Friday, January 27, 2012

Jaipur Literature Festival

Hooray! I’m back from the Jaipur Literature Festival, which was held at The Diggi Palace Hotel in Jaipur, Rajasthan from January 20-24, 2012, and I’m still dazed. I’m sure everyone in India knows about the event by now, thanks to a certain person called Salman Rushdie. I’ll not even mention the controversy... It was my first time at JLF, and in short, I was like a kid in a candy shop; only thing was, I was a timid kid. I remained an observer than a participant. Now, I regret the missed opportunities. There were so many people, authors, celebrities, and others, and I really did not network with anyone — no autographs, no photographs, no asking for visiting cards, no stopping a celebrity on the way and tell him/her that I’m a big fan, and so on. I just stood there, sipping cups and cups of tea in earthen tumblers (Rs 10 for one cup), and Whiskey, at the three parties I attended. In short, I was star-struck...

The following are the highlights of what I saw:

The audience. Everyone who visited the festival earlier said this year, the rush has been unprecedented. Thanks to Mr Rushdie? Anyway, the venue was choc-a-block on all days; all the four, sometimes five, platforms where sessions were held were full to capacity, and the crowd was overflowing. You cannot take five steps without stepping onto someone, and if you are lucky, that someone may be a famous personality, which usually was the case. Look, there’s Ila Arun. Look, that’s Shekhar Kapur. That’s Shekhar Kapur all right, on the corner of the stage, attending the session on literary adaptations. On the stage was Tom Stoppard, Girish Karnad and Vishal Bharadwaj, among others.

The authors: Michael Ondaatje chairs a session on the art of short stories. On stage are Annie Proulx and Jamaica Kincaid, in a pair of yellow sneakers and a hat, talking about New Yorker and “the island,” (I am sorry to report I missed the name of other two authors...) In an event filled with literary stars, Ondaatje was one of the biggest, but certainly not the most popular. Mohammed Hanif was, and Amy Chua, and wait for it, Gulzar. We are coming to that. You could gaze the popularity by the line at the “author signing” area. The longer the line the popular you are. And despite everything else, Chetan Bhagat too got a long, long line.

The Celebrity: Is Prakash Jha a celebrity? We can argue on that. But, the cameras won’t stop flashing at him when he entered the venue one fine morning. As far as I can see he was alone, and was very gracious. He stopped for the gathering crowd who had gone berserk clicking his pictures and also posed with fans. In between, he also got time to gawk inside the Durbar Hall where a session was in progress. Admirable. But then, it was the fate of all celebrities, and I must say, almost all of them were in jolly mood, entertaining their fans.

Hoshang Merchant: He had the afternoon session on the first day and he had forgotten his copy of his recently published autobiography, ‘The Man Who Would Be Queen’ at the hotel room. So, I went to the bookshop and bought a copy for him to read at the session, which he later signed and gave back to me. Later, I tagged along with him to the party hosted to Penguin to celebrate their 25 years in India. For the occassion, they had placed an old car in front of the hotel where the party was, painted in bright orange and white. It was awesome. Hoshang is fun to be with when he’s in a good mood. And when you are in a good mood.

Arshia Sattar: I clicked the picture as she prepared to go inside for one of her sessions. She couldn’t smoke on the dais after all. She was one of the few people I knew at the venue. She is also one of the few people I really, really admire, since the days she was in Open Space in Pune. After all, she got me my first book launch, the launch of my book of poems way back in 2004.

Camera: Oh, that Girish Karnad. And, I am bad photographer. I was sitting at the lawn, bitching with Hoshang, and I looked up and see Karnad writing something on the table there. I thought, it would make a good picture. But, by the time I got the camera and fixed my gaze, he had already turned. Talking about pictures, there’s one picture I saw somewhere. As part of their 25th year, Penguin has lauched various merchandise, among them are bags that immitate names of best-selling books, like ‘A Suitable Bag’ and ‘Bag of Small Things’ and so on. So, there was Gurcharan Das sitting there, carrying a bag that screamed: ‘The Difficulty of Being A Bag’. Neat.

The Moment: Just a moment. It was just a moment, I was face to face with one of my favourite poets. While I was happy to watch most of these big and famous names from afar, this time, I said, why not, when everyone else has done so. He was posing with a bunch of kids when I went to him. As he turned, I said, sir, big fan, one picture. This is not that picture. That picture I am not showing anyone. Did I ever think that one day I would stand so close to Gulzar, ever? Never. That was a moment!

Choices: Attending a session at JLF was like answering a multiple choice question. At any given point you’ll have to choose between four options. There’s Front Lawn, the biggest venue perhaps. Then you come to the main struture of the palace-turned-hotel and come to Durban Hall, which is, as the name suggests a real hall from the days of the kings and princes, with portraits adorning the walls, and a huge mirror. If you stand in front of Durban Hall, on your right is the Baithak, with cane chairs and colourful cushions, my favourite of the four venues, very information and charming. On your left, little further on the backyard is the Mughal Tent, another bigger venue. Opposite to it is the book signing area where the authors gathered after the sessions, and fans surrounded them. That was the constant: People. Half of them young or youngish, in beautiful clothes and books and/or camera in hand... And did I mention the makeshift food joints, the tea stalls, a Ritu Kumar stall, I think I also spotted a ethnic jewellery store.

Day 1. Afternoon. Baithak. Session: ‘Whistling in the Dark: Writing Gender’. I am not sure if the organisers were not comfortable using the ‘S’ word, or whatever, but the title was misleading. Featuring R Raj Rao and Hoshang Merchant, with Minal Hajratwala moderating, the topic was sexuality, queer sexuality to be precise, not gender. Anyway, the authors said whatever they wanted to say, and the audience asked more questions about activism than literature per say. And, Vikram Seth was picked on for obvious reasons. At the end, Minal announced about the queer anthology she is editing for Queer Ink, titled ‘Open’ which should be out soon. Can’t wait for it: the book contains a story by yours truly.

The Literary Star: There were many an A-list authors at the festival, but for me, aside from Gulzar, the star was Nigerian writer Ben Okri. That he looks like a Hollywood star (with his cap), helped the matter. He had a great fan following. He is after all a “syllabus” author in most Indian universities. Everyone has read ‘The Famished Road’ (1991). It was on the fourth day. He had already appeared for a session or two, and it was a great success. He met fans, signed books, and talked to reporters. He was on the papers the next day. On the fourth day, he joined Teju Cole, the hot, new author of ‘Open City’, and Taiye Selasi, to talk about “Afropolitan”, a concept argued by Selasi, which refers to internationally mobile, young people of African descent, making their mark on the world. In her mind, we are not citizens, but rather “Africans of the world.” It was stimulating session, one of the best at the festival. Okri enters the stage, and addresses the crowd: “Times of India, we all love you, but no one calls Africa the “dark continent” anymore.” Shame on you, reporters. More on Afropolitan here.

The audience: I must confess. I hardly attended any session at the festival. All the did was to float around, from one spot to another and look at people, celebrities, commoners alike. There was so much to see, look, gawk, observe. The people in their designer wear, oh, those jackets, and those boots, and those cameras, and those T-shirts, and those dresses, and those faces, and those colours. It was like attending a friend’s wedding. You know a few people at the venue, but most of them are strangers to you and you have nothing to do other than just sit there and watch, and watch. It was surreal, to say the least. But, intellectually stimulating? I have my doubts.

Time Stopped: And here’s the great Tom Stoppard of ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ fame, attending a session of literary adaptations, with Lionel Shriver (author of ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin, made into a film by Lynn Ramsay), Vishal Bhardwaj and Richard Flanagan, chaired by Girish Karnad. The subject was interesting, but the session was ultimately frustrating, because there was no time to say anything substantial. Five people and just one hour. It’s unfair. How much can you do in an hour? Especially when the chair took most of the time, voicing his opinions. I don’t have any problems with Karnad speaking. He made sense. But it limited the scope for others to speak. I wish I could hear Stoppard speak more. He said ‘The Great Gatsby’ is a novel that is unfilmable, and I agree.

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