With her brilliantly scandalous novel Paro, Namita Gokhale took a dagger to the veneer of Delhi’s polite society. Over two decades later, Gokhale, of Paro vintage, is back with a new novel, Jaipur Journals in a similar vein. Except this time around she is wielding a scalpel, with the clinical compassion of the medic who cuts to the bone in an attempt to heal.

The novel is set in the Jaipur Literature Festival (even though she does not name it), a festival Gokhale has co-directed for 13 years now. I, like many of my peers, have been measuring my life out in JLFs and yet I cannot quite explain precisely what draws me back to it every time. It is an impossibly unique allure – akin perhaps to the deep sea where one feels the dread of losing the certainty of dimension and direction even as one’s senses are enthralled by the familiarly unfamiliar.

Gokhale achieves the impossible by going beyond approximating the alchemy of the festival and leading us to its beating heart. The point of the festival is to keep asking repeatedly, like the heart beats – what does it mean to be a writer? Jaipur Journals spells the question out and takes us for an unexpected journey in its wake.

Glimpses of an answer emerge as the characters reveal themselves – unravelling and wrapping themselves around shifting realities. It is distilled through the process of elimination – not this, not that or neti, neti as the Upanishads have said.

A writer’s journey

Gokhale strips the mystique, glamour, and preciousness associated with the process of writing and reveals threads of anxiety and estrangement that run through the writerly life. Embodying this anxiety and estrangement is Rudrani Rana, an ageing loner who travels to the festival like hundreds of others who are nameless writers and readers – attendees who elbow their way through unnerving crowds from session to session listening intently, agreeing or disagreeing vehemently, of a piece with the conversation on stage and yet far removed from the speakers who are bound to escape to the author’s lounge and breathe a rarer air.

Rana clutches on for dear life to a canvas bag. In it lies the labour of her life – an unsubmitted manuscript that has been through innumerable drafts – everything in it repeatedly done and undone except for the sentence – “my body is a haunted house.”

Rana is haunted by her childhood, the loss of a father and a lover, the rejection of a mother and a teacher. She is alone and lonely, independent but not complete, brave but vulnerable. Her unsubmitted manuscript is her treasure, her source of hope, but also a manifestation of her anxieties. So long as it is unpublished it cannot be rejected, it cannot be misunderstood. In keeping it within the folds of her canvas bag she is rejecting the world and its accolades or shielding herself from failure.

The book traces Rana’s journey in letting go of the manuscript and, with it, the weight she has been carrying on her shoulders. That is not, however, the end of her journey, but the beginning of a new manuscript. Rana writes because she knows no other way to be. She is reminiscent of the most compulsive of writers, described aptly by Jo Shapcott in her poem The Mad Cow Talks Back – “My brain is like the hive: constant little murmurs from its cells / Saying this is the way, this is the way to go.” She must write, even when all she can write is a secret unsigned letter with a poisonous purple pen posted from the shadows that the self-confessed troglodyte has come to inhabit.

Questioning themselves

In Gokhale’s telling the writer’s life is forever dual ––a secret life, real or imagined, in contrast with the reality. The book’s most unlikely and perhaps most compelling character, Raju Srivastava, lives the most extreme version of it. A cat burglar by night and voracious reader by day, a bizarre series of events involving Narendra Modi’s disastrous policymaking and a Sindhi kabadiwallah, turn him into a bestselling poet overnight. But it is not until he visits the festival that he begins to own his pen name, Raza Khan Singh Betaab – for in order to be a writer perhaps you must be identified as one.

The writer’s anxiety to be read and heard is almost as primal as the human being’s need to be loved and sometimes at odds with it. Gayatri Smyth Gandhy, an academic and aspiring novelist, loses her desire to be read by the world when she finds validation from a former lover she runs into at the festival. Anirban M, who goes from secretly making caricatures to being a sought-after columnist, finds that recognition as an artist cannot make whole the loss of his boyfriend. The festival puts them both on the path of discovering what writing often obscures – their real selves.

In the real selves of writers, ego coexists with conscience. Gayatri, whose academic work centres around the lives of folk musicians, is forced to ask whether they are mere fodder for her writerly success, and Zoya Mankotia, a gay feminist, is pricked both by her ego and her conscience to ask if she has truly lived up to the ideas she professes, whether her writing is really her own, and whether her words line up with her choices in life.

The ideal context

While some writers choose their subjects others are chosen by their books. Quentin Cripps finds Walt Disney in Segovia of all places and Anna Wilde’s books come to her through a long winded, arduous journey that she makes through India in her quest for spirituality. They are both strangers to the country in varying degrees – their quiet demeanours seemingly at odds with the ostensible intensity and flamboyance of the festival.

The festival is the ideal context to examine the lives of writers who come from different places and arrive at similar junctures. Gokhale sketches perfectly the absurdity, awkwardness, and sincerity of panels and lines up a hilarious side show of festival regulars – film-stars, Bollywood bigwigs, big name politicians, Nobel laureates, and other sundry divas – some of them, such as Shashi Tharoor and Javed Akhtar, identified by their real names. However, even some of the fictional characters bear uncanny resemblances to well-known members of the culturati.

The reader is likely to be tempted to play a guessing game, but the referencing is largely skin deep. In fact, it is perfectly in line with the humour – in parts wry, mischievous, and dark – that underpins and uplifts the entire narrative. What truly elevates the book, however, is its ability to transcend its immediate context.

This is a book about writers and the written word, but through that prism, it is also a book about the complexities of human relationships and the essential human condition – about men and women, their universal joys, grief, trials, and tribulations, and amidst it all, the lingering possibility of redemption.