Jaipur: To accuse a novelist of egotism is like accusing a boxer of violence,” said Martin Amis to a delighted audience. “But writing is not a collaborative art. A writer comes most alive when they are alone.”
On the final morning of the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival 2011, Amis, together with American novelist Jay McInerney, was speaking to literary critic Nilanjana Roy on a panel called ‘Writing the 1980s’. But it was difficult to imagine what life was like 10 years ago, both novelists concurred, for young writers today. “It’s harder than ever in this accelerated time,” McInerney said. “I’d advise young writers to write about this moment.”
In high spirits: Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid (left) with British writer, historian William Dalrymple at the Jaipur Literature Festival. Photo: PTI
“Write what you know,” Amis interjected. “You’ll want to break that rule later in life, but it’s a good way to start.”
The solitude prescribed by Amis was in very short order over the festival’s five days, when audiences engulfed the Diggi Palace Hotel in unprecedented numbers.
“We expected the number to increase one and a half times above last year’s,” said festival producer and managing director of Teamwork Productions, Sanjoy Roy. “We didn’t expect it to triple.” He said that the preliminary headcount for the festival was 48,000, but this excluded some attendees, including audiences at the evening musical concerts, and children from schools all over Rajasthan who attended the festival as part of their class trips.
Roy said the festival space would expand within the Diggi Palace estate next year. “We will be ticketing the evening performances, as we get a very different audience for those, but the festival itself will continue to be free and unticketed.”
Some of the highlights of the final day included Irvine Welsh and Vikram Seth competing for attention on separate stages at the penultimate session. Both venues overflowed with standing listeners. Earlier in the day, Chandrahas Choudhury’s discussion with the novelist Mohsin Hamid opened the sessions on the much-trampled front lawns.
Later, festival director William Dalrymple induced veteran Pakistani journalist and policy adviser Ahmed Rashid to turn raconteur on the subject of Afghanistan’s recent history. Rashid took his audience through the rise of the Taliban and the entry of Al Qaeda into Afghanistan in what was practically an eyewitness account.
“I first heard of Al Qaeda in the 1980s, from Arabs who joined (Afghan warlord) Jalaluddin Haqqani to repel the Soviet invasion,” Rashid remembered. “I had seen everyone from Filipinos, Tajiks and Chinese Muslims in Afghanistan between 1988 and ’89, all communicating through Pakistani interpreters. It was already an international jihad. But once the Soviets left, they left too. Only the Arabs stayed.”
Rashid’s 2000 book, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, had an initial print run of 5,000 copies from a small academic press, but went on to sell 1.5 million copies after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.
It echoed strangely with Hamid’s experience with his novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which he retold earlier in the day. “When I was writing it, my editor said, ‘A successful Muslim guy feeling a strange tension with his life in America? I don’t buy this character.’ A couple of months later, after 11 September, he was saying, ‘You know Mohsin, this book you’re writing…’ ” Hamid said, to laughter.
The festival closed with a debate on freedom of information, introduced by John Gordon. In the 113 panels that preceded it, it featured authors from 23 nations, and included writers in 12 Indian languages. It had incurred criticism in the lead-up to opening day on an apparent sidelining of Indian authors, but at the venue, few were openly critical.
“For a writer like me to be on the same panel as Martin Amis is a huge thing,” said author Namita Devidayal, who had spoken with Amis on a panel about memoirs on Sunday. “I understand that there are things about the festival that can improve. But in spite of the crowds and questions about the composition of the panels, I’m still excited about the fact that we have such a place in India to celebrate books, to celebrate writing. You go back from here just wanting to read and write more and more. That’s a great deal.”