Voices from the Jaipur Literature Festival


There was a time when India barely had any literary festivals. There were readings and book launches, there were mushairas and kavi sammelans but not literary festivals—it is a western import like the ‘novel’.

Just as there is an epidemic of novel-writing in India these days, there is also an outbreak of literary festivals in the country. Every city worth its salt has a lit fest going on and writers, publishers and readers aren’t exactly complaining. In India, when we like something, we tend to go overboard. The same is true of lit fests. But I hope we stop at the city level and don’t take literary festivals to the mohalla level. A Kirti Nagar literary festival or a Jorbagh lit fest does not sound right. A reading group would be much more appropriate at that level.

I was recently in Chennai and one of my friends told me that his daughter who is in third standard wants to become a writer. That’s great, I said. When I was in school, I could barely get my head around what was happening in the classroom, let alone think of becoming a writer. India’s new generation will take the country to another level. Who will not welcome such glad tidings about India?

On my way to the Jaipur literature festival (JLF) this January, I was pondering why was there so much growing interest in reading and writing in India now? Why so many literary festivals? While this is a welcome pandemic, there must be some robust reasons behind it.

I found the answer in one of the sessions by Javed Akhtar Saheb, who is a well-known poet, screenplay writer and Hindi film lyricist. His name has become synonymous with JLF. He and Gulzar Saheb (though the latter was absent this year or maybe I missed him at the festival) have been crowd-pulling festival regulars.

In one of his sessions, Javed Saheb had this to say about the revival of our interest in the arts: “We had abandoned language and arts in the last 30-40 years. We wanted cars and fridges. Now today’s generation takes them for granted. They want something else. They want arts, and literature, and so this revival.” What he says makes sense. Perhaps it is even true. But is this view too simplistic?

I am asking this because a danger lurks around the corner of this insight. While lit fests are an endearing feature of a changing India (along with the nationwide ban on plastic bags), they could signal something else altogether and “Booker-award winning” novelist Howard Jacobson had this point to make which is equally convincing: Today, we have more  writers than readers. We complain of the death of the novel. But the problem is with readers, not novels. Everyone wants to write, and no one wants to read. Meeting authors has replaced the necessity of reading.

He had made this point in one of his columns too—I remember reading it. He was, in his column, referring to a literary city like London. The point he is making it this—are literary festivals replacing the reading habit? Is meeting authors, listening to their talks and getting their autographs enough to qualify us to skip the hard work of actually reading their books?

On a panel discussion on the future of the novel, Howard Jacobson was at his cantankerous best, and I loved everything he said. Howard was among the three writers this year who drew me to the festival—the other two were Yiyun Li and Musharraf Ali Farooqi. I admire all three of them (I heard them but did not meet them in person; I did not even take their picture. I just listened to them and took mental notes).

This was my first time at JLF and the festival was as colourful and cacophonous as I had expected it to be. In its first edition years ago, it had attracted 7,000 people. This time the organizers said footfall was about 2 lakhs (Sounds like a mall, doesn’t it?). Getting a seat was always a problem at the festival but people were unfazed. They fought for seats.

While the festival attracts top writers from all over the world, one reason for its popularity is Bollywood. Members of India’s film fraternity are an integral part of the festival (Gulzar, Javed Akhtar, Prasoon Joshi, Shabana Azmi, and this year Neelesh Misra too was introduced to the public). Not satisfied with their popularity, this year the festival organisers added cricket and religion to the mix to a great effect. We had Dalai Lama and Rahul Dravid at the fest who injected a dose of spirituality and sports into the milieu in their own way.

But this was not everybody’s idea of how a lit fest should be. At the same time when Dravid’s session was going on, eminent Hindi writers like Ashok Chakradhar, Ikraam Rajasthani and Atul Kanakk were holding a session on ‘Navras’. The crowd was going hysterical on Dravid’s side (Tata Steel lawns). Ashok made us do a ‘ho ho’ too as a counterpunch to the other side’s level of enthusiasm: it was cricket vs Hindi and the audience did not let Hindi down. It was good fun.

To enter the venue, one had to go through many security checks. But this was not that unpleasant, and once inside, you were in for a treat. Colourful tents, sunshine, bookstores, art and craft shops, people with elongated lenses attached to their cameras, autograph hunters, writers, and food for thought. A lot was going on inside the barricaded Diggi Palace. Besides the chai in earthen cups and pyaaz kachodi with delicious chutney, there was a variety of food available at Diggi Palace. Unfortunately, smoking was banned on the second day but we saw many foreigners smoking away, oblivious to the promised fine of Rs 200 that had been imposed on those who smoked inside the festival venue. When my friend complained to the police, they said, “Kya Karen Saheb? Yeh toh foreigners hain.” (What to do, sir? These are foreigners). My desi friend’s cigarettes had been impounded at the entrance of the Diggi Palace and so he was angry. If JLF organizers are reading this, they should designate smoking areas at the festival venue. Smokers will smoke and if you force them to do it surreptitiously, they become fire hazards. So please, be a little more practical.

The auto wallahs had a field day during the festival. They happily overcharged us everyday from the venue (some 7 kilometers) to our hotel. They justified the overcharging by saying that the traffic is very bad because of the police bandobast. Many fellow attendees I talked to said that orgainsers should arrange bus service to hotels. Another great suggestion.

I had hoped to meet Musharraf Ali Farooqi (whose work of translation, The Adventures of Amir Hamza, I had been enjoying) at the Random House party on January 25 but unfortunately the party was moved to another day because it fell on a dry day. I had to return to Delhi the next day, so I missed the party altogether. We were, however, on the same flight from Delhi to Jaipur and that was a consoling thought.

On the way back to Delhi, I saw newsman Rajdeep Sardesai (CNN-IBN) boarding our plane. He kept to himself and after landing in Delhi, on the bus to the terminal, I got a seat right in front of him. A lady with a toddler was too excited to see him and when she could not contain her excitement, she asked the man: Are you Rajdeep Sardesai? Rajdeep politely smiled and nodded yes. The woman beamed for a while at this affirmation. Soon, we reached the airport terminal and went our separate ways.

During the festival, I did not mob anyone for autographs. I did not buy any books as I had already ordered the books that I wanted to buy through Flipkart. All I had were some good memories, and there were voices from the festival that echoed in my head. I was glad that this year the festival did not generate any controversy. I was so wrong.

The next day I read of the Ashish Nandy controversy in the papers. I had completely missed it but I could not stop smiling. JLF and controversy go hand in hand now—last time, it was Rushdie (in absentia) and this time, Nandy.

-by Zafar Anjum, Singapore