Amidst a bustling mob of readers, aspiring writers and bookworms lurks a poet and a thief. In the crowds squatting on the floor at a venue where every chair is occupied, hides a ‘truth-teller.’ Behind a brave veneer of nonchalance is a frightened writer and sitting on a panel of fellow speakers is a silent, brooding academic. In Namita Gokhale’s Jaipur Journals, we are taken in five days through the lives of some interesting characters who are in one capacity or another part of what is often referred to as the Kumbh Mela of Literature, the Jaipur Literature Festival.
The five days of the literary event are charged with a contagious energy as thousands of academicians, college freshmen, high school children travelling on tight budgets mill through the crowds trying to catch the panels comprising their favourite authors, meet those poets they have romanticised, ask some hard-hitting, some deliberately belligerent questions and listen to prominent speakers who have interesting perspectives to offer. Each one of these attendees is the protagonist of their own stories but just for those five days, the complexities of their life synchronise with moments from the lives of countless other people.
Set against the backdrop of JLF, Gokhale’s novel unravels in a similar vein the tales of her characters, alternating between flashbacks and the present to form a colourful narrative that weaves together each of these players.
The co-director of the festival says that it was an American friend who first asked her whether she had ever considered writing a novel about the Jaipur festival. While her answer was an ‘emphatic no,’ the thought had embedded itself and she began working on the book two years ago. Even as the novel is not ‘about’ the festival, the stories are set against the backdrop of the beautiful Pink City and the Diggi Palace Hotel which hosts the literary extravaganza every year.
Gokhale, an award-winning author and publisher has written and edited works spanning several genres including her debut novel Paro: Dreams of Passion, a satirical take on the Mumbai and Delhi elites and the 2018 anthology, Finding Radha: The Quest for Love, a sequel to In Search of Sita, co-edited with Malashri Lal. In Jaipur Journals, one finds her traversing through the lives of the dramatis personae that were ‘born and bred’ in her imagination interspersed with some real-life figures such as Javed Akhtar and MP Shashi Tharoor, who play themselves ‘as on-stage characters’ in the novel.
Jaipur Journals is a mix of sordid affairs, a reunion or two and some intriguing incidences. Gokhale recalls that as the festival co-director, she has been privy to similar adventures one of which was a “dramatic incident involving a thief who ran away with the cash box in the book store and was apprehended in a straight from Bollywood sequence.” There is also a truth-teller in the book, a writer of anonymous, rather unpleasant notes. The idea, Gokhale says “came from a series of vicious anonymous letters that a friend of mine received while heading a public institution.”
Through time, JLF has witnessed some very popular attendees and speakers taking to the stage. After some eight years of persuasion, Margaret Atwood made an appearance at the festival, while other luminaries have included the Nobel laureate Sir VS Naipaul, former President of India, APJ Abdul Kalam, and Ian McEwan. One of the most exciting years for Zee JLF was 2012 when the iconic Oprah Winfrey stepped on to stage gathering thousands of people for her session while the controversy around the attendance of Salman Rushdie and the death threats he received prevented the organisers from ensuring his safety at the fest. Gokhale notes, “Every year witnesses it’s unique brand of excitement – from the Padmavat demonstrations and the mega crowds that turned up for Oprah Winfrey.”
The book then is filled with much of the excitement and spirit of the festival. Gokhale sums it up thus: “JLF has been described as ‘the greatest literary show on earth’ and ‘the festival of festivals’. It reflects the rich diversity of India and literature from different cultures and continents. The collective energy of the speakers and the audience generates a very positive high. I don’t know how to explain it, but something mysterious and precious occurs in this ‘Sahitya ka Kumbh’ every year.”
Of the people whose lives we step into, there’s Gayatri, an academic with an earnest urge to become a writer, an intelligent graphic artist Anirban M. who goes saree-shopping with her, Anura, a bright, young, school-going intellectual and Rudrani Rana, a septuagenarian carrying around her unpublished manuscript in a canvas bag. Gokhale says about Rudrani, “there is so much of me in her and her in me, I felt I knew her intimately and was merely recording her life.”
On how she goes about shaping these myriad characters, Gokhale notes, “When I write, there’s a moment when I close my eyes and go blank. The story and the characters unfold before me with a life of their own, sometimes surprising even me.”
The individuals appearing in Jaipur Journals raise some poignant questions too. In attending a panel on feminism that vociferously debates about equality and representation, a well-known writer cannot help but wonder where the tenderness of the world is lost. "Compassion does not seem to be in fashion," says Gokhale while adding, “but that’s not me speaking, it’s a male character bewildered by the changes in a world he no longer understands because he has been unable to keep up with it.”
Yet, the power of literature is profound. “We are each other’s stories,” the author reiterates, “and the human species has evolved because we have been able to download, share and understand each other’s narratives.”
The role of literature is to be a repository of our collective consciousness, Gokhale notes. It’s enduring significance in the world only goes on to show what she points out, “In every age, every social or political climate, it reminds us of our essential humanity, of who we are are and how we got here.”
Namita Gokhale's Jaipur Journals has been published by Penguin Viking
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Updated Date: Jan 30, 2020 09:57:16 IST