Confessions of a first timer: Agony and ecstasy of being a panelist at the Jaipur Literature Festival

"I shouldn't have come," was the grim thought that surfaced from the most deplorably insecure depths of my writerly soul.

"You had every right to be here," debated the more rational, enlightened voice in my head.

"Everyone knows you're a pity-invitee," was the answer that emerged, fully formed, a retaliatory blow in the face.

And so, head hung in half-shame, half-pride, I made my way to the counter outside from where I was meant to collect my "Speakers" badge.

I was still smarting from the cold humiliation I had suffered the evening before, where, having arrived at the airport in Jaipur, I approached the prescribed "JLF Travel Desk" to inquire about the cab meant to transfer me to my hotel: I mumbled my name to a girl, one of three manning the desk, and asked about my commute to the Lalit. "Sorry Ma'am, this is not a help desk," she retorted, as if sensing that I was not meant to belong, or couldn't emanate or fakely assume the air of authority the real invitees exude. "But I was instructed to specifically look for this particular counter, and that I would be assisted," I said, channeling more of a defensive air than was perhaps necessary. I wished I was significant enough to be gracious about this clear case of presumed identity-lessness, but I feel too fragile to acquiesce.

"Are you a speaker or a delegate?" she asked, so sure I was not either. "A speaker," I said. "My name is Rosalyn D'Mello and I can see it on your list," I said rudely, having caught a quick glimpse of the sheet that was being handled by the girl's colleague. Masking her surprise, she proceeded to apologise profusely. "I've been traveling since 10.30 am, I just want to get to my room. I have two dinners to get to," I said. "Give us ten minutes," the boy with her said, as she continued to apologise despite my having feigned forgiveness. "By the time you get to Amer, the dinners will be over anyway," he added.

Mercifully, when I arrive at the counter to collect the badge that holds a unique barcode that'll clock in all my dinner and alcohol intake, the volunteer recognises me. She must have done her homework and studied the photos on each badge so she could correlate the face and the name. After a half-hearted frisk and bag scan, I am finally inside the premises of the 10th edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival.

(Top left) Paul Beatty; (above right) fest director William Dalrymple; (top right and above left) crowds at the 10th edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival. Photos courtesy JLF/Facebook

(Top left) Paul Beatty; (above right) fest director William Dalrymple; (top right and above left) crowds at the 10th edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival. Photos courtesy JLF/Facebook

This was by no means my first time. I'd been a regular visitor since the second edition, when Salman Rusdhie was a speaker, and Suketu Mehta. I loved the intimacy of sharing space with writers you never imagined encountering in real life, who were attached to your world only through the dimension of the written word. The festival had succeeded in making writers approachable, a wet dream for a 21-year-old with textual ambitions. So my first time at Jaipur was as a reader who also doubled as an aspiring writer. It was exhilarating. Over the years, my role as a freelancer writer offered me a little more exclusive access as a participant with a press pass. I remember a long interview I did a few years ago with William Kentridge, the legendary South African writer. I recall transcribing whole sessions on art, attending panels on refugee poetry, foraging for precious little moments of hope that I, too, could stake claim to a voice that was independent and self-reflexive, punctuated by formal awareness and capable of captivating an audience that boasted a wide demographic. As I found myself more and more entrenched in the literary circles of Delhi, Mumbai, and Goa, I found my access increase. Writing felt more possible, and by 2013, I found myself as a writer with an agent, one of the best in the industry.

When A Handbook For My Lover, my debut non-fiction memoir was finally released in late 2015, I hoped it would catch the fancy of the festival's co-directors. It was an exciting book, a literary tell-all about the coming of age of a desirous young woman with a photographer 30 years older, and her journey towards claiming agency for herself, owning up to her most secretive fantasies, relating to formative texts and the entirety of her gesture of surrender to the transformatory though conflict-ridden act of being in love and being loved. I imagined that its loyalty towards transcribing the erotic undercurrent of the relationship, a relative feat, given the oppressively patriarchal climate that continues to hold sway in contemporary India, would have made it stand out. I had been to panels on erotica and the memoir at the JLF before, many of which were entirely composed of male speakers — 'manels'. I figured my book would be a welcome addition to a discourse that is infrequent within the non-fiction genre. When, despite three rave reviews by significant national newspapers, I got no invite to JLF's 2016 edition, I swallowed my pride, thanks to the lover's cajoling, and wrote to Namita Gokhale. She replied politely, saying it was too late now to include any new books and that she would keep my book in mind for the following year.

My publishers had given up. My publicist said I had to consider the possibility of sucking up to certain people if I wanted to be invited to any literature festivals. The HarperCollins team, too, seemed surprised by the lack of enthusiasm towards my book. I gave up. I was too busy earning a living to be overly concerned with networking, I had several other books on my plate that deserved my attention. Meanwhile, my book was published in Australia by an editor from Hardie Grant who fell in love with it. The lover's portrait of me was used as the cover. I spent a month in that continent touring my book, being appreciated by such a foreign audience. The months flew by. It was lit fest season in India again. But I had only received one invitation, to the Bangalore Literature Festival. I said yes. I ended up being the only woman on an all-male panel on the subject of erotica, juvenilely titled "Oohs and Aahs" that included one published writer who had yet to write a book that dealt with the erotic. His participation in the panel was on the premise of a yet-to-be-published book. He, along with another older male writer had allowed themselves to occupy the space that should have been reserved for writers who were more honestly and subversively dealing with the subject of the erotic, which, incidentally, in this day and age happen to be women. Before the older writer seized the opportunity to bore the audience with his un-timed and untimely reading of vast tracts of his novel that were presumably 'sexy', the moderator offered me the opportunity to read from my book. I chose the first two pages that constitute the prologue, and as I read, I searched through the length and breadth of the audience and found every member was hooked to my words. For the first time as a writer, I felt like I was so irrevocably intimate with my potential readers. When the session was over, I was humbled by the number of men and women of varying age-groups who approached me, some to tell me they'd already read my book multiple times, some to say they had just bought it and were eager for me to autograph their copies. It was magical.

That was mid-December. Until then, I had been trying with all sincerity to emulate the grace and anonymity with which Elena Ferrante writes her fiction, unmindful of the business of glamour or fame, content to be unknown and unknowable, except perhaps through the writing that she had authored. But that afternoon, after the high of interacting with so many women who felt they were able to identify so intensely with the vulnerability of the character I personify in my memoir, I began to feel cheated out of the enormity of such an experience; the whole idea of being given a platform that would enable me to connect with readers and influence aspiring minds. So by the first week of January, when, once again I realised I had not been invited to the Jaipur Literature Festival, an event that held particular significance for me as a writer, I felt like something had been taken away from me. If the festival had maintained its initial focus of serving up only the very best writerly fare, I would have understood my not being included as my not being good enough. But critically, my book had been a success. Every review commended its originality, bravery, and trascendental lure. The festival's 2016 edition was being so ostensibly inclusive it had even invited two members from the ultra right-wing RSS, male writers who didn't even have any works of literature to their credit. And yet, a writer like me, who had written something that functioned within the personal-is-political resistance had no place. It seemed unfair.

My attempts to make peace with the exclusion were in full swing when I began to get messages from friends from around the world who were going to be descending in Jaipur for the ten-year-anniversary extravaganza. That's when I began to full the sting of being snubbed. I put out a message on Facebook casually saying that after two years of my book being snubbed, I had decided not to go to the festival, I would spend that weekend instead at the residency I had been offered at HH Art Spaces in Goa. Within a few hours, the status message had been seen by hundreds of Facebook "friends". It was mostly other women writers who knew the quiet yet agonising humiliation of similar rejection who jumped to my defence. Soon, the festival's director, William Dalrymple jumped in to change the narrative. My absence was not to be read as proof of snubbing but as evidence of oversight. Festival directors were often really busy and it was thus possible that they could "forget", and writers should feel no qualms in reaching out to them. My writer friend Samhita Arni debated that the onus could not be put on writers, festival directors were responsible for keeping themselves updated. The debate spiralled on. I received a text from Dalrymple saying he could try to get me on a panel, as if it were a secret nightclub with a super private and coveted guest list, a hotspot that I was not cool enough to be at except through someone's mediation. I had to know someone who knew someone. Except I did know someone who knew many other someones, I was always "connected", but I had been under the impression that it was undignified to ask for something that my merit had already proved I deserve.

Wouldn't the benefits of going far outweigh the benefits of not going? I argued. I decided to read Dalrymple's entreaty as a correctional gesture, and I summoned as much grace as I could muster so I could bring myself to accept.

Rosalyn D'Mello (far left) at the JLF session on 'The Memoir'

At the JLF session on 'The Memoir'. Photo courtesy: Facebook

As I took my place on stage, I retrieved my notebook from my bag, in case I needed to pen down a thought. The moderator, an excellent writer, Samanth Subramaniam, introduced the subject of the discussion: The Memoir, as I shifted in my seat. After going through the motions with the other three writers — all women — who were my co-panelists, he turned his attention to me. By then all my insecurities had risen to the brim and were threatening to spill over. "Do not discredit your own writing. Do not call your memoir fickle. Do not allow your self-confidence to be called into question," I scribbled in my notebook. I had been placed next to Hyeonseo Lee, a North Korean defector; Emma Sky, who left the comfort of her known world to go and rebuild Iraq; and Bee Rowlatt, who, inspired by a journey made by Mary Wollstonecraft centuries ago, decided to take off to the Netherlands to follow in the feminist's footsteps, year-old baby in tow. And then there was me, a 31-year-old who was suddenly experiencing a bout of the Imposter Syndrome, wondering if there was a reason I was a pity-invitee.

But the women on my panel had lived exhilarating lives, and so embodied such unusual grace and kindness. They urged me on, they listened to me, as did the audience. For a while, the voices in my head were silenced. "I'm glad I came," I thought, and the conversations that continued long after the session ended reinforced that feeling, including the brief interview I did with Ellen Barry of the New York Times, who said she was exploring the idea of inclusion and exclusion at the festival, and was therefore interested in the story of how I came to be invited.

"I hope you enjoy the rest of your time in Jaipur," Dalrymple said to me later, at dinner. I said I'd make every effort, and so I did. I spent time with my agent, David Godwin, I had my first real conversation with Manu Joseph, a writer I read often enough but who I always presumed to be a snob, and by whom I am now completely charmed. I shamelessly barged in on a conversation between Chandrahas Chowdhury and Ashok Ferry in the Author's Lounge, which ended in my being introduced to the latter's beautiful biceps, exercise routine, and shocking age: he's only 59! I met Manju Kapoor, a writer whose book I had recently reviewed for The Hindu. I got re-acquainted with Jayanta Mahapatra, a poet I love, who I'd met years ago, when I ended up gifting him my copy of Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson, and he, in return, couriered to my JNU hostel address a signed copy of his own Rain of Rites. I experienced the phenonemon of "mansplaining" with Tishani Doshi and Joseph over lunch, as a random older gentleman inserted himself into the dynamic only to ask Tishani and me our opinion on mansplaining so he could interrupt our replies to proffer his own two-bit. Tishani laughed aloud when she realised the man was not interested in hearing her talk — considering we had been going over the proceedings of that morning's excellent panel on the subject of mansplaining and misogyny in which Bee Rowlat (the writer who went off with her toddler to retrace Wollstonecraft's steps) candidly asked the token man on the panel, Suhel Seth, why he was there to begin with. Like many in the audience I had clapped my approval when the women on the panel exposed the many hypocrisies practised by misogynists-in-gentleman's clothes. Despite her reservations about steering such a panel, Amrita Tripathi was stupendous.

Like last year, the biggest "moment" for me as a debut writer was at the airport in Delhi. In 2016 that moment was facilitated by Margaret Atwood, the only reason I even went to Jaipur that year. I had happened to spot her walking towards her gate as I was waiting to board my flight to Dhaka. I'd mustered the courage to seek her out to give her a copy of my book. By the time I'd got a copy and had started to look for her, she'd disappeared. So I inquired at all the gates that were still open if there was a passenger on board named Margaret Atwood, until I got lucky at the Air India counter for the flight bound to Heathrow, and I urged a passenger about to board to ferry my book to her. I learned later, through a tweet by her, that my book had reached her hands.

This year, as I was waiting for my flight to Goa from Delhi, I had a two-hour interlude after arriving in from Jaipur. I had said goodbye to most of the writers who were on that same flight. Now I was alone. I suddenly spotted Jayanta Mahapatra who saw me too and smiled.

"Mr Mahapatra, since you're here, why don't I just give you a copy of my book instead of couriering it to you like I promised?" I asked. "There's a copy at the bookshop, I can quickly get it."

"I don't want you to go to any trouble," he said.

"It'd be a pleasure," I said.

So I returned with a copy, which he made me sign, asking for a personal note too. It would be an honour, I told him.

"Please also write your address and phone number," he said. I obeyed, knowing fully well that soon enough I would receive a package from him as a sign of gratitude.

After I photographed him with my book, and after we hugged, he said this —

"I hope you don't mind, Rosalyn, but I would really like you to have this pen. It's my pen, and I've used it to write many poems. I would really like you to have it.

I was speechless.

I knew then why I had come after all. Precisely so I could pursue moments like these that were undiluted by egos, that were immersed in grace, that lived outside of convention and expectation, that were about conversations between writers across generations, beyond boundaries, marked by the vitality of conflicting genders as well as an awe for the provocative lure of the written word. I wanted to mark my existence as a writer and a woman with a voice that ought not to be ignored. I wanted to reject the threat of obscurity or anonymity. I wanted to stand up and be counted. And I wanted, most of all, to be heard.

Rosalyn D'Mello is former editor-in-chief of Artinfo India, and the author of A Handbook For My Lover

Published Date: Jan 28, 2017 09:43 AM | Updated Date: Jan 28, 2017 09:43 AM

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