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Visitors at Jaipur Literature Festival 2018.  (Photo: Getty Images)
Visitors at Jaipur Literature Festival 2018. (Photo: Getty Images)

Festival fever

Set at a lit fest, this comic novel captures the ironies of the writing life

For visitors and participants, the hullabaloo of literature festivals may feel intimidating, even overwhelming. But what goes on in the minds of those who organize them? As the co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), Namita Gokhale is eminently placed to venture an answer—and she offers it in her new novel, Jaipur Journals.

Although the story is set at an unnamed literary festival, the latter’s resemblance to JLF is unmistakable (the subtitle, “A Love Letter To The Greatest Literary Show On Earth", quotes journalist Tina Brown’s praise for JLF). It has everything anyone who has been to the festival might expect: the mayhem as people try to catch sight of celebrity authors, the clash of fragile egos, cameo appearances—by Shashi Tharoor, Javed Akhtar, V.S. Naipaul—and caricatures who may, or may not, bear resemblances to persons living or dead.

Jaipur Journals: By Namita Gokhale, Penguin Random House India, 208 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>599.
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Jaipur Journals: By Namita Gokhale, Penguin Random House India, 208 pages, 599.

The plot unfolds through vignettes—sly, amusing, funny, at times naughty—in a classic roman-à-clef mode. At the centre of the action is Rudrani Rana, a septuagenarian who arrives at the festival clutching a canvas tote bag, marked UNSUBMITTED, with the manuscript of a novel she has been writing for years. Solitary but imposing, she is an attentive, often harshly, critical presence at the sessions. Having christened herself a “troglodyte" (borrowing the word from one of Shashi Tharoor’s bombastic speeches), she embarks on a daring adventure, befriending Anirban M., a gay illustrator, who turns her luck around. Another writer whose fortunes transform is Raju Srivastava, who goes by the moniker Razi Khan Singh “Betaab". A fledgling poet, who sways the crowd with an impromptu performance, his secret talent is breaking into people’s homes and burgling them. A precocious child writer, a volatile queer author, and an academic bent on rekindling a lost romance bring up the rear of this colourful cast.

As a ringside view into the writing life, Jaipur Journals is laced with dark insights over its frivolous veneer. Gokhale shows us writers at their most insecure, vulnerable, inspired and morally depraved. There’s slapstick, pathos, tragedy and satire rolled together—enough to destroy any romantic notions of the writing life that readers may harbour. It often takes fiction to get closest to the ugly truths.

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