Friday, January 28, 2011

Literary ark

We’re gonna need a bigger boat.” William Dalrymple might well have quoted this famous dialogue from Jaws to his able team of organisers at the end of Jaipur Literature Festival 2011. Diggi Palace, the venue, was clearly bursting at the seams. At several sessions the allotted space could not accommodate the scores of people lining up to attend.

That was no surprise. JLF does get the world’s most famous writers. This year the list got longer: Orhan Pamuk, J M Coetzee, Kiran Desai, Richard Ford, Martin Amis, Junot Diaz, Vikram Seth…

Those who attend get everything (and the kitchen sink) thrown at them. Amazingly, everything sticks. Junot Diaz’s self-deprecating humour quickly earned him new lifelong fans — even those who hadn’t seen a page of his Pulitzer-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Martin Amis was his usual self — complete with etymological quibbles and that famous Mick Jagger lip. He treated us to a six-minute monologue on how to write about sex and went on to frown at John Updike (“He sends a little Japanese camera crew into the bedroom”) and scoffed at writing autobiographical sex as “absolutely disgusting”. He dismissed magic realism as “levitating purple donkeys” and also recited half-a-dozen sonnets.

J M Coetzee, on the other hand, was separated from the hubbub around him. But when he had to speak he held the audience in a trance for a 45-minute reading from his books. In a session titled “Imperial English” he made a prediction about how linguistics will pan out in the future. “Any language that you are fluent in is your mother tongue,” he said, “and the future will be of the Big Language. Foreign languages can be translated into English and be read.”

Orhan Pamuk was irascible, especially when he hadn’t finished making his point and the interlocutor would interrupt to go on a tangent. “Let me complete first,” was how Rana Dasgupta was dressed down when the latter was trying to barge in at the session “Out of West”.

There were intimate sessions too. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke about her award-winning novels and how she mined her family’s past to marry it with her country’s politics during the 1960s. Rachel Polonsky recalled how a chance encounter with the abandoned library of a former Russian foreign minister spurred her to reconstruct Russia in the time of Stalin.

That said, there were a few no-brainer sessions. It was a toxic combination of irony and paradox that “Why Books Matter” was discussed at an event where the audience should be presumed to worship books. Another topic, “The Crisis of American Fiction” was summarily dismissed by writer Richard Ford, who said “the crisis exists only on page”.

Off stage, there was a lot going on. Journalist Hartosh Singh Bal and JLF co-organiser William Dalrymple were seen on civil terms, quite surprising considering the rancour that had built up owing to the former’s spirited criticism of the festival in Open magazine earlier this month. Although JLF can claim to be a “free” event for ordinary attendees, questions were raised about some corporate sponsors and whether JLF’s allying itself with money machines, some of which have doubtful human rights records, would dim the brilliance of the event.

Meanwhile, a Hindi daily splashed a story on its front page titled “Saahitya Ka Balatkaar”. There were three photographs from JLF alongside, showing different writers holding a drink, holding a cigarette and giving someone a peck on the cheek. This was preceded by protests against Dalrymple in Bihar because he told the Wall Street Journal that “few would’ve turned up had the festival taken place in Patna”. More than anything else, it is this sort of parochial pettiness that may prove to be this excellent event’s worst enemy.


At 6:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

excellent piece, man!


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