Jaipur LitFest 2016: Fear and loathing in a sea of prose, poetry and tea (real or imagined)
Once every year, book-lovers from around the world gather in Jaipur like a cult gathering for some sacred annual ritual. This year I went to the city to cover this ritual, the 'world's largest free literature festival', the Jaipur Literature Festival.
Mid January in North India: A strange time of the year in a strange part of the world.
Over the course of history, many have written romantically about the cold winds of the North, the long nights and spectral days; although it is not difficult to find, every now and then, a hint of dislike towards this very phenomenon when you think about the more practical aspects of weathering the frigid months.
As someone who grew up in the North, as I packed up my bags for another trip this year, I found forcing myself to ally with the romantic notions, or at least the practical discomfort, but all I could think of was the recent climate summits and pollution curbing measures in the National Capital.
The chosen means of transport: Train.
Destination: The cold and dry Northwest.
"Anything is possible on a train," Paul Theroux wrote once, and although nothing dramatic happened in the 14 hours or so from Mumbai, the the rolling landscape outside the window, with hillocks giving way to the flat lines, added a mild sense of the dramatic. As the train stopped at stations, I stepped out and saw the thick fog that hung in the air as people curled up on platforms. They burned through cigarettes in the hopes of getting rid of the unease that hangs over these isolated stations, much like the fog.
I finally got off the train at around mid-afternoon and stepped into the sunlight at Jaipur Junction Railway Station. With my backpack cutting into my shoulders, I took a few steps, surprised as always at the lack of high-rise buildings and the blue of the sky.
Some familiar music instantly hit me.
In front of me, right there at the station, was a crowd of 50-or-so people dancing to the beats of drums while disposable cups of tea were being handed around — a wedding party. Here I was, in the middle of people celebrating of ancient traditions while trains whizzed passed them. Perhaps a suitable metaphor for the city in which I now found myself standing.
Here in Jaipur, amid the seemingly never-ending revelry, I had come to attend the "world's largest free literature festival", the Jaipur Literature Festival (yes, we noticed the 'free').
Once every year, book-lovers from around the world gather in this old city like a cult gathering for some sacred annual ritual. Among the pink of an old city, the royal palaces and the constant struggle to make way for the new, it is perhaps the perfect place to celebrate literature.
Day One: The day one realises one is born naive
Traffic, bloody traffic. The route to the the venue, Diggi Palace, is a long bottleneck stretching over a few kilometers. Once you struggle your way through, the parking itself gives the Thar Desert a run for its money.
But lets not start off on the wrong foot. Let's try something more superficial.
This year I was attending not here merely to attend the festival, but to cover it. Press credentials had been arranged and with that came free food, drinks, unspeakable access to the venue and a false sense of pride in form of a green colored tag with the word "press". (More on the 'false sense of pride' on Day Two)
After running around the press terrace making my presence felt to the overworked organisers, I started the day on a classy note: With Ruskin Bond.
The beloved old man who doesn't seems to have aged a day since in the past decade talked about childhood and love. I hurriedly made notes of the questions to ask him in a scenario in which I imagined us sitting in a quite corner sipping tea, while I let myself use the words "most beloved author of the country" frequently (I know).
The mode of communication and coordination with my "handlers" who would get me touch with the requested authors was the universal language of SMS. Three hours into the fest and not a single message. A foreshadowing for the days to follow.
Up next was session called 'The Pakistan Paradox'. The panel included five people, but I was there for just one: Christophe Jaffrelot, another person with whom I was planning to sip some tea. Some of the questions I planned to asked included "For how long are you in India?" and "Do you like the food here?". My editor, perhaps sensing the impending doom, texted me some real questions. But the texts I was really waiting for never came.
Oh, yeah, and if you were wondering, he talked about Pakistan during the session.
A scene of frustration crept in, like someone was hiding a secret from me. I had some kachoris to ease that tension.
The crowd was building up as the day progressed. More selfie sticks in sight than books.
Next was a session titled 'Navigating Modernity' with a panel that included Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Ravikant, Shobhaa De and Jaffrelot (so close yet so...) in conversation with Pragya Tiwari. To say the conversation on the stage was incomprehensible would be an understatement. De sulked while Mehta scanned the crowd for the next 40 minutes.
I headed back to the press terrace to check on my handlers and make sure I was on top of every list. I was told Bond, as well as Jaffrelot would be giving interviews the next day, and so would the others on my list.
Day two, I was told, looked promising. So I retreated to my lodgings, only to dream of sipping tea.
Day Two: The day reality slaps you in the face
The day started with plenty to look forward to. I was promised three interviews before I got to the venue and one more soon after.
I will restrain myself from naming the authors in light of what is to follow.
I got to the press terrace and waited for the first of the many to arrive for the scheduled interview.
Before I go any further, let me take a paragraph to explain you something I have learnt in the days that followed the festival. Patience is the key to a (moderately) happy life. Your notions for the unfolding of an event (or a meeting) has nothing to do with reality. Rage never helps. People change their minds. It's part of life.
Six hours into the waiting, I had zero interviews to show for my time. I had skipped lunch and drunk enough water to hear it flowing through my body. I was in a staring contest with the table at which my handlers sat, and I scribbled so hard in my notepad that the pen broke.
I was soon told that two of the four scheduled interviews would not be materialising. The reasons included a shrug and a text saying that the author in question had "dropped off the face of the earth".
At this point let me make it clear that my handlers were some of the the nicest people I met at the event.
The third one on my list of authors had declind all interviews. Period.
But redemption would arrive in the form of Don McCullin.
One of history’s greatest war photographers, McCullin has since 1959 (when his first reportage ‘Guvnors’ was published in The Observer) covered numerous conflicts and battles in the Congo, Biafra (Nigeria), Israel, Vietnam, Cambodia, Northern Ireland, Bangladesh, Lebanon, El Salvador and Kurdistan.
Some of his most famous photographs include that of a shell-shocked US marine in Vietnam (1968), a mourning Turkish-Cypriot woman (1964), a US soldier hurling a grenade moments before getting shot (1968), but to be honest, even the attempt to pick his best work is futile in the face of his over five decades of exploits.
Author of more than a dozen books and winner of numerous awards, McCullin, 80, is still working.
The first time I saw him walking in towards me, stooping ever so slightly, all I could notice was his blue eyes.
The legendary (and I use the word consciously) photographer sat down, took a sip of water and proceeded to give me a lesson in legacy, social media and the nature of humanity.
Here are some quotable quotes from the interview:
"I am trying to change the opinions of the politicians... the man in the street can't make a difference, its only the people with power who can make a difference."
"You get glossary (in the newspapers), shallowness from narcissism, all you see in the newspapers is news about the celebrities, film stars and footballers."
"I don't want to to know about another rich person who doesn't want to share his money, if I was rich I would give my money away to poor people."
"I keep away from the internet because it's trash."
"Photojournalism is dying as we talk."
"The stuff people put out (photographs on social media), I don't understand... Facebook I think its called is total trash, and shallow, and waste of space and time... and the people who do it are (leans closer) are really stupid... who cares, its total crap."
"People think they own me, but they don't."
"People like to say photography is art, I feel like kicking them."
And then came a truly special moment for me. I took a photograph of McCullin. (Take a moment to let the irony sink in)
Dazed, hiccuping and over-hydrated I proceeded to attend a session dedicated to long-form writing. The biggest reason to attend this session had as much to do with the panel (Alex Shoumatoff, Raghu Karnad, Atul Gawande and Marie Brenner), as the moderator, Jonathan Shainin. Funny guy. 10/10. Good job.
Also, Karan Johar had a session where he weighed on the intolerance debate.
Probably a plug for his upcoming book.
Day Three: The day of Fry
Not the best start to the day with an accident en route the venue. No one got hurt, except the car. Profound apologies exchanged. Back to the festival.
This year, the literature fest had among its lineup Margaret Atwood, Marlon James, Colm Tóibín, David Grossman and too many others to name. But the one I was most enthralled (again, the word is used consciously) about was Stephen Fry, the writer, actor, comedian and human extraordinaire.
I arrived at the venue a little early and made my way to the edge of the stage. The crowd was the largest I had (personally) witnessed this year for any session. The atmosphere was electric, the man walked on the stage and the next 60 minutes felt like 60 seconds.
Some people are gifted when it comes to words and language, and then there is Fry. The man talked about everything from the time he spent in jail as a young man to JK Rowling's insistence that he use the exact phrase "Harry pocketed it" (with which he had tremendous difficulty saying out loud) while he was recording the Harry Potter audio books.
And this was not the only session Fry was to preside over that day. Just a few hours later, he once again took to the stage to discuss Oscar Wilde and the impact the writer had on Fry. The emotionally charged lecture that it was left a stunned crowd on the verge of tears.
A day to remember.
Another highlight of the day was a session titled 'The Global Novel' with Margaret Atwood, Colm Tóibín, Aleksandar Hemon, David Grossman, Sulaiman Addonia and Sunjeev Sahota moderated by Chiki Sarkar. Here, another giant figure in literature took centre-stage. Atwood, with an unrivalled mastery of the language, was on a different plane altogether. However, due to a bizarre turn of events, the discussion turned from 'The Global Novel' to 'Television series vs the novel'. Go figure.
Day Four: The day to be forgotten
A day wasted. Very unprofessional. Embarrassing.
Meanwhile, here are some pictures from the fest:
Day Five: The day one feels like a part of something
I realised a Monday is a Monday, no matter what what part of the world you are in.
The festival felt like the day after a wedding. The scene of an ending hung over the venue as the the diminished crowd moved in and out of the venue, uneasy and unable to decide on a perfect ending, a perfect last session, a perfect last purchase, a perfect last picture before the festival wound up for another year.
I went over the bookstore where Jerry Pinto was screaming at the top of his voice selling books, while people checked the prices of the books they wanted to buy on Amazon.
Next was the holy press terrace on which I interviewed Christina Lamb.
On reporting from conflict-hit regions, Lamb talked about how dangerous the job has become and how frustrating that is as a reporter, "We are a target, no one wants to end up in a video with a knife to our necks."
With the mention of knives to necks, the conversation takes a turn in the obvious direction of the Islamic State. Lamb talked about how many people trace their inception back to Iraq, and although these groups thrive in chaos, the origins can tracked back to Afghanistan when Russians were there. "Jihad was pushed in the mosques by the imams with the encouragement of the West through the CIA... The Americans only thought about winning the Cold War and then they left... (then) it was just Afghans fighting Afghans."
"Some of those people like (Ayman) Al-Zawahiri who created Al-Qaeda in Iraq which eventually became Islamic State started off in Afghanistan, he was like a Jordanian gangster," said the woman whose first stint in Afghanistan came at the age of 20. What were you doing when you were 20?
Talking about the recent Saudi-Iran animosities, Lamb said although it was too early to say what would come out of it, the situation was certainly alarming.
I walked over to the 'The Travel Session'. On stage were Colin Thubron, Anthony Sattin, Salil Tripathi, Gerard Russell, Alex Shoumatoff, Christina Lamb, and William Dalrymple.
Everyone read out parts from their travel writings, of places far off, of surreal experiences in unfamiliar lands. Although there were a few more sessions to go, I decided this would be good a time as any to leave.
I went around the venue taking some final pictures, lingering at the various venues for an extra second or two.
Over the years, I have read and heard many arguments against such festivals, how pretentious they are, how they momentarily force you to buy dozens of books you will never read, how they act as a magnet for pseudo intellectuals, how they get so crowded, how the food is overpriced or how you cannot smoke inside.
Although some arguments hold true, it cannot be denied they leave you with a desire to pursue something better. You realise there are people in the world who share your ideas of pursuit of a better understanding, a cult of "pleasure in pursuit".
For me, the festival always been less about meeting an author or buying a new book, but more about walking into a session with an interesting name and getting my preconceived notions blown away with ideas often so exotic and challenging that they make your brain explode.
As the sun moved closer to the horizon, I took my leave, but not before texting all my handlers thank you messages which, to be honest, were more apology messages than anything.
There is more to literature festivals than literature, and I'm not talking about food, wine and music events (although, those too).
Find one near you or maybe far away.
Don't apply for a press pass though.
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