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A file photo of Jaipur Literature Festival (Photo: Mint)
A file photo of Jaipur Literature Festival (Photo: Mint)

The anxiety and nostalgia of literary festivals in times of covid

In these covid times, one can’t help but miss the charm of lit fests and live sports. Some of these can take awkward turns, as audiences will attest, but they also stay etched in our memory.

Few literary festivals anywhere were as ill-fated as Hong Kong’s in 2003. It got underway just as the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) was migrating from southern China to Hong Kong. V.S. Naipaul, among others, cancelled a fortnight before the event. One panel discussion stood out for its topsy-turvy before and after. An obscure Turkish writer also pulled out because of SARS, which had a much higher fatality rate than covid, leaving the Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen and a British writer, widely discredited for his coverage of the HIV epidemic, as the only two writers on the panel. Yann Martel, the Canadian author of Life of Pi, who was in the audience, asked spirited questions that took apart the former Sunday Times reporter’s reporting on HIV and separately made an eloquent case for organised religion, which Nasreen had dismissed as a form of patriarchy. Reflecting on the “loneliness" of writing, one overwrought expatriate mother’s request to Nasreen to give her daughter “courage" ended in sobs—to the embarrassment of the teenager and moderator. When it was over, another American woman said that by allowing Martel so much Q&A time, the moderator had been a perpetrator of what the discussion was about: the “oppression of women by men." (The panel was actually titled “Writing for Change"). I was the inept moderator.

At their best, literary festival panel discussions are a hybrid of a great dinner party and a post-graduate class at a top university. When they go off the rails, they can seem like retired Lutyens’ Delhi bureaucrats making pointless points, or even a psycho-therapy session. But, they widen horizons in a bipolar world of shouting matches on TV and strident WhatsApp warriors. Our national strength as talkers, rather than doers, is suddenly no longer a handicap. Lit-fests likely date back to one in semi-rural England in 1935, but almost everyone overseas agrees that the Jaipur Literary Festival set the gold standard globally. Instead of solo readings by authors and pricey tickets, JLF packed in rock-concert sized crowds of 12,000 on the main lawn of Diggi Palace.

It is thus dispiriting to imagine a Jaipur January without JLF. After days of alternately working-shirking from home, peering at someone boxed in by Zoom seems a continuation of another work day without office gossip. And I cannot be the only person who wishes people would switch to other alternatives after Zoom, owned by a Chinese entrepreneur in California, admitted to suspending accounts of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong at Beijing’s request this June but promised not to do it again. Sanjoy Roy, who, along with Namita Gokhale and William Dalrymple, has taken JLF to Colorado, Hong Kong and Adelaide, sounded surprisingly upbeat this week. “We are very clear that we will always have a digital offering with television-styled production standards" even after the threat of covid passes, Roy told me. JLF’s Brave New World series (jlflitfest.org/bnw), with authors such as Orhan Pamuk and Margaret Atwood, has done surprisingly well. Shashi Tharoor’s recent session for JLF London attracted more viewers than half-a-dozen years at a JLF satellite event at the British Library were able to do.

Yet, in a telling statistic that reveals how distracted we are when we “connect" via videoconference, Roy says the average viewer stayed for less than 20 minutes of each session. By contrast, it is five years since I chanced upon the animated classical Indian languages scholars Arshia Sattar and Sheldon Pollock before 2,000 people in Jaipur; riveted, I stood all through and remember it as if it were yesterday. At another JLF event, I came in from a morning walk along a forest creek and fell under the spell, as sages do in myths, of Shabnam Virmani singing verses of Kabir.

At work and play, we are social yet also sensory animals. Over the past fortnight, the French Open has experimented with live audiences and physically-distanced spectatorship, allowing 1,000 fans in a stadium of 15,225. Even that small band nearly blew the roof off in the delightful pre-quarterfinal pitting US Open champion Dominic Thiem against the 239-ranked Frenchman Hugo Gaston. That match was much more exciting than the tortured men’s final of the US Open, which did not allow spectators. Instagram appearances during lockdown suggest tennis stars need an audience as much as fans need them. In the past few weeks, my most memorable moment courtside has been admiring the consistency of a nationally-ranked wheelchair tennis player, Shilpa K.P., at Bengaluru’s Topspin Tennis Academy. And, for all the virtual drinks I have had via Skype with friends in Delhi, Coonoor and Sydney, the real treat has been sitting two metres away from a friend on the terrace of an empty restaurant this week. He urged me to read Isabel Wilkerson’s book, Caste, which likens America’s race problem to India’s apathy in overturning caste hierarchies, the “human pyramid encrypted into us all". Viewing sourdough pics on Instagram or watching authors via Zoom couldn’t compare with either experience.

Rahul Jacob is a Mint columnist and a former ‘Financial Times’ foreign correspondent.

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