling book
Truly, for me, there are so many contenders for this title. One of the best things literature festivals can do is introduce us to books we might have not given a second thought to otherwise. Mainly, this happens because of the discussions that put these books into relevant and important contexts, which are different from the marketing and PR hype that surrounds them when they are launched.
I should add here that I have been thinking a lot recently about Ursula K LeGuin’s definition of “The Great American Novel.” What is not included in that published excerpt from her last book of essays, No Time to Spare, is that she eventually selected The Grapes of Wrath at the time of writing as deserving of the accolade. Why? Because, she wrote, it tells “the most about what is good and what is bad in America” and its “special quality is to outlast the moment and carry immediacy, impact, meaning, undiminished or even increasing with time, to ages and people entirely different from those the novelist wrote for.” Phew. A tall order. Such books are absolutely necessary, though, even if we have to work to get past our aversion to grandiose epithets like “great.”
Now, I’m no future seer who can tell which Indian novel will do the same for India as Steinbeck’s has done for the US. And a big part of me believes that Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is that Indian counterpart because of how it speaks to the key defining moments of Indian history (the Partition, the Emergency, etc.) That said, India is going through yet another major transformation. And, of all the fiction at this edition of JLF, I think the one that speaks the most to this moment and will, hopefully, continue to do so over time, is Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young. Put aside the fact that it is both a localised adaptation and a clever subversion of Shakespeare’s King Lear, it also gets into so many aspects of today’s India, with growing capitalism, wealth inequality, gender dynamics, religion/caste issues, and a whole lot more. Plus, Taneja does some interesting things with intertextuality and sentence structures that are worth studying.
Most inspiring author
This will be no surprise to many who attended, given the various news articles about this author’s presence at JLF. For me, given some of the other star attractions, this writer was a pleasant surprise. And it is such surprise discoveries that truly make a litfest worth attending, of course.
Manoranjan Byapari, a Dalit writer from Kolkata, has had quite a life journey thus far. I only attended one of his sessions and it was gripping from start to finish. The moderator (translator, Arunava Sinha) and the other panelist (the writer, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar) did the smart thing and turned over the entire session to Byapari, letting him talk in Hindi while occasionally nudging him back on track with a pointed comment or question. And Byapari brought all his passion, his anger, his joy, his frustration to us, unfiltered. The first part of his autobiography has been translated into English and I have it on my TBR list.
Most perceptive Q&A
Oh, where to start? Audience questions at such events are always tricky, as Tom Gauld’s latest cartoon at The Guardian shows so well. There was one young man who went around asking questions that started with “Somerset Maugham wrote...” and another who asked about Roland Barthes’ theory of the death of the author at multiple sessions even when it had no bearing whatsoever on the panel’s discussion. There were also the usual questions of “what was your inspiration for this book?” and “what advice do you have for aspiring writers?” which always elicit the same old responses from all writers. There was a most embarrassing question put to the nonagenarian writer, Nayantara Sahgal, about Gandhi’s celibacy and sleeping naked with his nieces – the gentleman asking this emphasised how this is something that has always bothered him for much of his life. Her bemused look and response of how it was all ridiculous, said it all.
I thought the entire Q & A segment at the end of P Sainath’s session on “Telling the Stories of 833 Million” about the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI) initiative was so terrific that I had to come back and watch the whole thing again. At the time, I remember being impressed by the candidness and unflinching truth of his responses. I will not say more because I really want those who have not seen the session or know anything about PARI to go watch that session video.
Most memorable music
I did not attend the evening musical programs so this is based on the morning music sessions. All of them were truly brilliant, as usual, and I have often gone on to look up the musicians online after discovering them at JLF. Long may this music tradition continue.
The voice that has stayed with me is that of a young girl who sang, with almost no instrumental accompaniment, during the inaugural lighting ceremony on the first morning. I wish I could recall her name as it is not in the program. It ought to have been. She deserved that. Even when there was a sudden microphone malfunction, she had the poise and presence of mind to pause and then continue exactly where she had left off. Her clear, sweet soprano did not hit a single dud note either.
Most distracting (in a good way) sideshow
For 2019, JLF has confirmed some big names already: Neil Gaiman, Zadie Smith, Mohsin Hamid, Hari Kunzru, Yuval Harrari, Tilda Swinton, and more. As I mentioned earlier, I hope they have panels to explore other forms and genres of writing beyond “The (Ubiquitous) Novel.”
JLF has a tendency to end the last day with a controversial and topical debate. This is actually a fun sort of thing as attendance has mostly thinned out by this point and those remaining have, probably, had intellectual and physical fatigue set in. That said, I wish they would pick the debaters here with some care. Contrarians are good as long as they can add new insights and present their provocations in well-reasoned ways. As opposed to being contrarian simply for the sake of it. Anyway, this year, the topic was #MeToo and whether men have it easy. I wish they hadn’t made the topic so easy.
Over the last two decades or so, every few years, I have been hauling myself to a literary festival in some part of the world or other. Mostly, it is because I believe that the coming together of writers and scholars to discuss, debate, debunk, or define the complex issues of our times, even when such matters are not necessarily chronologically taking place in the here and now, is crucial. And there are very few other venues left in our societies for such dialogue. In the end, whether it enlightens or confuses, such dialogue almost always widens our perspectives beyond our individual cognitive biases and cultural values. I find this to be a vital aspect of my personal development as both a reader and a writer. And I hope that I will never get as jaded and disenchanted as some career litfest attendees and panelists seem to have become.
Till next year then.
This article first appeared on Indiatopia.