Zee Jaipur Literature Festival 2019: On Day 1, surreal worlds, science and climate change dominate conversations

  • On the cold morning of 24 January, the 12th edition of the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival kicked off to the sound of drums.

  • ‘A space for dissent’ is how Sanjoy K Roy, the co-director of JLF, described the annual five-day gathering as he reminisced about the festival’s journey so far

  • The wonderfully subtle keynote address was delivered by Nobel laureate Venkatraman ‘Venki’ Ramakrishnan on the role of science in today’s world

It’s easy to get tangled up in the rough edges. Too easy to get swept away, to collectively dismiss in 280 characters.

The shape is not perfect, perhaps it never will be. But it’s there, and that’s something. If you look closely, you will find voices you never imagined, ideas that will linger as you fall asleep. The rest is noise.

On the cold morning of 24 January, the 12th edition of the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival kicked off to the sound of drums. A splash of colours against the grey skies, a few words of reason against unpromising times.

‘A space for dissent’ is how Sanjoy K Roy, the co-director of JLF, described the annual five-day gathering as he reminisced about the festival’s journey so far and what those who bought up the venue, the Diggi Palace, in 1726 would make of it all. Namita Gokhale, co-director, carried on the inaugural session, touching upon the many languages represented and the role of translations, describing the fest as democratic and concerned with many issues of the day, including the #MeToo moment. She also read a letter from William Dalrymple, who was missing from the proceedings citing personal reasons, expanding on the year’s diverse roster. Rajasthan’s newly elected government’s Art and Culture Minister BD Kalla also took to the stage, delivering a bit-too-energetic-for-10-in-the-morning address.

British poet and novelist Ruth Padel took to the stage to read two of her poems: one — titled Jaipur — written two years ago, recounting her experiences in the city, away from her sick mother; the second, a science poem (if you will) titled Birth Cell, describing the origins of cells and expanding on the notion ‘life began with migration and migration began with life’.

The wonderfully subtle keynote address was then delivered by Nobel laureate Venkatraman ‘Venki’ Ramakrishnan on the role of science in today’s world. Touching upon the ubiquitousness of science and technology, he talked about how the pursuit of knowledge is also a thing of beauty, and what science can learn from the arts: “Poets and artists have often reflected on the beauty of the night sky but the images of space from the Hubble Telescope speak for themselves. The double-helical structure of DNA, the molecule that encodes our genes, has a beautiful simplicity. And there is beauty and wonder right down to the atomic and subatomic level of matter."

“At the same time, we scientists must not forget the human, emotional and social side of our nature, and that there are other ways of looking at the world. We need to be aware of history and its lessons. Art and music move us in deep and unpredictable ways. So we have much to learn from the humanities and the arts,” he said, concluding the address to a warm reception.

After a bit of fast-paced moving around through the easy crowds of a Thursday morning after not being able to locate a popular session's venue, the author discovered to his mild surprise (and disappointment) that a quiet corner — which until last year served primarily as a spot to drink, eat and smoke — was now the missing location in question. The sense of betrayal at this discovery was seemingly shared by none.

 Zee Jaipur Literature Festival 2019: On Day 1, surreal worlds, science and climate change dominate conversations

Sessions at Day 1 of Zee Jaipur Literature Festival 2019. Images courtesy Facebook/@JaipurLitfestOfficial

Filmmaker, author and environmentalist Pradip Krishen was in conversation with Norwegian author and screenwriter Maja Lunde here, discussing her work The History of Bees.

Lunde talked about her book, set in three different time periods and locations, and the bleak picture it paints of a future where bees have long since disappeared. The fiction novel, in part inspired by Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth, is the first in the upcoming quartet, where the author plans to take on themes concerning the environment and climate change — the lack of clean water (End of the Ocean), endangered animals and everything that grows in nature.

The author also talked about the amount of research that went into keeping the fiction grounded in facts and how the story — essentially about the degradation of the environment and climate change — reverberated with audiences across the globe (the book has been translated in over 30 languages and will likely be adapted as a film/television series). As for what she thinks of the planet's future, Lunde said she alternates between hopefulness and scepticism, admitting that the current state of affairs does look bleak. The incessant chirping of birds at the venue throughout her session only made her world sound more surreal.

While Gulzar did his thing in front of a large crowd at the biggest session venue, a much smaller group gathered at one of the two indoor halls to discuss Nordic writing. Authors Einar Kárason, Hanne Ørstavik, Henriette Rostrup and Laura Lindstedt discussed with Margit Walsø the cultural and geographic influences in their writing, while also reading from their recently published novels.

The session had its fair share of awkward pauses, mostly due to the language gap, but the show was stolen by Kárason who described in his old-bard-voice and Lebowski mannerisms how he counted the exact words in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and made sure his own novella at least met the mark.

Talking of landscapes and how places apart from the dark and still north influenced their works, Lindstedt mentioned that it's not only physical spaces that influenced her as a writer, but also literary landscapes, which have a life of their own. The panel also touched upon how climate change too has become part of literature — which you can’t ignore anymore.

(Between all this, a tree fell somewhere at the venue, injuring four. All of them were provided medical aid and were doing fine, according to the organisers. The festival carried on as usual.)

Environmental concerns were once again raised in a conversation between Juergen Boos, president and CEO of Frankfurt Book Fair, and publisher Urvashi Butalia, as they discussed the future of publishing, the reading habits of contemporary masses and what could be done to get more people to read.

Boos emphasised the need for publishers and writers to recognise the right medium for a particular publication, be it on paper or digital.

While there is no technology that can accurately predict reading trends, getting people to read remains one of the biggest challenges according to him. One of the things that can perhaps help are what Boos described as ‘fast food’ novels: perhaps not the most literary writings, but enough to get one hooked onto reading.

Another topic touched upon during the session was self-publishing and how writers can now get feedback directly from their readers through social media. This not only helps the writers, but also traditional publishers, while commissioning works.

Butalia bought up the lack of women publishers in the industry, something she believed was now changing, but both agreed there was a long way to go. Touching on the subject of censorship, Boos described it as ‘stupid’ and was of the opinion that it was perhaps the most dangerous thing in the publishing business at the moment. On a more positive note, he did say that reading habits are not diminishing, while the paperback format remained the most accessible and popular, for reading in general.

At this point, while Shashi Tharoor ("the Shah Rukh Khan of litfests", as described by a not-so-amused spectator) was delivering his sermon to an entranced audience, the weather took a turn for the worse and the festival atmosphere shifted quite dramatically. Between flashes of lightning and cold rain, the crowd thinned to half, while many session venues were turned (literally, in terms of chairs) upside down.

Braving the not-so-unexpected ambush, yours truly proceeded to the barely half-full and plenty wet session of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Andrew Sean Greer, and Anita Nair, in conversation with Prayaag Akbar.

Both the authors talked about their latest works, and the similarities and stark differences between them. While Nair talked about living through the experiences of her characters while writing her book and her annoyance at being pigeonholed by the media, Greer spoke of bringing his own anxieties to his book, what winning one of the most coveted prizes meant and if he was indeed in love with his literary agent (who was present in the audience).

The duo also touched upon the effect their respective homes had on their writings and maintaining discipline day in and day out when it comes to putting pen to the paper. Pro-tip for the generation: write a bit every day so one’s mind is occupied by new stories to explore, and not the plots of TV shows.

As peacocks hopped around the roofs around the venue, Greer touched on how, as a writer, travelling helps one take notice of things that one might not otherwise. To be focused and alert at all times, and not slip into everyday complacency.

The author also talked about discovering a gap in his bookshelf: a gap in storytelling which needed to be filled. “Guess I’ll have to write it,” is how Less put it. Just how most books come about.

With most of the venue under wraps and a chill in the air, the dark closed in. Some wandered about taking in the stillness, most headed for the exit.

It’s easy to get tangled up in the rough edges. Too easy to forget.

Updated Date: Feb 02, 2019 10:37:35 IST