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The ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival is a celebration of the freedom to write, speak, read and listen. It is undoubtedly the largest literary festival in the world, free to all, with audiences of some 300,000 attending this January. Skye Thomas gives her personal view of the 5 day festival.
10.20 am: American poet Anne Waldman opens the Jaipur Literature Festival 2017 with Anthroposcene Blues. Excerpts include: Drones over Jordan; Looked into my crystal ball and what did I see?; Waking up to the anthroposcene. (The recitation, while difficult to comprehend, would turn out to be one of three veiled references to climate change over the course of the next five days).
11.15 am: A poll asks: “Is Hindi literature retaining its quality in comparison to yesteryear?” NO votes a significant 75%. There is a lot of talk around whether Hindi is still in use at a panel on the ‘Global Desi’. Is it even a relevant question – when we know that this fixation on Hindi is but a relic of the Nehruvian nation-building dream that never quite materialised? Nevertheless, witness a truly spectacular intervention by an English Lit teacher from Bhojpur – according to whom, Shakespeare himself used Hindi in his verse. He is entirely serious, and while his claim is debatable (in fact, Hindi was not even a language during Shakespeare’s lifetime), one is nonetheless, terribly impressed by this radical reading.
1.30 pm: Innocently looking for the lunch buffet only to be trampled by spiritual guru Satguru’s security personnel of six persons. Maximal protection for the enlightened.
2.40 pm: “It’s like a shotgun blast,” says Booker-Prize winner Paul Beatty about his book, The Sellout, that he, “loves the challenge of the language; to recast, to move away from existing structures.” Unfortunately the moderator cannot push this forward, or in any direction. She asks in return, “What is the emotional journey of writing?” Beatty remains bemused as the moderator plods on, and later, at this question from the audience, “Did The Catcher in the Rye inspire your book?” (Because, apparently, it is safe to assume that canonical works of black literature take their inspiration from novels about white prep-school students.)
4 pm: Microphones, lights, speakers and screens mysteriously go off as a panel of foreign correspondents are asked about the treatment of journalists in India. Apparently, a coincidence. The first time, however, that anything critical about the current government is even suggested by someone on stage. “The first thing they take away is access,” Indian journalist Suhasini Haidar screams over the crowd as we strain our ears. “I hate Brexit. I hate European populism,” mutters Luke Harding, journalist from the Guardian. Well, honey, so do we. So do we.
5.30 pm: Jaipur Bookmark pulls together an excellent panel on Rabindranath Tagore and Mahashweta Devi. Unfortunately you need VIP access (to get in the room). There are plush velvet couches and there is complimentary hot tea (served in clay mugs). “Mahashweta Devi pushes language to its elastic limits by introducing regional dialects.” “It is language that is hyper-localised, with different registers of Bengali.” “It is a challenge, an opposition to casteism.” “The Bengali landscape contains within itself an entire mosaic of other languages, registers.” Finally, at the last session of the day, an argument that is relevant to the Indian context finally appears.
12.30 pm: Driven to Diggi Palace by an “art rickshaw” – painted in pastels with sunflowers. Say hi to the turban vendor, who is happy that foreigners looking to sport some local garb have given his business such a boost.
12.45 pm: Shared a table at lunch with a couple from France that insisted on listing out their horror stories of local rickshaw drivers. Nonetheless, stayed long enough to finish three freshly baked naan. Gentle reminder: ‘naan bread’ is a tautology.
2.40 pm: At a talk attempting to explain the disparity between Indian states (a mild way of putting it). The premise: that states with strong sub-national identities (regional identifications, regional solidarities) have relatively effective social welfare conditions. The link is not entirely clear, but there are things to be learned. Uttar Pradesh, for instance, has a strong national identification instead – where local elections engage in rhetoric solely about national policy. Sub-nationalism, says academic Prerna Singh, is important just as long as it “stops short of secessionist movement.” Unwittingly, this is a terrific joke, since sub-nationalism and secessionism are often the same thing in this country..
4 pm: At ‘Heart of the Story’, a conversation on the short story moderated by veteran journalist Sunil Sethi. Mark Tully, former Bureau Chief of the BBC, New Delhi, for which he corresponded for over 30 years, grumbles disconcertedly about his “loathing of motorcars and motor transport” and his personal passion toward “what they have done to animal transport.” He seems genuinely concerned. Are we supposed to be, too?
5.15 pm: Time for the hotly debated appearance of two high-ranking members from the Rahtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Hindu nationalist, Right-wing, paramilitary. The atmosphere is tense.
5.20 pm: Suspicious of everyone who claps for the speakers. Suspicious of everyone at this event.
5.22 pm: Indian journalist Pragya Tiwari is resplendent. An exercise in composure and the taciturn. “I understand there is little room for debate,” she begins. She is clever. She knows how to use their language against them.
5.40: Despite Tiwari, the rhetoric is impossible to bear. Walk out.
2.30 pm: Ahead of time for ‘The Dishonourable Company: How the East India Company Took Over India’. The crowd is large and rowdy, and volunteers struggle to get people to empty the isles. Nobody is listening, nobody cares. Pandemonium. We just love to bitch about the Raj.
3.30 pm: Perched on a ledge that might give way at any time. Ironic – such is the structure of debate in this place.
3.45 pm: Crowd positively wet with excitement at the sight of Indian member of parliament and one-time contender for Secretary General at the U.N., Shashi Tharoor. He is the only Indian on stage at a conversation about the East India Company and the British Raj. A panel otherwise comprised of four British academics.
4 pm: The discussion is depressingly semantic. British contingent is adamant to make a distinction between the “The British Presence” vs “The Empire”. Or in more understandable terms, The Company vs The Government. Tharoor is quick to remark how members of Parliament had several (and highly profitable) shares in the EIC – that the distinction is arbitrary and untrue. Crowd cheers. One smirks quietly, still upon the ledge.
5.15 pm: Art critic and author of A Handbook for My Lover Rosalyn D’Mello is devilishly charming on stage at ‘Writing the Self: The Art of Memoir’. The moderator, writer Samanth Subramanian forgets to introduce her work. She says, reading out from her notebook, that the first thing she wrote down upon climbing onto stage was, “Do not discredit your own work.” Don’t you ever, Rosalyn.
5.35 pm: Emma Sky, once part of the coalition to rebuild Iraq and author of The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq, looks over with mild displeasure as D’Mello suggests that her bed, too, is a “war-zone”. Move over, Sky.
11.30 am: ‘Remembering the Raj’ draws an unsurprisingly large audience, Tharoor is back on stage this time with a mildly discontented face.
11.40 am: “Britain denied us self-respect.” The crowd roars. Tharoor quotes the Prime Minster Narendra Modi, “Others will focus on rights and wrongs, I will focus on the future.” The crowd, spontaneously, combusts.
12.30 pm: Stumble into a conversation about art. Some nice phrases uttered by art critic for The Boston Globe, Sebastian Smee. “Bacon’s eyebrow extends its arabesque onto the centre of his brow.” “I wanted to bring Bacon out of the blur.” Tired, so tired, of the art world mythologising modernist masculinity. Critic Anandita Ghose struggles to explain, on behalf of Smee, why there are no women in his book, “You explain why beautifully in your intro.” “Do I really?” Gushes Smee, chuffed.
1.40 pm: Tharoor, back on stage, has been accidentally placed onto a panel on ‘Nutrition and the Girl Child.’ On the matter: “I mean I have to say, when I was first asked to join this panel with such well known activists in a cause I only dabbled in as an amateur, I was reminded of an episode from my early UN days, in the pre-email era, when I got a call on a very bad telephone line asking me, I thought, to come and make a speech on press freedom… and I got there and discovered it was a meeting on breast feeding.”
3.20 pm: Luke Harding is a gripping storyteller, if shamelessly diplomatic. At a conversation that ends with a discussion of Putin and Trump and “21st Century Dictators”, I ask, as a young citizen of the country, for some criticality about our current circumstance. But he cuts me off, “You wan’t me to slag off Modi? That may not be advisable.” And continues, “I know, I get the question I mean I will just say, without kind of slagging off Modi there are… In terms of informational tricks… there are… clear similarities.” At least this is something.
4 pm: Dawns on me (rather late) that all that anyone seems to care about around here – is securing an invitation for the next year.
3 pm: British performance artist Kate Tempest is a welcome respite from tired old rhetoric and cliché. It is unnecessarily cruel to make her answer audience questions after an emotional performance, but they do it anyway.
4.45 pm: Sneak to the front for the final debate – ‘We are Living in a Post-Truth World’. Easier to audibly heckle when closer to the stage.
5.15 pm: Former journalist at NDTV Barkha Dutt begins the debate with “a calm plea for method.” But by opening statements, members of either side have already forgotten which side they are really on.
5.25 pm: Irish economist David McWilliams, who has been asked to fill a last minute spot on stage, reads from Yeats’ The Second Coming for his two minutes. The crowd yawns, although it is clear that, here, “the centre cannot hold.” Things have fallen apart.
5.35 pm: Swapan Dasgupta, parliamentary candidate for the Rajya Sabha, and Luke Harding tussle over the microphone. Socialite Suhel Seth, inexplicably, is present on stage, and can only splutter out erratic “Jai Hinds” (In one instance – even a “God Bless America”).
5.40 pm: Dasgupta answers a phone call. On stage.
5.50 pm: Political scientist, and one of the only reasonable voices at the festival this year, Ashutosh Varshney screams (his hands trembling – pointing at Dasgupta): “You justify Dadri lynchings in your writings.” Single greatest moment of the event this year.
6 pm: In awe of Dutt. The stage is a circus, there is shouting, there is talking out of turn – above all, there is seething misogyny. Decide to leave early; one has had more than enough and simply must get ready for the writer’s ball. Without any really critical discourse, let alone a panel discussion with more than one woman, more champagne seems like the best option.
Londoners can experience the festival for themselves at ZEE JLF@ZBritish Library, which has been scheduled for May 2017; American readers can attend ZEE JLF@Boulder in Colorado, which is scheduled for September 2017.