Monday, February 02, 2015

The A-Z of Jaipur Literature Festival 2015

A for Anchee Min: The Chinese American author left the audience in turns haunted and entertained by recalling her days of working for Mao in the Red Guards. When she broke out in a Chinese opera song, it turned out to be the talk of the festival.

B for Baithak: My favourite part of the venue this year was located in a safe corner. Some of the most intimate conversations happened here and they involved Vijay Seshadri, Will Self, Hisham Matar among others.

C for CIA: One of the most stimulating conversations was on the intelligence gathering organisation of the United States. Kai Bird, Scott Anderson, Charles Glass spoke to Guardian’s Long Reads’ editor Jonathan Shainin about the pitfalls of CIA and the kind of wreckage it can cause on the fabric of any nation.

D for Devdutt Pattanaik: Right from talking about Indian mythology to homosexuality in India, the master spinner of beautiful tales held fort at every session he was at.

E for Eleanor Catton: The Booker winner of 2013 was a textbook example of how a young author should deal with success. Here is someone who won the Booker at 28 and yet she said that “War and Peace can be written only after one turns 40”. She was a major draw at the event and for all the right reasons.

F for Farrukh Dhondy: He had the biggest task at hand: steer a conversation on VS Naipaul when the writer was in the audience; and in another session, he was talking to the writer himself. Must say, he handled both the sessions really well and managed to give a slice of the great writer to the audience that thronged to see him.

G for Girish Karnad: The playwright and actor was an absolute delight both when talking to Naseeruddin Shah about their early days of acting and then in another session making a compelling case as to why a Library of Classic Indian literature is of immediate necessity.

H for Hisham Matar: The Libyan-American writer spoke about exile, post-Gaddafi Libya, his love for Proust , the anguish of his father in the most stirring manner possible.

I for In Exile: A lovely array of writers discussed about what it is to write about a country they will never be able to visit again or will be severely restricted within it. Chinese writer Ma Jian said that language (in his case Mandarin) keeps him alive in London but that someday he hopes to return to China. Hisham Matar spoke about how he had to flee Libya as a kid because his father was standing up to the Gaddafi regime.

J for Joanna Rakoff: The winsome writer of a memoir on handling JD Salinger’s fan mail was wonderful at all the sessions she attended. She spoke at length about what it was like to be a literary agency in 90s’ New York before the e-mail and endemic computerisation had hit the industry.

 K for Kalam: The former President of India, a darling from schoolchildren, got a rockstar welcome at Diggi Palace. Every syllable he uttered was hung on to by his young fans. Both his talks, where he delved into his ‘Vision 2020’, were the most-attended ones probably in the history of the festival.

L for Llewlyn Morgan: The classicist at Oxford University was a treasure trove of illuminating information on Buddhist artworks at Bamiyan in Central Afghanistan. His book on the same subject is a rare hybrid of Buddhism and architecture.

M for Mihir Sharma: Business Standard’s Opinion editor was arguably at two of the biggest talks: one involved Shashi Tharoor and the other with Rajdeep Sardesai. He spoke with great erudition on what ails the Indian economy (subject matter of his just-released book, Restart) and what Modi government should get right about its politics.

N for Naipaul: The octogenarian wordsmith spoke at what might just be his last public talk. Despite his physical discomfort and slight inability to recall the right words during the interview, the audience listened to him in rapt attention. He spoke about his early days of writing, India and Africa. His wife Nadira said that after his book, India: Land of Darkness, was released, his mother told him, “Beta, leave India to the Indians.”

 O for Overcrowded: Every year, there’s a drone of contempt among the regulars that the venue should be changed and that Diggi is bursting at seams but this year that drone became really audible. As much as the event takes pride in being free for all, the maddening crowds that descended to witness Kalam and Sonam Kapoor might just make the organisers think again.

P for Paris Attacks: With the barbaric act on Charlie Hebdo still fresh in the minds, JLF was a perfect place for writers to denounce the attack. Almost everyone, with a sole exception of Will Self, uttered “Je Suis Charlie”.

Q for Queer: A fascinating talk at JLF centred around homosexual literature. Sarah Water, Christos Tsiolkas, Mark Gevisser, Sandip Roy spoke about what it was to be a homosexual before it was the new normal like today. Another thing that struck the foreign visitors is that Indian visa application has Other in the ‘sex’ option, something they found quite progressive.

R for Ram Jethmalani: The eminent lawyer, who is 92-year-old, gave the packed audience a peek into his life right from Emergency to Indira Gandhi to the controversial cases that he handles. He said that even today 90% of the cases that he takes up are all pro bono. His feisty talk was a reminder that age is just a number.

S for Shashi Tharoor: The Congress MP finally did show up after intense speculations if he will be able to make it after latest revelations on his wife’s death. He didn’t mince words about the Modi government, was skeptical about Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, and was scathing about ghar waapsi.

T for Theroux: The acclaimed travel writer spoke about his craft at the event but the thing that he will be remembered for is his patch up with friend-turned-foe VS Naipaul. Paul Theroux said that A House for Mr Biswas is the most complete novel he read after Dickens, which moved the Nobel laureate to tears.

U for Ummeed: The Hindi word for hope was the reigning sentiment among those speaking about India. Everyone thought, even the hawks, that India has a decent chance at making it big on the world stage with a new government at the helm of affairs.

V for Vijay Seshadri: The American-Indian poet, who won a Pulitzer, was absolutely brilliant in his meditative, cerebral sessions. He was articulate about every subject he was asked about: his life as a kid in America, his growing up years, why he decided to work for five years in commercial fishing industry, the seventies of America, his favourite poets.

W for Will Self: The British letters’ enfant terrible was the toast of JLF 2015. All his sessions were sidesplittingly funny and the reading that he did from his Booker-nominated Umbrella in a gorgeously animated tone was the best I ever saw in the five years that I have been to the fest.

 X for Xanadu: The title of the debut book of the fest director William Dalrymple needs to be evoked because JLF is nothing less than a parallel universe’s idea of heaven. The 2016 line-up has Noam Chomsky, Patti Smith, Margaret Atwood, Thomas Piketty among the big names slated to speak. How does this man do that?

Y for Young Readers: In Dalrymple’s words, “The average age of a literary festival in England, like Cheltenham is 70, while in JLF it’s 21.” That says it all that the fest has cracked the demographic code. Despite the crowding problems, it was a nice sight to see young readers jostling for space to see writers they have either read or intend to.

Z for Zia Haider Rehman: This British novelist of Bangladeshi origin who, quite possibly, wrote the best South Asian novel of the last 10 years was beyond amazing at JLF. He spoke passionately about his early days in UK, how his teachers refused to believe that his English can be so good, how we was bullied at school for showing a drive towards gaining knowledge. If there’s one novel that you should read from 2014, it’s In The Light of What We Know. Prepare to be floored by its vertigo-inducing magnificence.


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