On Day 2 of Jaipur Literature Festival 2018, big ideas jostle for space with crowds

You could tell from the moment you took the slim lane leading up to the Diggi Palace Hotel, host to the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival this year, that the venue’s crowd capacities were set to be tested in a few hours.

With Friday being a national holiday (India’s Republic Day), the crowds began to fill in fast and early. By early afternoon, things would start to get a bit uncomfortable — but more on that in a bit.

Running late to the venue, day two of the festival began with the final glimpse of a session where Homi K Bhabha, answering a question from the audience, was trying to explain how economic and social growth of country do not go hand in hand, that more often than not, the economic growth often binds many of the social responsibilities in a society.

 On Day 2 of Jaipur Literature Festival 2018, big ideas jostle for space with crowds

Scenes from Day 2 of Zee Jaipur Literature Festival 2018. Images courtesy Twitter/@ZeeJLF

Meanwhile, Sreenivasan Jain, who was moderating the event, explained in no uncertain terms that the audience should only ask short direct questions and not make any observations or comments. The immediate next person to be handed the mic began with, “I don't have a question, but…”.

I quickly scanned the grounds for that perfect seat — aisle, with at least an exit in direct sight and sunlight filtering through a tree from behind — and found one for the first and the last time that day.

First up for the day was ‘The Empire Writes Back’ — a conversation between Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Charmaine Craig, Jeet Thayil, Linda Spalding and Pico Iyer. The panel discussed some rather intriguing notions of postcolonial writings (especially in the English language), identity politics, embracing cultures one wasn’t born or raised in, writing from someone else’s perspective, cultural appropriation, among others things.

Craig talked about the long and complicated process of writing Miss Burma, and addressing the misconceptions many have about the country’s past. The author also discussed the idea of the book being accepted as a Burmese novel upon its release in the country, the demand that writers write about cultures and not individuals and her hope to break out of that shell and fuse cultures.

Ibrahim talked about facing the question of if an African author should write in English with Season of Crimson Blossoms. The Nigerian author expressed that although he wanted to write about his country, he wanted to do it in English for the rest of the world. He also shared Craig’s idea of telling the stories of individuals, which often get lost in the bigger picture.

Thayil brought the Indian side of the argument on the table, talking about how, for decades, Indian poets were often criticised for not being authentic enough if they chose to write in the English language. He also talked about a writer’s or musician’s right to cultural appropriation, writing from other’s perspective and getting inspired by other cultures.

Spalding talked about growing up in Kansas but being fascinated by Japanese and Mexican cultures and finally moving to Canada with Michael Ondaatje, and how it all shaped her writing. She also discussed working on the Brick magazine and how she help it break out of its Canadian bubble; and writing about slavery in her last two books, The Purchase and A Reckoning.

Up next, on the stage was Vishal Bhardwaj, singing to a gaping audience. Not a bad voice at all, but I was there for what was to follow — one of my more anticipated sessions of the festival, ‘The Frontline Club’.

The session though turned out to be a prime example of how bad moderation can absolutely destroy a potentially great exchange. The line-up included Adrian Levy, Carlo Pizzati, Jeffrey Gettleman, Peter Bergen and Suki Kim, in conversation with Suhasini Haidar. But the conversation could hardly get anywhere with the moderator injecting her own insights, opinions and experiences every few minutes, and cutting or speaking over people with similar ease. I can't remember if Pizzati was even asked a question or brought into the conversation. The man had to finally propel himself into the goings-on.

Kim talked her book, Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea's Elite, and the controversy it generated regarding journalistic ethics. According to the author, if traditional reporting does not work in a situation (like reporting about North Korea), one has to adopt novel ways to get the story out. She also stressed the importance of embedding oneself into a culture to truly understand what is really going on behind the scenes or how people actually think beyond what a state propaganda would have us believe.

Talking of embedding, the group also discussed the importance of the same at frontlines and the issues with the same. The topic of the role of the media in an age when terrorist groups are well established with their own media — the social networking websites, was also bought up.

Gettleman discussed his piece on the atrocities against the Rohingya people for The New York Times, and how it was the most emotionally difficult interview had done in his life. He talked about how the role of a journalist — to just take a story and walk away from a difficult situation — can be tough at times.

In the final moments of the session, the discussion got mildly heated as ownership of newspapers like The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Guardian were being discussed. Finally it boiled down to — a rich corporate ownership which can pump money into a publication can be of great help as monetary resources are essential to good journalism, especially the stories which take a long time to investigate; on the other hand, a publication loses on reporting any wrongdoings or embarrassing facts about its owners.

By the time the session was finished, the size of the crowd inside the venue had multiplied so much so it was hard to move between the stages or squeeze through the various entrances. And outside the venue, the real magnitude of the problem was on full display.

The registration and check-in lines had hundreds upon hundreds of people, all squeezed in together into the narrow street. The sight outside was just stunning. I was looking for a friend although I now regretted coming out of the venue, and as I stood around scanning the lines to find him, a man, probably in his early 60s approached me, looked at the press pass hanging around my neck, and asked to convey something to the organisers. Since I agreed with what he had to say, here it is —

The venue is not safe. Far from it. The place cannot handle crowds like this no matter how many safety videos are played between the sessions. Claiming that he was a former Air Force officer and had some experience in crowd management, he said if even a small firecracker goes off here, the resulting panic, or worse, a stampede would hurt people in unimaginable ways. He also said that he had talked to a police officer, but apparently, nothing has been done. Another police officer, standing nearby and listening in closely, completely agreed with everything that was being said.

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This is not the first time this conversation is coming up. It has, regularly, for the past few years. Shifting one of the stages outside and replacing it with a “Festival Bazaar” has done zilch in easing crowd pressure from the grounds. The place can turn really dangerous in a matter of seconds and one wonders if it will take a mishap for the organisers to rethink their options and change the situation?

Back inside, Markus Dohle, Maya Jasanoff and Vivek Shanbhag joined Nikhil Kumar for a conversation on writing about places, book translations and the publishing industry.

Jasanoff, author of The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World, talked about Heart of Darkness, how Conrad wrote about places and how it was perceived and received around the world (like Chinua Achebe's criticism of it).

Shanbhag, a Kannada writer himself, talked at length on the experience of translating a work of literature from one language to the other, and how important it is that the intent behind the text is translated with perfection, rather than each word and sentence individually.

Dohle, the chief executive officer of Penguin Random House at Pearson, went into the nitty-gritties of publication. He explained how the process works, what motivates the various decisions taken by a publisher, the money involved in the process and the changing landscape of the publishing industry in general.

The panel also talked about digital publishing, how young or up-and-coming writers can find space for their works and what needs to be done to improve the current scenario of book publishing.

Last up for the day was a session on the arts and the arms of Rajasthan, with BN Goswamy, Naman P Ahuja, Rima Hooja, Robert Elgood and Yashaswini Chandra with William Dalrymple.

The panel discussed the diverse origins of the Rajasthan arts and the complicated history of the state’s geography. They also talked at length about the various classifications of the Rajputs, the arms and armours from the state while occasionally sharing anecdotes. Although the audio wasn’t great for the session and it was difficult to understand all that was said, when things did register on the mic system, the sheer depth of the knowledge on the subject was quite evident among the panel.

And once again, the crowds poured out of the venue and another day came to an end just like that.

Updated Date: Jan 28, 2018 14:09:04 IST