Despite the presence of literary giants at the Zee JLF, you never know who’s going to draw the crowds.
For two young festival-goers, it was adman, columnist and socialite Suhel Seth, rather than the Jhumpa Lahiris or Jonathan Franzens, who kept them interested. “Suhel Seth is the best speaker I’ve heard at the festival,” the two said, at the refreshment room near the Front Lawns at the festival. “We must go to that book launch that he’ll be speaking at in a few minutes.”
To this Dr Radha Natarajan, a regular festival attendee who’s graced the lit fest every year in the last seven years had an astute observation, “Is someone documenting these conversations? I’d love to read them.” Dr Natarajan, a resident of Jaipur, feels that maximum footfall at the festival is of people who come to the Diggi Palace to make an appearance. “Every year, there is this dedicated bunch that comes here because they want to meet particular authors and litterateurs.
But mostly, you find people who come here because they need to be seen here,” says Dr Natarajan.
For a festival that started with barely 14 people (with a few Japanese tourists who lost their way into the palace grounds, as festival co-director William Dalrymple puts it), the JLF has grown into a huge congregation of bibliophiles, tourists, authors, Bollywood stars and politicians who make a pilgrimage to the city every year to soak in an unadulterated literary experience. But, with everything that grows commercially, the JLF too no longer guarantees the close-knit experience it did five or six years ago.
“I remember chatting with Salman Rushdie for more than 30 minutes here in 2007. Or, sitting for dinner with Mohammad Hanif for that matter. You can’t do that anymore. In my opinion, what really started drawing the crowd was when the organisers managed to rope in Amitabh Bachchan and Vikram Seth in 2007. However, the festival has grown organically over the years. Everything is well-thought of,” said Arush (name changed). He has been coming to the festival since 2007 and is a business consultant in Mumbai. As an afterthought he adds, “I’d still not miss this for anything in the world.”
In a way, the festival, for many journalists, poses as an event that is an excuse to remain oblivious to the numerous breaking stories unfolding in the world outside of the Pink City. For freelance journalist Santanu Ganguly, who has been coming to the festival for five years now, it is the perfect foil for day stories. “I love the atmosphere here, despite the large number of people who come here without an idea of what’s happening. That there are opportunities to interact with your favourite writer excites me,” says Ganguly.
The festival also comes as a blessing for writers. For art critic and forthcoming writer Rosalyn D’Mello, JLF is akin to hobnobbing within a literary circle. “It is fun to meet writers and friends at here; there are so many stimulating conversations. What is admirable is that despite the size it has grown to, the festival has retained its democratic aspirations.”