So there we were in Jaipur last week. Crisp, clear January days with the desert sun burning us as we had lunch on the lawn, the temperature plunging as the sun set and the concerts began and the laughter gradually got more boisterous and convivial and evening melted into night.
There we were, my wife, our eight-year-old daughter and I, feasting on the buffet of delights that is the Jaipur Literature Festival. As a writer who had been invited, I did my gig, at which our girl sat quite still and quiet, absorbed.
She had more of a good time than my wife and I had any right to expect. Once she had finished the books she had taken with her, she bought — and finished — a book a day from the festival bookstore. She drew indefatigably. And she skipped around with the autograph book that she had carried with her, asking “famous writers” – which is to say those whose books she sees on shelves at home – to sign in it. (The autograph book had a picture of Hanna Montana on the cover. My wife: “You can’t ask a Nobel Laureate to sign in this thing, can you?” Oishi: “Why not? He will sign inside it, not on top of it.” Hmm…)
She was among the very few children around. You could argue that it may not be stupendous fun for a child to be without kids her own age, for her to hang around with people who are talking about books she hasn’t read and discussing meta-something-or-the-other.
But you could just as well argue that it is quite wonderful for a child to be exclusively in the company of thoughtful, intelligent adults.
The adults (particularly if they happen to be friends of the child’s parents) tend to fuss over her, pay her more attention than they would another child, and extravagantly praise her fine sense of art, of literary taste, speed of reading and table manners.
Now where else but in the company of kind, indulgent adults can a child get that sort of a generous ego-boost? I mean, even allowing for my scepticism, I’d be convinced about my excellence and uniqueness had I been given that sort of an ego-boost over a period of four days. And it is good for a child, I think, to be told by people whose autographs she is seeking that she is a charming, polite, gifted little girl.
To be paid these compliments (and to be travelling with us this past month), Oishi has been skipping quite a bit of school. Which may not have been the most prudent thing for us to allow. But you tell me: Given a choice between learning prepositions and listening to (and being moved by, and subliminally absorbing) Andrew O’Hagan on the place of imagination and literature in our lives, what would you go for? For me, it’s a no-contest.
Soumya Bhattacharya’s novel, If I Could Tell You (Tranquebar), was published last month.