Notes from the Jaipur Literature Festival – Part 1












24 January 2013

On the first day, I attended three sessions: the Art of the Short Story, Ismat and Annie, and the Novel of the Future. I did not take any notes. I wrote down the following the next morning (from whatever I could remember). If some statements sound weird and don’t make sense to the readers, I take the blame for sloppiness and apologize in advance.

We don’t tell novels, we tell short stories

The Short story: The Art of the Short Story panel had Nicholas Hogg, Richard Beard and Yiyun Li and Anjum Hasan was the moderator.

– Yiyun Li said show and tell is a wrong advice

– Bring the narrator back

– She said she represents only herself (not any group or community as a writer)

– Length in a story does not matter; she refused to reduce the length of a story just to get into The New Yorker

Anjum Hasan referred to the Chekhovian Little Man (mentioned Frank O’Connor’s book on short stories)

– Why do you write short stories: The panelists said that one is able to explore other lives through short stories

– Short stories are great as a genre as they allow great room for experimentation (for example, the stories of Georges Perec)

The panelists were of the opinion that short story as a genre is not dying; it will live as long as there will be human beings. It is very natural for us—we don’t tell novels, we tell short stories

Ismat and Annie

Qurratulain_HyderThis session was about two famous Urdu fiction writers: Ismat Chughtai and Qurratulain Haider.

In this session, Javed Akhtar and Ameena Saiyid (head of OUP, Pakistan) were in conversation with Syed Shahid Mahdi.

Javed Akhtar: Both Ismat and Annie (Haider) were rebels in their own way. Annie was from an aristocratic background and was scholarly; if she was confident about something, she would put her foot down. Otherwise, she would say I don’t know anything about it; tell me about it. She would quote from magazines and books. She would think in terms of centuries.

Ismat was more from a middle class background. She was a fighter and was so dogged that even if she had said something wrong and she knew it, she would stick to her point. She thought in terms of mosaic, short stories.

In this session, Javed Saheb said some very interesting things about the Urdu and Hindi divide, which he considers an artificial divide. He said that what we commonly speak in India is Urdu or Hindustani. But what is people’s attitude? When do they think one is speaking Urdu and not Hindi? “Jab kah (baat) samajh me aaye toh who Hindi hai. Jab samajh me aana band ho jaye toh Urdu hai.”

He exhorted people to learn Urdu if they wanted to enjoy the works of genii like Ismat and Annie. “Learning Urdu is not that difficult,” he said. “Learn the script. Don’t just look at the script and run away scared. Doosre ki galiyan hamesha tedhi medhi lagti hain.”

In the futuristic scenario, everybody is a writer, no one is reader

“The Novel of the Future” was a very interesting session. The participants were Howard Jacobson, Nadeem Aslam, Linda Grant, Zoe Heller and Lawrence Norfolk and the moderator was Anita Anand. Mohammad Hanif was supposed to be a part of the panel but he did not show up. Later on, I found out that he got his visa too late in the day and cancelled his plans to come to Jaipur.

The discussion opened with a reference to the famous Naipaulian claim that the novel is dead. Long ago Naipaul had declared that the novel is dead.

NadeemNadeem Aslam: The novel’s health is not exhausted in my study.  If you say the novel is exhausted, it means you are exhausted.

Howard Jacobson: Looking at the success of Fifty Shades (the trilogy by E L James), we are doomed.

  • The problem is with readers, not novels
  • Everyone wants to write, not read
  • Meeting authors has replaced necessity to read
  • We need novels. It is an argument, not a single voice of dictatorship.
  • In the futuristic scenario, everybody is a writer, no one is reader.
  • Anna Karenina is a young adult novel.
  • Don’t change your writing to suit the market; stick to your style, at any cost, and your audience will change

Zoe Heller: What is worrying is that kids are losing the art of reading long fiction; they have short attention spans.

What’s happening in the US will happen in India too. The market for novels is shrinking in the US. The same will happen in India in the future even though right now the market here is expanding.

Howard: Don’t read novels for information. Novels have no information to provide.


Someone asked: What about the novel in the e-form, with embedded video and all that jazz we could do with the form in a digital age? Answer: Novels will change—like a parachute, with trimmed strings. Will the parachute remain the same and will provide the same functionality if you trimmed it strings?

E-books are not same as the hard copy novels.

Nadeem: You don’t need video and music to be embedded in the novel’s pages. The words, the sentences, they should evoke the music and picture in your head.

(Zafar Anjum)