Friday, January 29, 2010

A-Z of Jaipur Literature Festival

For any self-respecting reader, the Jaipur Literature Festival is the best that could have happened after the invention of the Guternberg press. The fifth edition of the “greatest literary show on the earth” as a vinyl board at the venue says, just got bigger and better. Here’s an A-Z of the who’s who and what’s what of the event.

A— Applebaum, Anne: The Pulitzer-winning author and Slate columnist was in her elements when speaking about the gulags in Russia and dissecting John Kampfner’s book on where people should draw a line when it comes to public freedom in totalitarian countries.

B— Bollywood: You can run but not hide from the world’s second biggest movie market. Everyone perceived to be cerebral in the tinsel world was present at the event. Namely, Shabana Azmi, Javed Akhtar, Rahul Bose, Om Puri, Ketan Desai.

B— Bhagat, Chetan: Love him or hate him or even if you don’t have the foggiest idea of who he is, it’s hard to ignore the “best-selling author”. He actually got a rockstar reception when he swaggered onto the stage to interview Ira Trivedi, Anjum Hasan and Meenakshi Madhavan.

C— Capitalism: Right from Vikram Chandra to Lord Meghnad Desai, Marx’s class conflicts and statements like consumerism is the opium of masses were evoked in various for a during the festival.

D— Democracy: Amit Chaudhuri and family was waiting behind me in the queue to serve themselves the scrumptious feast. Pulitzer-winning journalist Lawrence Wright was asking if he can sit beside me. William Dalrymple had to make do with a space on bare floor owing to lack of sitting space. Much as the discussions at the festival were more-or-less elite, the festival’s marrow was connected to democracy.

E— Entertainment: Everything from beat-boxing to the earthy Rajasthani folk music was to be heard every night during dinner. My favourite was Susheela Raman singing the famous Namesake song. How can the entire world be elsewhere when something to sulbime is happening?

F— Ferguson, Niall: This man is the Judd Apatow of the intelligentsia. He writes at least two articles every week for Financial Times, pulls out one book every year, teaches at various Ivy League institutes and even finds time to fight with Paul Krugman. Does he ever sleep? When asked, he said five hours and I am still taking it with a pinch of salt considering his pessimistic Scottish humour seeped into evey corpuscle of my body.

G— Gulzar: The Durbar Hall was teeming with swarms of people to get a glimpse of the famous poet reading his poems.

H— Hour-class figures: Every connoisseur of beauty with brains would feel like a kid lost in toy shop. It defies human imagination that so many pulchritude-personified women can be under one roof.

I— India: Though there were people from all over the world and the discussions ranged from denouncing Scotland and Obama administration’s attitude toward Bin Laden, India was, however, never forgotten. For every Wole Soyinka reading there was a Mimlu Sen talking about the Baul music. For every Ghost Wars, there was a Sacred Games too being celebrated on the sidelines.

J— Jaipur: The influence of Jaipur in the festival is not to be missed. The venue, Diggi Palace, a construct on the lines of the erstwhile Maharajahs’ guest houses, brings the city within the hotel alive. What’s more, step out and Hawa Mahal is a Rs 40 auto-ride away. Behind is the imposing Secretariat. Dalrymple pulled off a masterstroke to conduct the event away from the humdrum of Delhi.

K— Karnad, Girish: The eminent playwright inaugurated the festival and, thus, added that touch of Indian class to the festival where subsequent events were essentially going to be about foreign land.

L— Line of no control: No one bit their tongue at the event. Tenzing Tsundue went on a tirade against Tibet and a youngster termed the discussion between a battery of intellectuals like Max Rodenbeck, Steve Coll, Lawrence Wright, Tunku Varadarajan, Kai Bird as “bitter rhetoric” and “something straight out of FOX news”.

M— Memories: Brigid Keenan, Geoff Dyer, Tony Wheeler recalled their memories of travelling across the world. Wheeler, the founder of Lonely Planet series, spoke about his hippie travelling and for the uninitiated it was a good throwback to an era where bohemian was the catchphrase.

N— Nine-to-five
: Even though the schedule was from ten-to-five, any star struck reader would reach venue at nine itself to have a more free-wheeling conversation with the writers having their breakfast.

O— Oeuvre: The lifetime of works of people like Wole Soyinka, Roddy Doyle, Hanif Kureishi, Niall Ferguson was discussed at lengths during the festival. For the uninitiated, this was the best way to get sucked into the magic world of their words.

P— Piquant: Without mentioning the delicious food served over the five days, the literature festival will not be getting its just due. Various dishes from Dal Bhati Churma to lamb dipped in red wine were waiting to melt in the mouths of gourmet galore at the festival.

Q— Quip: Some really blood curdling questions were asked at the fest and the one that takes the cake was a remark made by Javed Akhtar. He took Steve Coll head on for being pro-American and negated him on Coll’s theory that Bin Laden is alive. Akhtar believes that Laden is dead and pray why, because no tape of his came out in the last one year. How I wished he stayed for one more day when Laden claimed responsibility for the botched Decmber 25 explosion.

R— Rendition: If there’s anything more magical about Amit Chaudhuri than his words, then it’s his music.

S—Spoilt for choice: For once, I wished I was in Soviet Union where choice wasn’t a problem. How can you swear allegiance to one writer and not to the other one whom you equally worship?

T—Tension: I can imagine the tension in Diggi Palace when Ayan Hirsi Ali made a secret visit. She has a fatwa issued against her for getting involved in a movie called Submission, which chronicled Islam’s evil influence on Muslims.

U— Under the Kilt: In the tranquil surroundings of Diggi Palace, an event on Scottish ethos was the destination of rambunctious laughter. Niall Ferguson, Alexander McCall Smith, Andrew ’O Hagan and William Dalrymple spoke about the Scottish pessimism and the Scots’ superiority complex, most visible in the current famous Scots, Gordon Brow, Alistair Darling and David Cameron. Had the festival been on television, this one would have got the maximum TRPs.

V— Varadarajan, Tunku: The greatest testament to this cerebral man’s intelligence is how easily in a single breath he jumps from conspiracy theories abounding in West Asia to effect of Kindle on books.

W- William, Dalrymple: The festival director wore more than just one cap. He moderated plethora of discussions, did readings of his books, was listening to many talks and even managed to intone a few lines from his latest book while the Bauls were singing.

X— Xanadu: The festival is nothing less than the Chinese province where Kubla Khan establishes his pleasure garden in his famous poem.

Y— Yankeeland: There were more foreigners to be seen at the festival than Indians or may be I was looking through a jaundiced eye.

Z— Zeal
: This was an emotion that was all-pervasive all the five days. Everyone wanted to know everything that was to be known at the festival.

Tyranny of trade

The audience was so enraptured in the first discussion of day three that a perfectly innocuous even like taking down notes drew quite a few disapporving pairs of eyes. Who said everything that needs to be invented has been invented? A pen that wouldn't make any noise when put to paper will have its niche market; especially when Tarun Tejpal is moderating a discussion on John Kampfner's new book with the writer himself, Niall Ferguson, Anne Applebaum, Meghnad Desai, Steve Coll in the panel. Kampfner's book is a case study of eight countries where people are involved in a 'trade-off' with the respective countries for material comforts in return for public freedom like staging public protests against government policies, free media.

Kampfner cited Singapore, China, Russia, UAE, India, Italy, US, UK as his examples. Applebaum agreed with Kampfner's analysis and advocated for redefining of private and public freedom. She said that in any country, 10 per cent are filthy collaborators" with govt for personal benefit, 10 per cent are "brave opponents", 80 per cent are bothered all about how to send their children to best colleges.

Next event was "Writing About Music". This discussion moderated by Sunil Sethi was a damp squib of sorts because the people in the panel, with an honourable exception of Louis De Bernieres, got self-indulgent and kept rambling on their respective books. I thought I would get to hear what exactly will a layman make of a chord, riff, cadence, falsetto, the terminology used to describe music, in music writing. How I pined for Amit Chaudhuri, as per the original plan, was the moderator.

Whatever bad taste was left in my mouth, faded into oblivion in the next event about the craft of travel writing. Geoff Dyer spoke about the queue culture in India, William Dalrymple about hitting a blank wall in the form of a Pakistani policeman in Lahore a good two decades ago, Isabel Hilton about her trip to the exotic land of Greenland and Brigid Keenan about her stay in Tajikistan as an EU diplomat's wife.

Next up was Dalrymple holding a tete-a-tete with Tony Wheeler, the founder of the iconic Lonely Planet publication. During the conversation Wheeler recounted his travels through South East Asia during his hippie days ('70s) with his wife. During his globetrotting Wheeler hit upon the idea to start Lonely Planet, a name derived from a song called Space Captain in a British movie.

The mother of all discussions was of course Niall Ferguson talking with writer Omair Ahmad about the former's monster hit "Ascent of Money". By terming financial history 'sexy', Ferguson ensured that those in Durbar Hall are not going to tread tested waters, but choppy ones. Who said best-selling authors will be best-selling authors and serious writers willbe serious writers and the twain shall never meet? Ferguson shatterd all such myths, at least for those in the Durbar Hall.

Ferguson teaches, writes books, columns and even fights with Paul Krugman but if one description fits him like a glove, then it's historian. He said that how the recession is not getting its historic due because this is financial history happening to us, which might never happen again. He said that the investment bankers are not to be blamed for the financial mess that the world found itself in. Ferguson put the moral baggage on everyone who has a bank account of being complicit in the financial bloodshed. He had words of praise for India and expressed paranoia over British companies being bought over by Tatas and other Indian behemoths.

He, however, stuck to the Chimerica phrase and said that US needs China to survive. US imports and China exports, US spends and China saves. At this juncture I wonder what if China decides to sell its the foreign capital of $800 billion. Doesn't matter, for now let's revel in Ferguson's writing.

Susheela Raman's singing during the dinner was the choicest of cherry to top off what has been an eventful day.

Conspiracy theory theory

Why are there no Karma Police at the Jaipur Literature Festival? Shouldn't they be arresting Kai Bird for talking in math and buzzing like a fridge? The reason Radiohead's famous lyrics were playing on the back of my head is that the eminent biographer was at the helm of affairs on day two's first two events.

In the first one, Bird was in conversation with Claire Tomalin about the art of biography. At the end of if, what did I take home? Biography is not art, it's sweat. Your subject seduces you if he is alive. Minor characters are the prism throught which you view your subjects and, this is my favourite, best biographies have been written by journalists.

Then Bird moved to the Mughal Tent, where he was joined by Forbes columnist Tunku Varadarajan and New Yorker journalist Lawrence Wright on why conspiracy theories abound in all the crannies of the world. Moderated by famous West Asia correspondent Max Rodenbeck, the panel discussed topics as diverse as the single assassin of Robert Kennedy and checking out the possibility of there being explosives in the World Trade Centre towers prior to the aircraft hitting the twin towers.

While the intellectual masturbation that is all-pervasive in such discussions, the panel actually came out with panacea, it's fleeting nature notwithstanding, to suppress the proliferation of the Chinese whispers. Tunku said democracy is the perfect antidote to conspiracy theories that are wilfully devoid of evidence (case in point: the very fact that Lebanon is fragmented according to the theory that you subscribe to).

It makes perfect sense that after a talk on why human mind loves conspiracies, it is followed by Steve Col talking about his Pulitzer-winning work Ghost Wars. Willian Dalrymple moderated the talk and managed to get all the gut wrenching details as to how the New Yorker journalist debriefed a Pakistani ISI agent in Dusseldorf. The most fruitful part of the discussion was when they described the nature of the beast called al-Qaeda. The way Coll describes how he gained access to the bin Laden family made him a new-age Jack Nicholson from Antonioni's "Passenger". What was, however, disconcerting was the fact that there were not many present in the audience.

After a scrumptious feast of Rajasthani cuisine and lamb dipped in red wine, I went to the Mughal Lawns to listen to Isabel Hilton and Tenzing Tsundue talking about Tibet. Isabel, author of much-acclaimed "In Search of Panchen Lama" and Tenzing, a Tibetan fighting for the Tibet cause, kept talking in a show-China-in-a-bad-light tone. Yes, China might be suppressing the muffled cries for Tibetan democracy but then that's a tacit Faustian pact that people in countries like China, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar have made with the respective governments in order for social security and material comforts.

The event I was eagerly looking forward to happened in the front lawn over a white elephant that the publishing industry would avoid looking at, as if it's a car wreck- Internet. "Can The Internet Save books?". Well, yes and no is what the group of panelists said. Novelist Vikram Chandra found it highly ironic that people are crying hoarse about the sooner-or-later death of printed work. Chandra said that just like Gutenberg made the quill obsolete, Internet is doing something similar. some serious food for thought, that is.

Tunku Varadarajan hit the nail straight into the head by lamenting over the "declining intellectual standards of Indians". He said the discussion is virtually useless because in the end, good writing is all that people need, be it on the cathode tube or papyrus roll. Tina Brown, former Vanity Fair editor and editor of Daily Beast, quoted a disconcerting statistic for the worshippers of printed word; that she got as many readers for Daily Beast in a year as she got in Vanity Fair in the last eight years. However, she hastened to add that long form narrative is not to be seen online, something magazines like New Yorker, vanity Fair specialise in.

Thus, her future plan to put 40,000 word pieces online from various writers and then bring them out later as a short paperback. That was music to the years of those present.

Literary shmiterary

What is the colour of the sky seen from the rest of the earth? Yours truly is in Diggi Palace attending the 5th Jaipur Literature Festival and from here it's a life-altering experience to see the writers you revere in flesh and blood. I wish I had the keen autograph hunter streak in me.

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"The greatest literary show on earth" is what anyone a few feet from Diggi Palace would get to see. Is that an exaggeration? Well, wait until you enter the hallowed portals of the venue where it's a lovely sight to see writers being treated in an over-the-top fashion. Thanks to few accommodation hassles I missed out on the inauguration address by Girish Karnad. Next up was a discussion on the art of criticism moderated by Business Standard literary critic Nilanjana S Roy and speakers being Amitava Kumar, Geoff Dyer and Amit Chaudhury.

Minor gripe: Andrew O'Hagan the former Daily Telegraph movie critic couldn't take part in the discussion. Had the place where the discussion was taking place was a person, it would have slashed its wrists, such was the despair among the speakers about the lack of seriousness among Indian newspapers for literary criticism. "Absence of compelling literary journals like London Review of Books or New York Review of Books," as Amit Chaudhry puts it. Dyer, whose new book is about his travels to Venice and Varanasi, lamented that book reviewing is becoming much less important, This, from a man who himself started out as a critic.

Amit Chaudhry said that Indian criticism scene lacks the panache to pull off a good review of a badly written book. "Demolition has to be done with wit and interestingly," he said. Writer Arvind Krishna Mehrotra went a step ahead even while sitting among the audience by saying that when talking about literary criticism leave India out of discussion. He went on to quote Bengali writer Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, who cried his heart out in the 1870's for there being no healthy criticism scene.

After this gut wrenching session, Claire Tomalin's talk about Jane Austen was a fresh breath of air, literally also, because it happened in an open air session. Tomalin's love for Austen was visible in her breathtaking biography (Jane Austen: A Life) of the woman who did to feminism what Christopher Hitchens did to atheism- championing their respective causes.

Tomaline regaled her audience, which included festival director and famous writer William Dalrymple, with some delectable trivia about Austen. If anyone else were to say did you know Austen bought her stockings from a street peddler, you would brush it off as prurient interest but with Tomalin these details get radioactive and will glow in your mind hours after hearing her speak. Tomalin couldn't hide her glee that Austen rejected Harris Bigg-Wither's marriage proposal. And nothing seems to have given Tomalin more kicks than the fact that by the time she was 25, Austen had three, to-be-major later, books yet to be published. Thank god for small mercies like Austen not wanting to be a part of the marriage market.

The next event was a conversation between Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum and Forbes journalist Tunku Vardarajan about former's Pulitzer-winning book "On The Gulag".

This was arguably the day's piece de resistance and I didn't feel a tinge of guilt for skipping Gulzar's poetry reading session for this. Gulags can be called as the old-fashioned Guantanamo Bays being run by the Soviet Union from 1929-53 to apparently oppress political opposition. An estimated 18 million people have been affected due to the gulags. The Soviet Union's unremitting appetitie for maintaining records has proven to be Applebaum's manna from the haven; for she read all the documents and, thus, each starts life as a kind of archipelago of depressing details. Applebaum deftly built bridges between the islands.

Tomorrow promises another fascinating day what with Claire Tomalin talking about the art of biography and Wole Soyinka doing readings of his famous books. Personally, I am looking forward to New Yorker journalit Steve Coll's conversation with Atiq Rahimi.

Everyone should love a good recession

“I don’t understand business and I don’t even want to because my math is atrocious. I am into features. End of discussion,” said a female friend of mine, who is a writer at a leading fashion magazine. I found this, the way you perceive, statement or confession, scandalous. Here’s why.

I am sure there must be many more like my friend, who are blithely unaware of the recession that befell on everyone in the recent past. However, let me limit my rant to my friend as she is in the field of journalism and, more importantly, she’s a features writer.

In journalistic parlance features are the articles that are not essentially newsy, are discursive and more contemplative than the spot news. In the last 20 months the best features have been on the meltdown. Vanity Fair, arguably one of the best fashion magazines, had incisive reportage on AIG, Alan Stanford and Bernie Madoff’s fall to disgrace. Onion, the parody newspaper, known for its headlines replete with banana peel humour and cerebral content, had a story on how the pins industry is thriving in the wake of recession.

According to the story, due to the pink slips and various kind of foreclosure notices that have to be stuck up for viewing, pins were used left, right and centre. Isn’t this a feature story? At least the people who visited the newspaper’s site thought so and it was the top story for weeks. Consider this Financial Times story- every major financial institution that went belly up in the US had a Starbucks outlet, the US equivalent of India’s Cafe Coffee Day, around the corner. How is something as innocuous as a cafe be in cahoots with the men, whose glutton-like appetite for money was unprecedented? All the paper work for those insidious junk bonds called credit debt obligations was done sitting in the cafe’s plush settings. A simplistic story yes but a thought-provoking one too.

How can my friend be immune to the fact that this downturn made words like ‘toxic wife’, ’stimulus’, ‘deficit’ part of the urban patois? How can she repudiate the reality when the fashion designers had recession wear as the flavour of the season? Financial Times and Wall Street Journal are financial newspapers but they have the best fashion coverage among all the global newspapers.

Business journalism invariably involves a lot of math, which for the uninitiated might look discombobulated. That doesn’t preclude you from knowing the bare minimum. How else would you appreciate Matt Taibbi’s damning article on Goldman Sachs in a recent Rolling Stone issue, which is, well, a music magazine. Taibbi’s no-holds-barred article deconstructs the entire facade of the Wall Street giant in his inimitable fashion. He used swear words in the article in such a way that Martin Scorsese’s expletive-laced dialogues sound like sermon on the mount.

I am not asking my friend to wade through the alphabetical pool of CDO, TARP, AIG, NINJA and what not and come up trumps on the other side by understanding the nature of the beast that shaved at least $3 trillion money from banks and myriad financial organisations. All I am telling her is that when you are wedged between the Wall Street and Main Street, just make sure you don’t slip through the cracks.

Unsung heroes called sub-editors

The modicum of awe that I inspire from strangers by saying I am a journalist dissipates into ether when I mention I am sub-editor. With their interest fast waning, people still manage to ask what exactly I do. “Oh not much, reporters file stories, I edit them, give headlines and make the pages” is my stock reply. I brush it off as a mundane job because it’s hard to describe it to the uninitiated.

How do you explain to people that a desk job is as enriching as the muck-raking done by the reporters? After all, looking at people’s reactions, a sub-editor is as much a journalist as Tintin was. Ironically, a sub-editor is the lowest common denominator. The reasons for such low awareness levels of my job is varied.

In popular culture, there have been books written ad nauseaum on the craft of reporting but next to nothing on copy editing. Only Tarun Tejpal’s “Alchemy of Desire” comes somewhere close to describing the agony of a sub-editor. Now, there’s not much hope too with obituaries of newspapers being a stock-in trade of many doomsayers and Facebook groups like ‘Save Sub-editors’ proliferating. I don’t even expect there to be any John Travolta straight out of Pulp Fiction to revive copy editing with a shot of adrenaline administered straight to the heart.

Most newspapers in this country, or world for that matter, are desk-driven. At the moment, I can recall only one Indian newspaper that is reporter driven. As a Times of India senior editor once told me, intellectual churning happens at the desk. Little wonder then that at all the foreign newspapers most of the news stories have the byline of a sub-editor and at the end they would mention the reporter’s name. A practice unheard of in this part of the world.

And why not? After all, we people work graveyard shifts to pull out the paper, make packages, give a catchy headline by putting our intellectual toolkit under immense duress, social life goes for a toss and, as Garrison Keillor once put it, turn into alcoholics by the time we turn 50. This, apart from discounting the taunts, some valid ones notwithstanding, of reporters that we don’t have to run around for quotes. After so much toil, a copy editor’s job is deemed akin to working on Large Hadron Collider- something special but not of much interest for common man.

Small digression: Economist has realised this and made it an egalitarian newspaper, who are you to call it magazine if it thinks otherwise, where there are no bylines given. A touch injustice though with such brilliant writing getting published with no name attached.

If you come across any journalist who is faking fluency in every subject, then on most occasions that would be a sub-editor. We make Karl Marx’s following remark our professional dictum, “Anything human is not alien to me.” A reporter would be caught tongue-tied if asked anything beyond his or her ‘beat’. All this doesn’t mean that we are saintly. Yes, we bitch about the reporters’ writing that they can’t write to save their lives. Yes, we lament at the lack of legitimacy attached to our craft. Evelyn Waugh nailed it by mentioning in his seminal book, ‘Scoop’, that people don’t understand what toil goes behind the paper that they buy ‘for a penny’.

Next time when you read the newspaper, always remember what D H Lawrence said, “trust the novel, not the novelist”.

Do raise eyebrows over low brow

Clad in a khadi kurti made in one of those sweatshops, with not a single strand of her straightened hair out of place and those chiselled facial features that transcend sexual tendencies; this local train co-passenger resembled a Cajun goddess. What’s more, she was reading a book. Blame the male mindset, if you have to, I even imagined ourselves as literary soulpartners walking into the sunset with our hands held. Anticipating a Netherland or at least a Sue Townsend I peeped into what she was reading and, here lies the dampener, it was (drum roll) Chetan Bhagat’s “Two States”. Whoooosshh! That’s how the crumbling of my imaginary castle sounded.

Why would anyone endure writing that is clunky and is the LOL equivalent of literature? Isn’t Chetan Bhagat essential reading only for those below 12 years? Why does India celebrate writers who can’t string two sentences together? These were the initial questions that popped up in my mind. I tried to find a pattern but all I have been able to glean is that we swear by bestsellers. Look at the books that made waves in the recent past, Da Vinci Code, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series and, of course, Chetan Bhagat sack of chicken feed.

Most often you would find these names mentioned in the profiles of social networking sites’ users. I don’t mean that everyone ought to have mandarin tastes and should be reading W G Sebald and Patricia Highsmith. But do give Steig Larsson’s Millennium trilogy or closer to home, Samit Basu’s GameWorld trilogy a read.

It’s not the economic imbalance that is the difference between the third world countries and developed nations but the fact that printed word is celebrated in the latter and, well, not in the former. A US friend was telling me that everyone in the New York’s locals are to be seen reading books, a rare sight over here. My heart swells with pride at the sight of so many people reading the newspapers cover-to-cover in the Mumbai local trains. I hated Bangalore for not patronising newspapers (I, however, wonder why every newspaper is available in that bottomless pit of techiebabble). But then newspapers do not enrich one’s life the way books do. To think of it, they are not supposed to.

Some might say that the lack of reading culture may be attributed to the rise of Web but that is an argument that doesn’t deserve credence. A Pew Survey says that every American read at least ten books in 2009. This, when an average American spends ten hours on daily basis to swim across the ocean of hypertext links.

The cartoon in Atlantic Monthly captured the bestsellers’ phenomena very well by a bunch of kids holding Harry Potter books berating another child at a distance as ‘problem child’ for reading Charles Dickens. When I made a Mumbai friend privy to my rant, she said that the city is essentially ‘working class’. In that case, won’t Grapes of Wrath have greater resonance in Mumbaikars’ lives than Chetan Bhagat’s love story that is as interesting as watching wet paint getting dry.

I am not listening if you are going to mouth that gigantic cliche to justify proliferation of low brow art: “To each his own”.