Friday, January 29, 2010

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.


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