Monkey business at the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival 2020: An exceptionally handy guide to the 13th edition

  • The 13th edition of the JLF to kick off on 23 January.

  • The literature festival will feature over 200 sessions spread across five days.

Against all conventional wisdom, a few days ago, I made eye contact with a monkey just meters away from me.

Maybe I should rewind a bit. A couple of months ago, in an attempt to escape the murderous boredom and deathly void of adult suburban life, I decided to plant some vegetables and watch them grow. It was a slow and tedious process, but I was pretty meticulous about the whole thing, spending at times hours a day trying to get things right and putting in the good 'ol hard work into it. Compared to other goings-on in the neighbourhood, it was probably the most exciting gig around anyway. About a dozen weeks in and they were coming along well considering the state of our planet. But now 20 days into the new year — or the new decade, if you are one for dramatics — I was having a staring contest with the prince of darkness himself as he ate most of my plants with zen-like calm. There was nothing to do in the moment except to stare back and think of how the state of affairs got to this. There was surely a lesson to learn here. Something about watching something you cared for being shred to pieces or something. I'm pretty sure I'm supposed to blame the monkey, right? I mean, there was surely nothing I could have done, was there?

Anyway, more bewildered musings on global affairs later.

Speaking of monkey business though, we are actually here to talk about the 13th edition of the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival. No, really. Think of the above as one of those filler sessions at the fest during the lunch or tea break which no one is entirely sure what to make of. After doing this for years, I simply couldn't think of yet another version of 'it's that time of the year again' or 'here we go again' or 'winters in Jaipur...'. Also, that story is true, Epstein didn't hang himself and the deep state is real. Here we go again.

 Monkey business at the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival 2020: An exceptionally handy guide to the 13th edition

Diggi Palace during the Jaipur Literature Festival

As I said, I have been at it for a bit now, having attended all the editions of the festival except for the inaugural one, and covering it for this fine establishment for the past few years. It's not bragging if it's true (or something like that). Now I find myself in the elevated position of being able to tell you a thing or two about the yin and yang of the fest.

So, let me hold your hand (please) and guide you through the five days of overcrowdedness, a lot of standing around and straining to hear what is being said on the stage. (If you clicked here expecting to get suggestions on which sessions to attend, the festival timings, its commitment to freedom of speech and all that good stuff, we will see what we can do, but you can do better.)

Thursday. Get in there. The day is beautiful and full of promise. A bit cold and windy, but still. This will be as good as it gets. The venue will be full, but not too full. The sessions will be reasonably good. Take it all in. Get all those photographs. Drink it up. There are over 200 sessions featuring 27-plus languages over the next five days. Going ahead, things will only get more... testing. Use this day also to map out the place in your head and find a few "safe spots". These are the places where you could stand and wind down for a bit without someone knocking you over, screaming in your ear. This will really come handy over the coming weekend.

Sessions of note:

— In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin |​​​​​​​ Lindsey Hilsum in conversation with Christina Lamb
— The Lives of Lucian Freud | William Feaver in conversation with Miranda Carter
— Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain | Fintan O'Toole in conversation with Suhasini Haidar
— Twice Alive | Forrest Gander in conversation with Chandrahas Choudhury
— On Susan Sontag | Benjamin Moser in conversation with Chiki Sarkar

Friday. If you had a good Thursday, don't get too excited. This is where things start to heat up. The crowds begin to get a little uncomfortable, but you will survive. Today is the day you capitalise on the knowledge you acquired yesterday and build on it. If you really want to attend a session, get to the venue 10 to 15 minutes in advance and be ready to pounce on the first empty chair you find. Do not be choosy, you are not picking a career. Stick to the aisle if you can. Perhaps a seat close to the speakers, but not too close. But most importantly, sit. There will be plenty of the opposite of sitting coming up. By this point, you should have also realised that the 15-minute Q&A at the end of every session is not in fact a Q&A, but someone in the audience desperately trying to make a statement, share their wisdom, and/or abuse the panel while telling them how to do their jobs. It is not impolite to walk away, even if you are sitting in the middle of a row and have to stomp on a bunch of feet and kick a few kids out of the way. Remember — "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives."

Sessions of note:

— Live a Little | Howard Jacobson in conversation with Chandrahas Choudhury
 On Memoir | Nicholas Coleridge, Avi Shlaim, Åsne Seierstad, Lemn Sissay and Madhur Jaffrey in conversation with Chiki Sarkar
— Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World | Anand Giridharadas in conversation with Åsne Seierstad
— Asia Rising | Bruno Maçães, Shivshankar Menon and Deepak Nayyar in conversation with Suhasini Haidar
— You will be Safe Here | Damian Barr, Arthur Japin and Anuradha Bhagwati in conversation with Vivek Tejuja
 Client Earth | Martin Goodman, Jairam Ramesh and David Wallace-Wells in conversation with Jeffrey Gettleman
— Bottle of Lies: The Inside Story of the Generic Drug Boom | Katherine Eban in conversation with Jeffrey Gettleman

Saturday. Oh, now it gets interesting. Unless you are an expert in some version of 4D chess, navigating the next two days will be rough. The weekend crowd pours in. Forget sniping for an empty chair, finding a reasonably decent spot to stand becomes a chore. The weekend also happens to be the time when the fest usually has the most number of panels featuring celebrities and politicians. God forbid if you want to attend one of those. In more promising news though, next year on the festival will (most likely) move away from this accident-waiting-to-happen venue to a new (possibly better) one. So dig in and pray for a better future.

Sessions of note:

— Of the People, By the People: The Indian Constitution | Navin Chawla, Madhav Khosla and Margaret Alva in conversation with Saif Mahmood
— The Girl from Aleppo: Nujeen's Escape from War to Freedom | Christina Lamb in conversation with Suhasini Haidar
— The Art of Innovation | Tilly Blyth and Payal Arora in conversation with Tarun Khanna
— The Body, The City | Raj Kamal Jha and Rheea Mukherjee in conversation with Parvati Sharma
— My Name is Why | Lemn Sissay introduced by Nandini Nair
— A Patient Assassin | Anita Anand introduced by Aanchal Malhotra
— Where Does Fiction Come From? | Elizabeth Gilbert, Leïla Slimani, Avni Doshi, John Lanchester and Howard Jacobson in conversation with Damian Barr

Sunday. Also known as the official picnic day. A good portion of the populace is there just to "chill", which I assume translates to drinking, eating, taking pictures and blocking other people's way. On numerous occasions, I have discovered a section of the multitudes sitting at a particular venue with no idea of what is even going on and oblivious to who is on stage. They are there just for the chairs and some shade. And I don't blame them. The venue is just too small to accommodate and under-prepared to meet everyone's needs. But the day also features the most number of notable sessions, so there's that. I know our readers are the best kind of adventurous bunch, but just in case you want to take it easy, there is usually a live webcast of the sessions available online.

Sessions of note:

— Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics | Stephen Greenblatt introduced by Vishal Bhardwaj
— One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway | Åsne Seierstad in conversation with Christina Lamb
— Uninhabitable Earth | David Wallace-Wells, John Lanchester, Marcus Moench and Navroz K Dubash in conversation with Prem Jha
— Poor Economics: Fighting Global Poverty | Abhijit V Banerjee in conversation with Sreenivasan Jain
— AI and Creativity | Marcus du Sautoy in conversation with Sanjoy K Roy
— Sandettie Light Vessel Automatic | Simon Armitage in conversation with Nandini Nair
— Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes our Past | Sarah Parcak in conversation with Peter Hessler
— The Travel Session | Katie Hickman, Howard Jacobson, Elizabeth Gilbert, Peter Hessler and Suketu Mehta in conversation with William Dalrymple
— Nationalism, Populism and the Fate of the World | Simon Schama introduced by Frank Dikötter
— Ann Cleeves: Hidden Depths | Ann Cleeves in conversation with Bee Rowlatt
— No Good Men Among the Living: America and the Taliban | Anand Gopal in conversation with Taran N Khan

Monday. Monday? Yeah, there is a Monday. It's puzzling to a lot of people visiting from different cities or countries every year. In short, it's similar to Thursday, but with fewer people and the optimism and excitement is by then replaced by jadedness. But at the same time, it can be the most relaxing of the whole lot, where you get to do your own thing without all the noise. Although the "main event" for the day is a "debate" which closes the festival. Let me try and put it nicely — it's pathetic. The thing gives Republic TV a run for its money.

You would do better watching vegetables grow.

Sessions of note:

— Renaissance Woman: The Life of Michaelangelo's Muse | Ramie Targoff in conversation with Yashaswini Chandra
— The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began and World Became Modern | Stephen Greenblatt introduced by Tom Holland
— This Land is Our Land: The Gujarati Experience of Migration at Home and Abroad | Suketu Mehta in conversation with Anand Gopal
— The Frontline Club | Christina Lamb, Anand Gopal, Dexter Filkins and Lindsey Hilsum in conversation with Rajini Vaidyanathan
— Biographers Ball | Simon Schama, Miranda Carter, Ramie Targoff and Supriya Gandhi in conversation with Tom Holland
— The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution | Peter Hessler in conversation with Max Rodenbeck
— How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century | Frank Dikötter in conversation with Rajini Vaidyanathan

You can find more details about the various session and their timings here.

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Updated Date: Jan 24, 2020 15:44:33 IST