Monday, January 31, 2011

Jaipur Literature Festival - Taking a bow until next year

At the end of five festive days of books, readings, discussion and debate interspersed with crowds rushing between sessions from one hall to the next, I feel satiated from the time spent for five consecutive days listening and sometimes asking questions at the Jaipur Literature Festival. An English girl I'd made friends with last year, asked me on email. "Did anyone mention the literacy rate in India over the course of the festival?" She was really wound up about that last year she added. No, I told her. Inspite of the millions of non-literate people in India, a literature festival could go by without touching on this topic. Elaborating on that would be a subject of another post. As would be other posts focussed completely a particular session, a few of the many that I attended. At this time, let me begin this one with the last event on the last day of the festival.

Right to know is right to live
A debate organized by Intelligence Squared, Asia and moderated by John Gordon on “Society has the Total Right to Know: freedom of Information must be Unrestrained.” Speaking for the motion were Aruna Roy, Ashok Vajpeyi and Tarun Tejpal. The speakers against the motion were Jaishree Misra, Abha Dawesar and Swapan Dasgupta.
Aruna Roy - speaking at the debate

Aruna Roy began the debate stating emphatically – The topic of the debate, Total right to know, according to me should cover only public information that influence democratic rights. We are not talking about private information or privacy issues. Corruption is not an academic issue in this country. It destroys the rights of a nation or a certain kind of development. The slogan on which we won the RTI act. Our money, our accounts. The Right to Know in India is Right to Live.  For the poor, not knowing is loss of liberty.  

The arguments against the motion were weak, mainly due to the lame examples the speakers used like medical records, private letters between individuals and doomsday scenarios of revealing sensitive security information etc that might be revealed if all information were to be made public.  A Rajasthani drummer, time keeper for the debate feastily drummed out the speaker’s voice if  the time limit was exceeded. The two journalists, Tarun Tejpal and Swapan Dasgupta were at the receiving end of the drummers enthusiastic beats.        

The statement that clinched the debate in favour of the motion was – it is better to have too much information rather than too little. Voting was by a show of hands from the audience. 

Boys will be boys

Ruskin Bond (right) and Ravi Singh on Sunday Morning
Of all the events, the most delightful one was on Sunday morning – Boys will be boys - with Ruskin Bond who spoke to Ravi Singh, Editor-in-chief of Penguin India.  Reading  from his book A handful of nuts, the author evoked laughter among the audience as he read the antics of a lady - whose skin he likened to that of a crocodile - trying to seduce a man much younger than her. In deference to the young school going audience, he had to stop short of reading the entire passage! He shared an anecdote about his visit to a book shop and finding his book lying way below in a pile under all the best-sellers. Mr Bond, looking about the make sure the owner wasn’t watching, took his book out from the bottom of the pile and placed it on top. All his care and caution was brought to naught when the book shop owner picked up his book and told him -  unaware that he was speaking to the author -  ye book chalta nahin hain! To refute that, he bought the book, the price of which was a meager Rs 3/-

There was not much of a market for books when he began writing which was about 50 years ago, the author called himself “quite ancient.” There were no festivals or book fairs then. The first book fair was in Delhi in 1968-69.  

J M Coetzee
Readings from Coetzee on Sunday afternoon was unique, as instead of discussions, the Nobel prize and twice Booker winning author J M Coetzee read from his book for the entire session. Patrick French presented the author thus – some writers perform, some writers write and now J M Coetzee will read from his work.
J M Coetzee - reading uninterrupted - simply divine!

The author began by saying – at festivals such as this one, writers get an opportunity to voice their opinions. Like everyone else, I too have opinions but I don’t think my opinions are particularly interesting! Instead, I will read from my work. So for the next 45 minutes you will only hear one uninterrupted voice, my own. 
He read from  - The old woman and the cats – a story that unfolds through a conversation between a middle aged professor and his old mother. Coetzee’s reading was as great as his writing. Without any change of expression or affected body language, he only read, conveying all the force of the story simply through his written words.

Half a Yellow Sun
On Monday, 24th Jan, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie the young and vivacious Nigerian author of the novel Half a Yellow Sun (Orange Prize) and Purple Hibiscus spoke with Jasbir Jain. The Thing Around Your Neck, her collection of short stories was a finalist for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Best Book (Africa) and the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize.
(R to L) Chimamanda Adichie and Jasbir Jain

The first thing Chimamanda spoke about was how difficult it is to get an Indian visa for someone holding a Nigerian passport. Her husband, a US citizen, got his visa within a week while she had to wait for over three weeks. The first questioner from the audience later in the program apologized to her for the difficulties she faced on India’s behalf! An important point she shared with the audience was that her own life and childhood has been a very happy one.  She lived in a university town and both her parents were faculty at the university. The stories she wrote were imagined and not autobiographical although they were based on the world around her in Nigeria. As a writer, she was very much influenced by the Nigerian Novelist, poet and professor, Chinua Achebe. In fact, she lived in the same house that Achebe once lived in. As a young girl she would have imagined conversations with the spirit of the author.   

The Frog and the Nightingale
On Tuesday, 25th Jan, Vikram Seth in conversation with Somnath Batabyal spoke about his forthcoming book - A suitable girl – which he has not yet started writing.  Seth was one author at the festival who interacted most with the audience. Before answering a question, he sometimes asked counter-questions. He had promised school children at the festival that he would read his poem, The Frog and the Nightingale and kept his promise. The author had asked the children why this particular poem; to which they had replied - they had to learn it in school! 
Vikram Seth - reading poetry 

Talking to students and young reporters
During the lunch break one day, I decided to explore the extent of influence of Hindi Literature at the festival.  A group of Hindi speaking college girls I met, students of English Literature from Venkateshwara College, when asked about their favourite authors, the answers I got were: Jeffrey Archer, Ayn Rand, Amitav Ghosh (especially his Shadow Lines) and Margaret Mitchell.  Among Hindi authors, Munshi Premchand’s Godan was a favourite. One of the girls said her favourite author was Khushwant Singh. Only one girl said she read Hindi newspapers. Most others did not. I asked them if they had liked any of the Hindi sessions and pat came the reply – “Aisi Hindi Kaisi Hindi was awesome.” 

A young reporter writing for a Hindi newspaper said she had read works of Premchand, Agyeya, Nagarjun, Sharatchandra, Mahadevi Varma and Sumitranandan Pal. Among the contemporary authors who were present at the festival she had read the works of Manglesh Dabral, Ashok Vajpeyi and Ashok Chakradhar.  Any new, young author writing in Hindi drew a blank. Nobody reads Hindi she said, everyone is running after learning English  and reading English books.

Until next year then!

Blowing the conches to signal the end
My favourite among authors whose work I’d already read: Chimamanda Adichie. My favourite new author discovered: James Kelman. The five days at the festival went by swiftly, until next year then, to return for more literature. The provisional list of authors is already out. Some of them are: AS Byatt, Deepak Chopra, Fareed Zakaria, Gita Mehta, Hilary Mantel, Kazuo Ishiguro, Malcolm Gladwell, Monica Ali, Philip Pullman, Pankaj Mishra, Salman Rushdie and hold your breath – Zadie Smith.

Taking a bow - to go back into the woodwork

The festival directors Namita Gokhale, William Dalrymple and Producers Sheuli Sethi and Sanjoy Roy of Teamworks took a bow at the end, as Sanjoy said "good-bye to all until next year as we fold up the tents and disappear back into the woodwork." Some people lingered on the lawns as if to extend the pleasure even after it was over.

But hey, there is another literature fest coming up before the year ends –
Hay Festival at Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, 18-20 November, 2011. 
Anyone coming to God’s own festival?   

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