Jaipur Literature Festival: Bigger, yes, but better?

Sunday, 30 January 2011 - 3:01am IST | Place: Bangalore | Agency: DNA
While the exponential growth of the Jaipur Literature Festival is a positive development in the Indian literary scene, the sheer magnitude of the event today has taken its toll on the easy intimacy between authors and readers that used to be a hallmark of the event in years past.

For the last three years, I’ve attended the Jaipur Literature festival as a reader and stalker of the literati. In the course of those years, I’ve seen the festival grow — from a gathering of readers and authors that could fit comfortably into the front lawns of the Diggi Palace for a post-session drink, into a mammoth, unwieldy beast that has spilled over into the car park and taken over the Diggi Palace stables. In past years, famous authors and readers would comfortably mingle after the sessions — a bottom feeder (like myself) could approach Alexander McCAll Smith or Wole Soyinka, enjoy a coffee with Niall Ferguson and rub shoulders with the likes of Hari Kunzru and Thomas Keneally.

This year, it was very different. The crowd has grown exponentially. Although this is a positive sign for the state of literature in India, those of us who had come in previous years felt disgruntled by the long lines in front of toilets, and the scramble for seats (and even standing space) at many sessions. Separate areas for authors and the hoi-polloi prevented the easy mingling of previous years.

Even before the festival started, there was a sense of disaffection — a literary spat had broken out in the pages of Open magazine, where Hartosh Singh Bal, in an article titled ‘The Literary Raj’, had claimed that the festival, run by WIlliam Dalrymple, panders to the tastes of the British literary establishment. Moreover, Bal was censorious of the importance Dalrymple occupies in the Indian literary scene. An irked Dalrymple had responded by calling Bal a racist; but also made valid points about the composition of the festival — due to the efforts of his co-director, Namita Gokhale, a number of bhasha writers do attend the festival and receive recognition.

Smaller sessions were better
It cannot be denied that despite such sentiments, the lion’s share of attention in Jaipur goes to foreign writers and those Indian authors who write in English. But this is a complex issue. As writer and festival speaker Anjum Hassan says, “Audiences are more interested in a Kiran Desai than a Vinod Kumar Shukla, even if the latter might be more interesting.” Hassan places the onus on the reader. She adds, “Sometimes, a star writer is not the best speaker, sometimes he or she is — it depends. Smaller sessions tend to be better.” Writers who are good speakers tend to perform better and make for more interesting sessions.

I often found that to be the case with Jaipur — that the smaller, more unknown sessions are often the most rewarding. As Dalrymple claims, the festival organisers “hold out for authors we admire and resist PR Machines”. The result is I’ve ‘discovered’ authors at the festival who I’ve never heard of before, but have fascinating stories to tell. For example, this year, Anthony Satinn spoke about his non-fiction work, Winter On the Nile, which is based on his discovery that Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert spent a night aboard the same cruise in Egypt. Satinn found an intriguing similarity between both figures — Florence and Flaubert are both sent to Egypt to recover from various disappointments, but have a vastly different experience of Egypt.
But not all sessions are this intriguing. As Saugata Mukherjee, managing editor of Harper Collins, says, some panels are very ‘slap-dash’ — hastily put together. I had to agree — one such session, on the very first morning of the festival, featured Rana Dasgupta and Tishani Doshi. Doshi and Dasgupta read from a story, “Woodfinger”, that Dasgupta had penned, a retelling of a well-known Kannadiga folktale. Dasgupta is a fine writer, but to be treated to an unedited draft of his story, where name changes and inconsistencies occurred, and which, he admitted, had been hastily completed that very morning — was not really fair to an audience that had just flown in from all parts of India and the world.

Another panel featured the famous Sex And The City author Candace Bushnell in conversation with chick-lit writer and former Miss India contestant Ira Trivedi. Bushnell, in the bio in the festival handbook, is described as a “serious novelist,” a description she earns with her incisive observations of the complexities and difficulties of a modern woman’s life. Trivedi, however, put a series of truly cringe-worthy questions to Bushnell: she asked whether the 52-year-old Bushnell had future plans of having children. She also commented on Bushnell’s discussion of promiscuity in her work, saying that it was now “okay for girls to cheat.” (Bushnell, thankfully, responded by saying that this was not what she meant.) The frivolous nature of such questions were disappointing to a great many young women in the audience, who identify strongly with Bushnell’s characters and situations — it was truly a pity that the festival organisers did not find a better moderator for this session.

What the auto driver said
A few hours after the Bushnell session, an auto driver drove me back to my hotel. He told me that the festival had gone downhill — there was a lot of drinking at night time, which was not in keeping with a festival that was to promote sahitya. This accusation has dogged the festival for years — in 2009, Vikram Seth came under a lot of flak in the media when he was photographed with a drink in hand. But that wasn’t the main thrust of my auto-driver’s complaint. He explained that many people at the festival, particularly at the night-time events, are attracted more by the alcohol and the foreign crowd rather than by any love of literature. In these circumstances, “bad behaviour” might easily happen.

When I put this question to Dalrymple a few days later, he agreed that the crowds are “large” and the music events at night attract of lot of “local riff-raff.” For 2012, he said that ticketing and expanding the venue were under discussion.

But even those measures, I think, will not bring back the sense of intimacy and reduce the festival to its earlier size. As the event becomes increasingly high profile, it will only grow larger. This year, an area was specially cordoned off in the evenings for authors and delegates, discouraging the easy intimacy of past years between writers and readers. There’s definitely a sense of something lost. But at the same time, it is encouraging to see so many come to Jaipur and engage with literature. Tarun Tejpal, in the penultimate session, observed, “We need a life of mind in India and the festival creates this.”

There’s no question that the Jaipur Literature Festival provides a space for important conversations about literature and society, and that this conversation often continues outside the festival even after the jamboree is over. One such case in point: Dalrymple’s recent detractor, Hartosh Singh Bal, was spotted at the festival sharing a laugh with Dalrymple himself.

Samhita Arni is the Bangalore-based author of The Mahabharata — A Child’s View


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