At last year’s Jaipur Literature Festival, Salman Rushdie, at his acerbic and irreverent best, had called former BJP leader Chhagan Bhujbal an “asshole” speaking to a “green plastic frog of a phone” when he encountered the politician the last time. Rushdie was on stage, and his words evoked laughter and applause from the motley crowd that had filled Diggi Hall to listen to the guru of magic realism speak. This year, don’t expect such amusement.
With many famous authors attending, some called last year’s festival a celebrity circus, others dismissed it as a gab fest of stuffy intellectuals. Now, in its third year, India’s first pan-national literary festival is widening its focus to embrace regional voices.
This year, the only best-selling attendee is Booker-winning author Ian McEwan, who will hopefully, like last year’s celebrities, be floating about the beautiful Diggi Palace soaking up the sun and discussing Derrida and lad lit. Says Mita Kapur, the festival’s founder and director: “One of the biggest challenges has been to convince people to overcome the elitist association that literary festivals have. This year, we’re infusing regional elements, especially at the two-day conference before the festival.” Shillong-based Khasi writer Kynpham Singh Nongkynrih will be attending. “My works are inspired by the strange mix of the West and tribal cultures that make up the North-East. The Jaipur festival is a great platform to share that perspective with the rest of the country,” Nongkynrih says.
The conference, Translating Bharat, will be presented by Siyahi, Kapur’s own initiative that she started in 2007 for new authors. It’s an interface between authors, mostly regional, and publishers. “So far, two authors have got publishing deals through Siyahi. One is a novel by Sampurna Chatterjee and a book of poetry by Kartika Nair, both to be published by HarperCollins India. We also have seven manuscripts with us that we are trying to get published,” says Kapur.
Translating Bharat will have writers and performers from the North-East and Rajasthan showcasing their oral narrative traditions. “One of the performers, Tipaniyaji, sings and performs Kabir’s verses. He has performed in the US, but nobody in Jaipur really knows him although he’s one of the few who are keeping alive one of the oldest storytelling traditions of the state,” Kapur says. Other regional figures will also be attending and showcasing their works through the festival that formally begins on 23 January.
There are no big book launches this year. Even the programme has little that is novel when it comes to theme, except a couple of afternoons focused on children’s writing, graphic novels and a session on food writing and cooking. Even McEwan is discussing the screen adaptations of novels, as is Kunal Basu—a topic of discussion at last year’s festival as well as at the Kitab Festival, 2007, in Mumbai. Author Manil Suri’s presence is timed with the release of his next, The Age of Shiva, one of Penguin India’s big releases this year. “Last year, every event was packed to the hilt and there were many in the audience who were just tourists. This year, we have received many more enquiries, so obviously we hope many more people, over a thousand,” says Pramod Kumar, director of the annual Jaipur Virasat Festival, of which the literature festival is a part.
But those who have been a part of the festival in the past two years say, it is the buzz, the chatter, the informal interactions and the exotic setting that gives the festival its unique stamp. This year will be no different.
Words and ideas
Our pick of what promises to be the highlights of the Jaipur Literature Festival, 2008
u The prelude to the festival is a two-day conference, ‘Translating Bharat’, from 21 to 23 January, where publishers and writers from all parts of India will interact, and regional writers will showcase their literary and cultural traditions. One of the highlights is ‘Swarmala: presenting North-Eastern languages’. Writers from the region will present a film on Naga traditions, the Ao oral narrative style of Nagaland and storytelling and singing traditions of Mizoram.
World flavour: McEwan speaks on two days.
On 21 January, 10am to noon
u William Dalrymple, author of ‘The Last Mughal’, will present British biographer Miranda Seymour, who has penned the lives of Henry James, Robert Graves and Mary Shelley. They will discuss the art of biography.
On 23 January, 2pm
u Children’s writers Anita Nair, Anushka Ravishankar and Sudha Murthy will discuss their own works and trends in the genre.
On 24 January, 10am
uSirish Rao from Tara Books, Neeta Gupta from Yatra Books and American publisher Chris Gribble will be in conversation with David Godwin, noted literary agent from the UK, about their vision for showcasing new writing in India.
On 24 January, 1.30pm
uGraphic novelist Sarnath Banerjee and co-founder of Gotham Comics, Suresh Seetharaman, will be in conversation with journalist Indrajit Hazra about the comics and graphic novel genres in India.
On 24 January, 5pm
uManil Suri, whose new novel, ‘The Age of Shiva’, will be published in February, will discuss how Mumbai has been, and can be, represented in words with Sonia Faleiro, author of ‘The Girl’.
On 25 January, 11.15am
u Ritu Dalmia, Count Francesco da Mosto and John Berendt, a trio of literary and culinary experts, will bring Venice to the Pink City in a cooking, reading and instruction session about Italian cuisine.
On 25 January, 12.30pm
uAustralian land rights activist Alexis Wright and Booker nominated author Indra Sinha will be in conversation with journalist Shoma Choudhary about social engagement in fiction and journalism.
On 26 January, 12.15pm
u US-based author Kunal Basu will be in conversation with film-maker Aparna Sen, who is currently working on the screen adaptation of Basu’s ‘The Japanese Wife’, about translating novels into films.
On 27 January, 11.15am
u Booker-winning author Ian McEwan and British playwright and film-maker Christopher Hampton will discuss the translation of popular novels to cinema. Earlier, on 25 January, 5pm, journalist and author Sagarika Ghose will introduce McEwan.
On 27 January, 5pm
(All events will be held at the Diggi Hall, Diggi Palace, Jaipur. Entry to most of the events is free. For delegate passes and more details, call 0141-2222728)