Friday, February 12, 2016

Eavesdropping at JLF 2016

These days there are dime a dozen literature festivals, in every town in fact, and it all started with Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) all those years ago. In fact, JLF is responsible for spawning the clones. Yet, it seems, no other lit fest has been able to replicate the success of JLF, or capture the cultural zeitgeist like it does.

So, what’s this allure of JLF? What is so special about JLF that every year, people from all over the country, and abroad, throng the Diggi Palace in Jaipur, Rajasthan for a five-day of celebration of the written word?

One answer would be glamour. We are a celebrity-obsessed culture, but authors are traditionally seen as drab creatures, who must be read, but not seen or heard. JLF combines these two and presents the invited authors as celebrities, with a good deal of help from Bollywood and from the western authors, intellectuals, whoever is in the new right now (Remember the year when there was a near-stampede around Oprah Winfrey?).

So, this year too, there were celebrities, the highlight of which was the redouble Stephen Fry, actor, author, funny man, gay rights activists. And the keynote speaker on the first day was none other than Margaret Atwood, who, too, nearly inspired a stampede. Understandably so. Most of the readers/writers in attendance have grown up reading her works, from The Handmaid’s Tale to The MaddAddam Trilogy. What caught our attention were her quick wit and her brilliant sense of humour. “Writing is the means whereby light is shed on darkness. There are many darknessess but also many voices,” she said during the keynote.

There was ‘The Master’ himself, the Irish author Colm Tóibín, whose novel Brooklyn was made into an Oscar-nominated movie this year. There was Alexander McCall Smith of the No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, the theoretician Homi K. Bhabha, Cornelia Funke, German author of children’s classics like Inkheart Trilogy and Dragon Rider, Armistead Maupin of the Tales of the City series, Sunjeev Sahota, who was shortlisted for the Booker Prize this year and Atul Gawande (Being Mortal), among many, many other luminaries.

The real rock stars, however, were French economist Thomas Piketty and Jamaican-American author Marlon James. Piketty launched the Hindi translation of his bestseller Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and received thunderous applaud from the audience when he said, “The Indian elites have to accept at some point that they will have to pay more taxes to finance more inclusive and sustainable development model.”

James, spotting a deadlock like the hero of his novel, Bob Marley, exuded equal charisma.

You don’t go to JLF to hear your favourite authors or discuss issues. This is physically impossible to do, even if you are a bookworm. Spreading over five days there are so many sessions and so many speakers that you are bound to miss most of them. This year, for example, the festival hosted speakers from 20 countries. Yes, there were some very interesting debates, which one can watch online at the JLF website.

Indeed, you go to the Diggi Palace to soak in the atmosphere, in colourful shamiyanas, the men in traditional Rajasthani attire serving hot tea in clay cups, and people, mostly youngsters, dressed to their toes with winter fineries. It’s a place of colour, beauty, grace and charm. All you need to do is to gawk at these beautiful people, spot your favourite author and swoon, and perhaps spot a celebrity or two, and bitch about them a bit. This is the charm of JLF. This is the only place where it is possible to bump into Shashi Tharoor and completely ignore him as you race to see Shatrughan Sinha.

Shina, who was here to promote his biography, Anything But Khamosh, of course, drew a huge crowd. There were other stars to look at. Kajol launched Ashwin Sanghi's new book and told the now-famous story how her husband gifted her a library at home. However, it was Karan Johar who received the best responses when he narrated the tales of his childhood as an overweight, effeminate boy. He was promoting his book An Unsuitable Boy. On the last day, Anupam Kher had some tough times during the debate whether freedom of speech was absolute and unconditional.

The best of Bollywood, as always, was represented by two of our best poets, the inimitable Gulzar and the great Javed Akhtar, both of whom were big crowd-pullers.

Oh, we forgot to mention our home-grown authors. All the important and interesting names were there.

Pune was well represented by two of our finest. Priya Sarukkai Chabria was with her book, Andal: The Autobiography of a Goddess, and R Raj Rao was with Lady Lolita’s Lover and his translation of Me Laxmi Me Hijda.

A version of the story was published in 30 January issue of Sakal Times. Check the story HERE.

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