It can be difficult to comprehend, let alone enjoy, the fact that the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) continued in spite of the threats surrounding Salman Rushdie’s cancelled appearances, in person and then on video. In the five days since the festival began on 20 January at Diggi Palace, the Rushdie vacillations dominated the mood within the festival as thoroughly as they did outside.
The organizers’ commitment to keeping the show going allowed a weird sense of normalcy to prevail during pauses in the conversation. Those who accuse Jaipur of being too little literature and too much festival have found plenty of corroborating evidence: People climbed walls to see Oprah Winfrey, listened hushed to Deepak Chopra and chased Chetan Bhagat around the palace grounds with cameras and autograph books at the ready. High school students, dressed in blazers announcing the names of Rajasthan’s most famous schools, perched politely on the edge of their seats, trying to be discreet about BlackBerrying during panels. Everyone who poured in continued to complain about crowds.
Spotlight: Crowds at this year’s festival. Photo: Altaf Hussain/Reuters
To say “the festival is fantastic”, as Monisha Rajesh does, might seem like a minority opinion at this point. Rajesh is a young London-based journalist who has just finished her first book, an account of 80 train journeys through India. It was her second year at the festival, and she came back in 2012 after the atmosphere at last year’s festival drew her in. “I had such a good time last year, I had to come back,” she says. “It’s always good to be around people who’re engaged in reading and writing; people who are writing a book or have just written a book, who are like you.”
In spite of the no-shows —Rushdie aside, scheduled appearances by Hisham Matar, Annie Proulx and Ariel Dorfman were cancelled for various reasons—the festival remains one of India’s biggest open spaces for serious readers. It would be imprecise to mention the Winfrey gala without noting the full houses for David Hare and Girish Karnad, the rapturous applause for Ben Okri, and the keen attention paid to panels on activists’ prison diaries, Western journalists writing about African countries, and Palestinian politics.
Author Ben Okri attended this year’s festival. Photo: Manoj Madhavan/Mint
“Every year I tell myself, ‘Maybe not this time’,” says Samhita Arni, one of the authors of last year’s Sita’s Ramayana. “And then every year around this time I find myself getting on a plane.” Arni, who wrote her first book when she was 12, has been in the audience at Jaipur for the last four years. She is drawn back, like many, primarily as a reader and not a writer.
Jaipur can be simultaneously scary and gratifying for new authors—who themselves constitute a broad category. Debut novelists like Shubnum Khan, a speaker at this year’s festival, find themselves in conversation with a truly global mix of colleagues. Khan, a young South African writer and lecturer of English and media studies, published her first book Onion Tears, a story about three generations of Indian women in South Africa, late last year. “It’s just so good to meet writers you’ve always admired,” she says.
But how do you meet them if you’re not on stage with them, or interviewing them for the media, or hanging out at one of the publishing parties that take place off the Diggi Palace grounds every night? In a New York Times column, Manu Joseph described a moment last year whose outlandishness makes it painfully real: a man, eating something, chasing after the Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee, saying, “Sir, sir, give me some tips on how to write, sir.”
Crowds at this year’s festival. Photo: Manoj Madhavan/Mint
“Part of you is here to meet your heroes,” says Satyajit Sarna, a lawyer who has just finished his novel, The Angel’s Share, to be published by HarperCollins in April. “But I think a much bigger part is hoping for your dreams to come true.” Sarna has been going to the festival for several years now. “It’s tough,” he says, “because a part of it is hermetic and insulated. There is an inner circle that you might break into, but if you’re in, you’re always suspecting whether you’re in.”
In spite of the organizers insisting that Jaipur is not a trade fair, the dream often persists, in defiance of reality. “No,” says literary agent David Godwin to the question of whether he ever meets surprise candidates for the next great Indian book in Jaipur. “It’s a private thing, although there are exceptions, of course. The writers I meet here are writers I’ve read or have heard of. It would be different if I were running a workshop or session for young writers, but that isn’t the case.”
“You have to be socially present in the run-up to your book coming out,” Rajesh says. “Last year, when I was working on my book, I met someone who was kind enough to introduce me to the editor of Condé Nast Traveller. You end up meeting all kinds of people.”
Author Samhita Arni
“The festival’s been good for me professionally,” says Aman Sethi, author of last year’s acclaimed A Free Man, his first book. Sethi, a reporter with The Hindu, was on panels this year with Mohammed Hanif and The New Yorker journalist Katherine Boo; his book will be out in the US and UK later this year. “But I’m also wary of the supposed glamour attached to being a writer at a festival like this. As journalists we have a work ethic sort of figured out, and I think it’s important to remember that your job, in the end, is to sit down and write.”
In the end, it may be the most useful advice aspiring writers can take away from the frustrations of this edition of the festival. In a year when so many voices have been drowned out, it becomes urgent to find your own, away from the fracas. On the last day of the festival, Sethi was talking to reporters on the Diggi House terrace reserved for the press. Below, the legendary British dramatist Tom Stoppard was discussing his art on the front lawns, rebranded the Tata Steel Front Lawns for the duration of the festival. The crowd was not quite as overwhelming as it was on the day of Winfrey’s session, but there were no empty seats in the house.
From the vantage point of the press terrace, you could look to your right to see Stoppard speaking. To your left, farthest from the stage, was another spectacle: a gathering ring of journalists, camerapersons and other interested parties around a small group of men, standing obdurately, waiting out the afternoon to see if Salman Rushdie would Skype in to the festival, intending to shut it down. Stoppard may have been one of the most fascinating speakers to ever appear at Jaipur, but the crowd was restive. Some people were on their phones, some were turning around in their seats, even the attentive ones visibly uneasy.
Author Aman Sethi
It was, in many ways, a visual manifestation of the atmosphere that descended on the festival from its very first day: an audience looking over its shoulder for the writers who could not be present, and opponents who had steadfastly refused to listen.