Raja Shehadeh, Palestinian writer and activist, is no stranger to literary fests. But the roving fest that he's part of back at home - the Palfest - that actually takes writers and their works to people's backyards is a world away from the relaxed candour here in Jaipur. The Palfest has been much written about, and yet, says Shehadeh, every time, it changes writers who participate in it.
Shehadeh, a short, slight figure, was on a panel discussion on the Arab Spring. Did the shift of focus over the past year towards popular uprisings against tyrannies in the Arab world shift the focus from the Palestinian cause? "Well, we do not like being the focus of attention," he tells me. Earlier in the session, he made his displeasure known to strengthening India-Israel ties, especially the arms deals. He reiterates the point, stressing that India, and the rest of the world, cannot afford to not pay attention.
Shehadeh, who lives in Ramalah, had written evocatively about the geography of Palestine in Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape, published in 2007. The landscape described there was mostly the West Bank. But it was the discovery of a diary belonging to a great-great uncle that changed the way he viewed his geography. "He was on the run for three years, escaping the Ottoman empire," he says. It opened up the vision of a world without borders, which found expression in his 2009 book, A Rift in Time: Travels with my Ottoman Uncle.
"I had internalised the borders so much that I could not see the openness," he says, adding that it is the work of the artist to help people imagine a different reality and escape present confinements.
The basic tenets of the Arab Spring - people protesting tyrannical rule - may not apply to the Palestinians. But in as much as the first rumblings of protest started a few months after Shehadeh's A Rift in Time was published, he would like to believe that he actually helped people imagine different realities.