Beyond the crowds
"This thing is a Wembley concert now, but this place can only accommodate a warehouse gig crowd," said a Nigerian writer, who is now a London transplant. The "thing" he was referring to was the just-concluded ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival and the "place" is the venue, Diggi Palace. His appraisal wasn't far off the mark considering this year the festival had a record number of visitors: 245,000. Here's some heartburn for doomsayers of the printed word: the festival has seen a doubling of international visitors from 50 countries, and a 40 per cent increase in students attending it.
As much as the numbers were comforting, the venue, which has been inextricably linked with the event for eight years, was groaning under the weight of that many visitors. That said, the festival was a smorgasbord of marvellousness for whoever braved the teeming swarms of humanity. My personal highlight has been the one where Paul Theroux, Hanif Kureishi and Amit Chaudhuri spoke to Farrukh Dhondy on the cultural importance of V S Naipaul's A House for Mr Biswas. The writers were waxing eloquent about the sprawling novel set in Port of Spain with the Nobel laureate himself among the audience. Mr Kureishi said that this was the novel that broke the stigma against what used to be pejoratively termed as "Commonwealth writing" in the 1960s; Mr Theroux went a step further: "What I was reading was a book which described an entire world. A family on an island where nothing was left out, every cultural artefact, the food, the way of speaking, the weather and houses, everything was there. It was the most complete novel I had read since, I suppose, Dickens." That statement moved Mr Naipaul to tears and the hatchet between the two was resoundingly buried on stage.
Another incredible session had Eimear McBride and Eleanor Catton in conversation with Razia Iqbal. The Irish writer, who wrote the throat-clenchingly haunting novel A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, said that she had to wait for a harrowing nine years to get her debut novel published. Its inventive staccato prose, stream of consciousness narrative and genuinely shocking plot apparently was rejected by three publishers because they didn't know how to "market" it. Booker winner Ms Catton, on the other hand, who tasted success at 28 for her second novel The Luminaries, said that she liked to essentially think of herself as a mystery novelist and that a cellphone is the worst thing that could have happened to that kind of a writer. "The essence of a mystery novel is that people go in the wrong directions and a cellphone is sort of killing that," she said.
On Day Two, as rain lashed the Pink City, American-Indian poet Vijay Seshadri's soul-edifying session titled "A Passage to America" with Sadaf Saaz Siddiqi provided the much-needed warmth. Mr Seshadri spoke about growing up in the 1960s and his whole immigrant experience. He said that "the sixties were America's most energetic decade since Civil War". He was feisty, funny, meditative during the 40 minutes that he held court at the venue. Speaking about the Pulitzer honour he said, "It's a nice award. I recommend it to everyone."
Optimism over an Indo-Pak truce was all-pervasive at a talk on Pakistan that involved Ahmed Rashid, Anatol Lieven, G Parthasarathy and the country's former foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri. "If Vladimir Putin can talk to Obama, why not India and Pakistan," Mr Rashid asked. All the speakers said that with a new government in place in Kabul, the leaders should tackle the Taliban menace together and not depend on the United States too much.
The purpose of literature was best described by Will Self, British letters' enfant terrible with an old quote: as something that "afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted". He was a massive hit with the audience. Be it his dismissal of the British establishment, his maverick antics onstage or hilariously controversial statements, he was the talk of the event. Another writer to whom the crowd took an instant liking was the Chinese-American writer Anchee Min. Once a Red Guard in Mao's army, she permitted the audience a glimpse into the unremitting bleakness of the early years of her life - leavened with an impromptu performance of a Chinese opera song.
And these are the kind of reasons that even those issuing a drone of contempt at the massive crowds will be returning next year. Did I tell you that next year Noam Chomsky, Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro will be speaking?