Mapping literary landscapes at the Jaipur Lit Fest

The great thing about JLF is that there is no succumbing to political pressure, take what stand you may. Invitees are well read and of enviable standards. Which doesn’t mean that those with staunchly dogmatic views are not represented

Mapping literary landscapes at the Jaipur Lit Fest

Cultural leviathan: JLF attempts to give us a glimpse of what’s happening world over.

Keki Daruwalla

A sensible man would give anything to skip Delhi. Amid all the noise, the only decent thing happening in the Capital was Shaheen Bagh — till, of course, the firing took place. For the best part of a month, it did not remain a noun anymore, it became a metaphor for peaceful struggle against legislative bullying. Places, meaning streets, plazas, squares are entitled to glory and also ignominy, as it has been attached to Chauri Chaura in 1922 when policemen were burnt by a mob and Gandhi withdrew the agitation. But forget Delhi, I scooted off to Jaipur the moment I was invited to talk about my novel.

The great thing about Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) is that there is no succumbing to political pressure, take what stand you may. No shouting matches. The invitees asked to read or speak are well read and of enviable standards. Which doesn’t mean that those with staunchly dogmatic or non-liberal views are not represented. People on the edges of the intellectual spectrum are also given a free rein.

The triumvirate of Sanjoy K Roy, Namita Gokhale and William Dalrymple have conducted this famous fair for 13 years and have done a great job. The crowds, especially in the afternoons, are enormous. Some of the people just come to get a feel of the place, absorb the vibes. Schoolgirls from Bhopal had come and they knew about Indian poets in English! Hope they turn into avid readers.

For us starstruck Indians, they usually have stars — Ben Okri or VS Naipaul, Margaret Atwood, the Pulitzer Prize winner, the poet Seshadri. Of course, the Chief Minister of Rajasthan inaugurates. The trouble is that the seats are occupied an hour earlier, and are never vacated. There is a mix of serious stuff — climate, sociology, etc, and the eye-catching sessions like ‘Akbar and Dara’ with Dalrymple and Supriya Gandhi, and ‘Manto and I’ by Nandita Das, though the film did not do wonders at the box office. The Akbar-Dara talk was especially welcome because sometime back venom was poured on the great Mughal, and Dalrymple mentioned the compassion of Akbar. A minister in the previous government even wanted a victory for Rana Pratap at Haldighati! Wish-fulfilment and history need to be kept in separate boxes.

We had a strident and a tearful session on the death of a fearless war correspondent Marie Colvin, killed by an artillery shell in Syria in 2012. She had lost an eye covering the Sri Lankan Civil War, covered conflicts in Kosovo, Chechnya and East Timor. Christina Lamb, another daring correspondent, was interacting at this session. Lamb has just written a book Nujeen on a disabled girl who lived through the horrors of the Syrian war and travelled to Germany, passing through 15 countries. The horrors President Assad has perpetrated are graphically presented. Then Daesh came in, the Islamic State clad in black and more homicidal.

Politics cannot be avoided in India. Pavan Varma waxed eloquent, so did Navin Chawla. You just can’t do without Shashi Tharoor, can you? He is a staple at every noteworthy literary festival. From the right wing, it was nice to see Swapan Dasgupta and Makarand Paranjape, the poet from JNU, now heading the IIAS.

An informed discussion on Yashica Dutt’s book Coming Out as Dalit took place. She is a New York-based journalist. Raghav Chandra’s novel Kali’s Daughter was discussed in tandem. But in the rural interior, the change is pretty slow and breaching the Hindu high caste fortress is still a far cry as the Koregaon imbroglio shows year after year. A fine book on Saladin (Salahdin), who fought against Richard I of England, was showcased; well researched but too voluminous for my taste. But anything which brings the Crusades alive excites me no end. The Middle East hides the fact that Salahdin was a Kurd. Now, of course, Turkey, Iran, Iraq are united in animosity against the Kurds. No wonder some of them are drifting back to Zoroastrianism.

David Godwin, the Open Sesame Literary Agent, delivered a talk. According to reports, Jeet Thayil and Tishani Doshi and some other writers have access to the best literary agents. Good for them. Simon Schama, an awarded university Professor of Art History, expressed considerable anxiety at the rise of nationalism and populism the world over. South Asian countries must take heed. From Panchsheel and coexistence, we seem to be moving towards militant nationalism.

Rakhshanda Jalil, writer and literary historian, especially of Urdu literature, had an excellent session with Omar Ghobash, an ambassador who has just published his book Letters to a Young Muslim. Jalil was the caustic interlocutor and made a great job of it. One can’t forget Neelum Saran Gour who talked about her prize-winning novel in her usual modest way. Lastly, JLF, a cultural leviathan, maps literary landscapes, and attempts to give us a glimpse of what’s happening in the arts around the world. Kudos to the organisers.


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