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|Text by Milika Hariani|
Published: Volume 20, Issue 3, March, 2012
There may have been more glitterati than literati at this year’s Jaipur Literary Festival, says Milika Hariani, who returns from the high-profile event elated and somewhat dizzy by the information overload there....
“You needn’t have camped in Jaipur for the Literary Festival for so many days. We read about everything that went on there, even about the cow that mooed whenever an author posed a question,” commented my spouse when I returned to Mumbai, elated, stimulated but somewhat dizzy from the whirligig of experiences there.
In some ways he had a point.
The DSC Jaipur Literature Festival generated reams of newsprint this year at its seventh edition not only because of the Rushdie controversy but also because it is now seen as the Kumbh Mela of the literary world.
Last year, the JLF attracted 60,000 visitors. This year, over 80,000 people swooped down on the Pink City because it is now perceived as a must-do activity on the social calendar, the place to be at in January even by those who rarely read anything except glossy, gossipy magazines at the beauty parlour.
Oprah Winfrey’s presence was certainly a big draw but the compulsion to be a part of the action has become contagious, fuelled by the interest churned by the media. It is now a permanent fixture on the Indian social calendar along with The Indian Derby, Fashion Weeks, Sunburn in Goa, Indian Film Festival, Delhi, Chennai Music Festival, Sawai Gandharva Music Festival, Pune, Pushkar Mela, Khajuraho Dance Festival, Art Fair, Delhi and the Kala Ghoda Festival, Mumbai. The JLF has now morphed into a glittery Page 3 event.
When I reached Jaipur, there was a battalion of photographers at the airport exit. They were snapping anyone and everyone that looked as if they could be a famous writer. “You don’t need to photograph me. I am merely a journalist,” quipped John Elliot, who has been in Asia since 1983. The photographer clicked his photo anyway.
Google News displayed over 5000 stories on the JLF worldwide this year. Since writers are a loquacious and articulate fraternity with interesting points of view, the reporters that flocked there were amply rewarded for their efforts. There was a glut of articles in all the newspapers that were distributed free at the Fest. Some Jaipur newspapers gave sartorial tips! One article was titled ‘Make heads turn for the write reasons’. Those of us who were in Jaipur were able to read what had transpired behind the scenes as well as at sessions we hadn’t attended. Television was a great help too, especially news on Oprah and Salman.
Since there are over a hundred sessions that take place at five different locations concurrently, Jaipur Lit Fest pilgrims are forced to cherry pick their favourites. Even the most agile and sure-footed visitors couldn’t race to and from different locations like they did in previous years because the undeniably spacious grounds (almost four acres) were packed to the gills especially at the weekend. This meant that everyone had to queue up for everything, for coffee, for snacks, to buy books and to use the restrooms. People stayed put in their seats for several sessions at the same venue because of the shortage of seats. It was impossible to find anyone in the melee without the aid of cell phones. I didn’t run into friends who I knew were there and glimpsed others only on the TV screens. There were people from all over India, not just from Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru and Kolkata but also from small towns such as Patiala and Ambala and from various corners of the globe. There were genuine celebrities, wannabes, Page 3 staples, industrialists, famous designers, Indophiles, corporate honchos, aspiring models, members of book clubs and people who just love to read all kinds of books, of all ages and from different walks of life. There may have been more glitterati than literati there this year as I overheard someone say but lovers of literature were there too. Many came for the non-English programmes.
A man I didn’t recognise came up to me and said hello. Speaking in Hindi he told me that I had bought something from his stall at Paramparik Karigar some years ago. He was a jeweller, specialising in Jaipur enamel work and was there to support a speaker from his village. School and college students in their uniforms swelled the crowds but seemed to be there on a picnic. Some Jaipurians who usually attend some of the lectures and the evening musical programmes stayed away this year because of the crowds. “My husband and I were nervous that we’d get pushed or jostled. We are too old for that,” said the wife of a retired IAS officer. “We had got tickets for the Sufi programme but they had over-sold them. In the end we left the grounds without fighting our way in,” commented Tejas Tholia, jewellery designer.
On the first day, my book club pals and I waited for 35 minutes in the queue for the restroom before requesting Jamini Ahluwalia for the use of hers. The traffic to and from the Diggi Palace was jammed this year because of the more stringent security. Most of us had problems with our taxis too but we coped with all these minor irritations since the overall experience is so special, rewarding and enriching.
It is a discernable buzz, a sort of electric, charged atmosphere that you pick up almost as soon as you go through the huge blue gates of Diggi Palace. The placards emblazoned with pithy quotes on reading and literature that lines the dusty approach road sets the mood. Even Salman Rushdie mentioned this in his blog before the debacle occurred: “The Festival has grown a lot and so had my desire to go back to Diggi Palace to savour the energising atmosphere there.”
The buzz intensifies as the Fest goes on and you get bombarded with diverse points of view. You feel as if you are at a huge party, a jamboree with an intellectual twist in a charming, historical setting. There is something very tantalising about sitting out in the open, in bright sunlight under limpid azure skies or a breezy shamiana, in crisp, cool weather listening to renowned authors. You get seduced into wanting to concentrate, to lap it all up even if the subject doesn’t interest you. That’s what happened to me at the inaugural session and keynote address: Bhakti Poetry: The Living Legacy by Purshottam Agarwal and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. They brought alive the mystic saint poets, Mirabai and Kabir, the Sikh gurus and the Tamil poets – worshipped by some, considered crazy by others by reading out some wonderfully evocative poetry. Listening intently, I realised that I had recently read and enjoyed a book on a totally different topic by the latter. On reflection, I realised that it is this kind of serendipitous discovery of an unfamiliar form of poetry and books by authors I had never heard of that made the pilgrimage to the Fest worthwhile for me. I had heard of Jamaica Kincaid but never read any of her books but after attending two sessions in which she participated I was so fascinated by some of the things she spoke about on the panel discussion on ‘The Art of the Short Story’ that I cornered her at breakfast. Born in Antigua, as Elaine Cynthia Potter Richardson she renamed herself Jamaica Kincaid because her family disapproved of her writing. Brought up in a place that was surrounded by water, she now lives in Vermont surrounded by hills and writes about places near water. I have since ordered several of her books.
It was interesting to hear Lionel Shriver whose fascinating but disturbing Orange prize-winning novel We Need to Talk About Kevin has been made into a film that she approves of. I had always wondered why she had a man’s name and whether she had experienced motherhood. Both my questions were answered eventually. She was surprisingly approachable despite her slightly forbidding demeanour.
Tiger Mother Amy Chua in conversation with Madhu Trehan was a memorable session. The petite, nattily dressed, very attractive author explained that the book was supposed to be funny and satirical and a memoir, not a How to Guide to Parenting. “Yet the whole thing was turned round and I could no longer recognise myself in the media.” If there were still doubts about her parenting they were settled when the author brought out her star witness, her daughter Sophia. “I love the relationship I have with my mother right now; she is one of my best friends and one of the people I trust most. And when I grow up, I’ll probably be a Tiger Mum too,” she said.
Michael Ondaatje in conversation with Amitava Kumar, in a session titled From Ink Lake topped my to-hear list. The Sri Lankan born-Canadian novelist who won the Booker Prize answered the question I was itching to ask him during the course of his eloquent talk. In his new book, The Cat’s Table there is a character broadly based on my great grandfather who he describes as a millionaire heading to England for medical treatment after being bitten by a rabid dog. Because he explained that he likes to fictionalise real people in his novels I decided to slip away during the questions to queue up for the rest rooms. I was amused that so many of my pals wondered why he looked so European.
At times, I felt saturated. There seemed to be too much going on. At tea time every day, a new book was launched on a wide range of topics. These included Anupam Kher’s book entitled The Best Thing About You Is... You, a book on Jaipur Quilts by Krystyna Hellstrom and Introspections on the Gita by Narayan Singh Masuda edited by Indrajit Singh Rathore.
I was sorry I missed hearing the witty acceptance speech of Sri Lankan writer Shehan Karunatilaka who won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2012 for his cricket-inspired novel Chinaman for instance.
With its enchanting sights, interesting history and exotic culture, the dusky pink capital city of Rajasthan is on most people’s list of favourite Indian cities. Jaipur has much to offer. Its hill top forts and splendid palaces that indicate its royal past invite exploration. Its bustling markets are treasure troves of an amazing variety of goods. Its people are strikingly photogenic, the men sporting vibrant turbans and twirling moustaches, the women, vivid poshaks, and lehengas, armfuls of bangles and chunky necklaces. It is the main gateway to the splendour and magic of Rajasthan. That’s why Indian and foreign tourists keep going back there. Going to the Jaipur Literary Festival is, for many, a way of combining their love for literature/reading with their love for travel. That’s probably another reason why the Jaipur Lit Fest is such a resounding success. There are so many things to do before, after and during it. There were swarms of people sporting Lit Fest passes at all the tourist sites, restaurants, shops and markets.
Some authors (like Richard Dorking, Tom Stoppard, Simon Sebag Montefiore, Romesh Gunesekara and Roshi Fernado) even went fest hopping to the Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka which started three days after the Jaipur one.
My friend Geetoo spent one magical afternoon exploring the countryside around the city on an elephant safari. Another group of pals braved the freezing cold to watch the sound and light show at the impressive Amer Fort.
I went around the City Palace with friends who belong to an aristocratic Jaipur family. They made history come alive by pointing out their relatives in the sepia toned photographs at the museum. We saw the giant silver jars that held Ganga water for the Maharaja’s overseas trips, the candle-lit Polo ball and the unusual decorative features that have been replicated in Rajasthani hotels. We had to delay our visit to the private chambers because Oprah and her team were filming there. We trudged up the ridged sloping corridor (meant for palanquins) inside the palace because the lift was being used to transport Oprah’s equipment there). We were shown the areas where the filming had been done. One had exquisite mirror work inlaid with gold. Another was done up in typical Jaipur blue and had scalloped arches. They all had amazing views of the city. Later, we had tea with the very lovely Princess Diya Kumari in the formal drawing room with painted walls, antique carpets, crystal chandeliers, stunning artefacts and scattered with family photographs. Oprah had made Princess Diya Kumari weep so she was minus make up yet she looked regal, every inch an Indian princess of the contemporary era. She is the only child of Maharani Padmini Devi of Sirmur and Maharaja Bhawani Singh (Bubbles) who passed away not long ago. Her son Padmanabh Singh was adopted by her father in November 2002 and designated as his heir. My Rajput friend Vijay said she had enjoyed the interlude as much as we had. “It is so nice to go around as a tourist in one’s own city,” she observed.
Visitors to the lit fest prefer to stay at heritage hotels dotting the area in and around Jaipur. It can enhance the Jaipur experience. Rooms at the 60 room, frill-free Diggi are coveted for its convenience. That’s where the delegates and most of the authors gather. Some acquaintances who stayed at the Samode Palace that’s almost one and a half hours drive from Jaipur felt privileged to have Simon Sebag Montefiore (author of Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar and presenter of the BBC TV series Jerusalem: Making of a Holy City)as a dining companion. Some others shared tall tales and cocktails with Fatima Bhutto at the Rambagh.
Last year, I stayed at Barwara Kothi, a guest house, run by the Royal Family of Barwar with a group from my Book Club. This year I decided to stay at the Rambagh Palace alone. It has been a special favourite of mine although it has changed dramatically since my first visit. Once again, I felt transported to another world as soon as I entered its spacious marble foyer and submitted to the garland, thali, tilak and shower of rose petals ritual that are synonymous with Rajasthani hotels of the upmarket kind.
The Rambagh Palace, voted the best hotel in the world by several publications, is not at all intimidating despite its impressive size and the grandeur of its public rooms. Its architecture is an intriguing blend of Rajasthani and Moghul styles. It has the enchanted feel of an Indian fairy tale castle with its chequered marble corridors, painted walls, its scalloped arches, its many courtyards centred round tinkling fountains and its spacious landscaped gardens. Its atmosphere is very special. Almost bewitching. You find yourself spending hours just wandering about, in idle contemplation just absorbing it all.
I had hoped to get an Oprah moment at the Rambagh but I missed it by a hair’s breadth. My book club pals had joined me for dinner on the first night. The restaurant was crammed so I got delayed signing the bill. I caught a glimpse of Oprah in an apple green sari (that appeared blue under the corridor lights) teamed with a black blouse with her huge entourage in tow striding down the opposite corridor. My pals who had gone on ahead managed to get photographs of her. The next day we missed seeing her again at the City Palace. Another friend calling from abroad delayed me on the day of her session. By the time I got to the venue, the security were yelling at people to go back home. I managed to squeeze past them into the queue but got pushed forward so much that I panicked. I wondered briefly whether literature was worth being maimed for but that thought vanished the minute the surging crowd pushed me through the barricade. I didn’t even stop to inspect my bruises but the gates to the Front Lawn were firmly shut. There were no screens set up outside so I went to hear Fatima Bhutto instead and found a space standing next to Girish Karnad outside the Mughal Tent. Several reporters came up to him and asked him to say something about the Fest. “They should invite Oprah here every day. Then the rest of us will always be able to find space to see and hear the other speakers. I couldn’t do that yesterday: today because of Oprah I can,” he joked while giving his autograph to a bunch of students. While watching the Oprah in Jaipur show in Mumbai later I realised that I hadn’t missed out at all. Hearing this, my husband said: “So you won’t be going back there next year?”
And I replied, “Yes I will. You should come too.”
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