Shatrughan Sinha’s session provided great laughs on the last day of JLF. The tone was set by Suhel Seth who asked the famously talkative film star if he had ever unfaithful to his wife. “I am one woman man… at a time,” Sinha responded. “I have been caught red-handed once… I have never been caught since,” he said amid laughter from the audience. Seth then asked if the casting couch still existed in Bollywood. “Ab tak toh mere saath toh koi chhed chaad nahi kiya hai (No one has as yet misbehaved with me),” Sinha deadpanned. If you wondered why he was called Shotgun Sinha, now you know!
Huge crowds, excited school kids rubbing shoulders with Booker winning authors and media stars is what makes JLF the grand jamboree it is. Then there are the funky stalls selling everything from camel lover and author of Camel Karma, Ilse Kohler-Rollefson’s delicious camel milk cheesecake to blue pottery jewellery and indigo printed stoles. A spot of welcome retail therapy is just the sort of thing you wanted after all that heavy duty intellectual session hopping. And just in case you were bent on self improvement, you could participate in a pottery workshop organised by ceramic studio Clay Botik, or the daily six-word short story competition. Ah, JLF 2016 was maddeningly high energy but also great fun!
Not all ha-ha hee-hee
Amid the laughter and the lighter sessions, there was much seriousness too on the last day of the festival. Speaking on the Islamic State in West Asia at The Shia Revival session, scholar Vali Nasr said crushing ISIS in the Middle East would be difficult. Nasr believes the West is no longer interested in oil. “Their primary concerns are terrorism and refugees entering Western countries,” he said, adding that ISIS’ ideology is “anti-Shia and anti-Iran”, and that the group always maintains a “strategic line” that is similar to Iran’s rivals.
Rather mysteriously, historian Niall Ferguson didn’t turn up at the Jaipur Literature Festival. Perhaps he thought he’d be called to answer for his wife, Ayan Hirsi Ali’s views! The organisers then did some quick thinking and put up a session featuring William Dalrymple and British philologist Irving Finkel that touched on, among other things, the origins of language. The audience at JLF can always be relied on to liven up the most stuffy proceedings and one individual pronounced Finkel the most most handsome man he had ever laid his eyes upon. He added that the author of the Ark Before Noah; Decoding the Story of the Flood that he looked like Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw. “Whatever you say now, you cant improve on that,” Finkel laughed.
Chivalry is dread!
During the extremely well attended final debate Is Freedom of Speech Absolute and Unconditional, when Madhu Trehan took the mike after all the booming men who went before, her voice was barely audible. Suhel Seth came running up intending to adjust the mike so she could be better heard. But given the charged atmosphere, Trehan assumed Seth intended to snatch the mic and so attempted to elbow him out. In a supremely comic moment, Seth pulled the mic closer, muttering, “These days, women don’t like chivalry!”
Bring to book
Perhaps lyricist Javed Akhtar is overdoing his appearances at cultural festivals. The boredom is now beginning to show. “In the last two days, I have released three books in total. I think releasing unread books has become my new career,” he said releasing yet another book! Still, the poet was a crowd pleaser. At a session entitled A Poetic Geneology he commented wrily that discussing Urdu poetry in English was like eating biryani with a fork and a knife.
The photographer and his phone
At Margaret Atwood’s interaction with a select group of journalists, some of whom squatted on the floor of the author’s lounge at Diggi Palace, listening to her enraptured, photographer Steve McCurry was hard at work. Unknown to the journalists who were hanging on to Atwood’s every word, McCurry, who is best known for his Afghan girl picture, tiptoed around the gathering clicking photos and recording videos on his mobile phone. Perhaps his next series is on that fantastic beast -- the Indian journalist.
While most Indian authors were almost blasé about the crowds at their sessions, the international ones seemed quite overwhelmed. Shakespearean scholar James Shapiro said he was frequently asked if the legendary playwright would have written for Broadway or penned a series for Netflix if he had been around today. Shapiro wasn’t sure about the answers to those questions but was clear that if Shakespeare were around today, he would “definitely be invited for the Jaipur Literature Festival year after year!” American author Armistead Maupin clearly wanted a keepsake of his rockstar moment. Amid cheers and roars of applause, he finished his session by taking a picture of the audience!
Amish Tripathi says he is not as adventurous as many other authors. “Being a banker I am very risk-averse. I resigned only after the earnings from my royalty became more than my salary check.” His stint in the corporate sector seems to have given Amish a yen for marketing himself. When asked by a school student about the title of his next book, the author of The Shiva Trilogy and the Scion of Ikshvaku series said he asked him to come onto the stage and whispered it into his ear, much to the delight of the audience.
Of six packs and gift packs
Witty comebacks are in abundant supply among members of the audience at JLF. During the session entitled Literature versus Cinema, Influences in Shaping Beauty Ideals, poet Javed Akhtar pronounced that beauty should not be confused with physical fitness. “Nobody would fall in love with a man for his six-pack abs,” he said. When the moderator asked the women in the jam-packed Mughal Tent venue whether they agreed, one wise lady stood up and remarked: “We don’t want six packs, we want gift packs!”
Everybody wants a best-seller
The festival book stall is doing brisk business. The top three ‘best-sellers’ are Stephen Fry, Thomas Piketty, and Atul Gawande. In fact, by 5.30 pm on Saturday evening, the shop had no more copies left of Fry’s books. A top draw at JLF, Fry has so far refused to mingle with the pining paparazzi on the Press Terrace. Perhaps he’s as afraid of us as we are of him.
The art of writing a book
The session on the The Craft of the Bestseller had three popular Indian novelists on the panel – Ravi Subramanian, Anuja Chauhan and Ravinder Singh -- and a youthful audience. All three insisted that the author’s job did not end with writing and that it also extended to marketing. Indeed, they seemed to have almost convinced the audience that the act of reading a book was not an imperative for budding authors. The day was saved by a young girl. “I came here to listen to the art of writing a book, but all I’ve heard in this session is marketing tips. That’s not fair,” she said forcefully. Ah, there is hope yet!
Rediscovering India’s literary heritage
Despite the overwhelming crowds, the Jaipur Literature Festival’s great triumph is how it manages to successfully merge the popular with the truly elevating. So while large crowds hung on to every word that dropped from film star Kajol’s luscious mouth, almost as large a bunch listened with rapt attention to Harish Trivedi, Ashok Vajpeyi and Philip Lutgendorf discuss the Ramcharitmanas, the historical irony of Tulsidas probably taking shelter at Babri Masjid at about the time that he was composing his most famous work, and of the need for Indians to rediscover their literary heritage in regional languages. Incidentally, American Lutgendorf, who has just translated Tulsidas’ revered text into English, drew applause both for his erudition and his sparkling Hindi.
Shop till you drop
JLF isn’t only about food for thought. It’s also a venue for great shopping with well-stocked stalls offering bags, jooties, camel milk soaps, designer stoles, pickles and pretty knick-knacks. Sandwiched between these stores -- many run by savvy women entrepreneurs -- is Amnesty International’s stall that’s sadly neglected. At a festival where freedom of speech and thought is centre stage, visitors seem disinterested in shopping at the outlet of an organization synonymous with the defence of personal rights. Then again, perhaps it’s too much to expect folks to indulge in a spot of morality shopping at such an exuberant venue!
Everybody loves Bond
That Ruskin Bond is a beloved author across generations of readers is well known. So it wasn’t surprising to see that his session on the second day of JLF 2016 was attended by hordes of people. They weren’t disappointed. Bond talked about an early love interest and launched into his favourite song, ‘Sar jo tera chakraye’ for the audience, who enthusiastically hooted their appreciation.
Of fathers and sons
Kanishk Tharoor’s session on his new book Swimmer Among the Stars was quite well attended but all eyes were, of course, on his father Shashi Tharoor beaming in the front row. When Tharoor, the younger, was asked about his family’s influence on his writing, he replied that they have been a “source of inspiration rather than resistance” for him. Shashi Tharoor applauded enthusiastically.
More than one member of the audience tried to pitch projects to filmmaker Karan Johar in the Q &A session that followed his session. While one individual said she had been trying to reach his office with a story she had written, another asked if Johar was looking for a director to work with. Eventually, De had to intervene. Ever ready with a quip, Johar said he felt like he was back on the sets of India’s Got Talent.
Of pushy mothers
The Alexander McCall Smith session at the Jaipur Literature Festival was in full flow when the Scottish author joked about how pushy Scottish mothers could be. “Oh, then you have not seen Punjabi mothers,” added the other Scot on the stage, author and festival director William Dalrymple. The audience was in splits. But that did not stop a young woman from looking at her dapper partner and say (moderately) loudly: “But then who can beat Bengali mothers?” The young man could only manage a sheepish grin.
Humming bird chronicles
The speakers were making their closing arguments at The Red Signal, Green Hopes session and the last one was American writer Alexander Shoumatoff. As everyone spoke about the need for more public participation to push green policies, Shoumatoff ended the session with an African fable: A fire sweeps through a big forest and all animals flee. But a little humming bird gets drops of water in its beak and tries to douse the fire. When other animals ask why, she said that it’s best to do whatever one can, than to flee. That one got the strongest round of applause.
Plenty of girls thronged the stall of a leading soap brand where a long haired artist painted a woman’s face on a canvas. Apparently, this is an attempt to understand the “imagery of the Indian woman”. “Women tell us about the styles they like, what they think is beautiful. But since everyone is not an artist, we have one here who listens to the ideas and starts drawing,” she said. If the artist’s skills don’t impress, selfie-obsessed folks can opt for a candid photograph at the adjoining photo-studio. Judging from the crowd, clearly an idea that has clicked!