Book Box | FOMO and feasting at the Jaipur Lit Fest
Choices, conversations and chai in the cultural immersion of the Jaipur Lit Fest. Plus a list of festival-inspired 10 must-reads.
I can’t believe I am in Jaipur. I almost didn’t get here.
My mother is ill and I have been spending my weekends flying to Delhi, as part of the take-care-of-Mum roster. Then my daughter offered to go to Delhi in my stead. So here I am on a Thursday evening– at Hotel Clarks Amer in Jaipur.
The sessions of the day are over, but people linger on, carrying JLF cloth bags, taking pictures under a canopy of colourful streamers, chattering and drinking chai in clay kulhads. I meet a friend who tells me about the electrifying sessions of the day – Booker Prize-winning Paul Lynch with Prophet Song, Bonnie Garmus with Lessons in Chemistry and a session on Intertidal, a coast and marsh diary, and I instantly feel bad for having missed them.
That’s the thing with Jaipur. Every day, every hour, has 5 sessions going on simultaneously – so it’s choices, choices and then some FOMO.
Should I go to the 'Book to Screen Adaptation' session with Ben Macintyre, Kai Bird and Bonnie Garmus? Or should I go to 'The Spaces Between Fact and Fiction' with Vivek Shanbhag and Raj Kamal Jha?
At breakfast the next day, my husband and I sit with our book programs and circle the sessions we most want to attend. Later we meet a few friends. A banker, a consultant, a marketer, a realtor, they’ve come in from Mumbai, Delhi, Palo Alto and New Jersey. Sitting in the front lawns, waiting for Pulitzer prizewinning Hernan Diaz, we compare our sessions of choice. ‘Ah you’ve circled ‘Travel Writing’, I wanted to go to that one too! But I can’t miss this 'Twelve Caesars by Mary Beard and Peter Frankopan’ and such like.
After the sessions end, there are music evenings, with fabulous bands. I wish I could go, but the day, the week, the month of non-stop travelling catches up with me. Instead, I call Mum to find out how she is doing. “Which authors have come?”, she asks. “And what did you do for lunch?”
Hernan Diaz, Paul Lynch, Vivek Shanbhag and Perumal Murugan, I tell her. And I was attending sessions, so I skipped lunch, drank chai and ate kachoris instead.
On Saturday night we go to Steam, the restaurant at Ram Bagh Palace. Tables are set inside an old railway carriage, and red-hot sconces keep the night chill away. We order chicken satay skewers and fries and talk about our favourite sessions.
The Palestine Laboratory, it was incredible hearing Jews themselves talk about the wrongs they have done in Palestine, says one.
In the Tarun Tahiliani session on fashion, he spoke so well. In Indian fashion the sari wraps around any size of frame, unlike western fashion, fit and cuts are all important, that was one of his interesting observations, says another.
I pick the power of myth. I loved listening to Anand Neelakantan on his interpretations of how myths change – with quotations from different versions of the Ramayana, as each storyteller aligns his version with the values of the age. Neelakantan connected himself, as scriptwriter at the mercy of his team of television channel producers, with the poet Kalidasa who depended on the King's patronage.
My husband chooses Gulzar. For the poetry of his prose and the purity of his poignant telling. For Gulzar’s story of a refugee who opened a lending library and thus changed the poet's life, handing him The Gardener by Rabindranath Tagore in Urdu, introducing him to a world of Bengali literature in translation.
The next day, at the Baithak session on the British Empire on the brink, I ran into my youngest daughter's classmates, three students from Ashoka University. ‘I loved the session on where fiction comes from, with Katie Kitamura and Hernan Diaz. It’s all so lively, packed, something happening all the time’ says Shreya, who is majoring in Literature.
‘We miss seeing festival co-director Namita Gokhale around. She’s had some sessions but she is not very well,’ someone says. Over chai, we deconstruct the sessions and moon over a moderator. Author Jeff Goodell is describing his aha moment – not getting an Uber and having to walk 20 blocks in the heat of a Texas afternoon – heat can kill, he realises and goes on to write a book about this, when moderator Gargi Rawat gently interjects. We in India always knew heat can kill, she says, smiling, yet making a point. We all nod. Her moderation changes the frame of reference.
When Peter Frankopan says small measures can help people – why not introduce air-conditioning for all schools in the summer in India, so students can do better in their exams, my friends and I exchange looks. If only. Ubers and air-conditioning are still luxuries in our country. “It’s so let them eat cake, this western centric view” my friend vents later, and we all agree. We decide against going for the session on Narayan and Sudha Murthy’s love storybook, lest we choke on the cheesiness of what sounds like a hagiography.
On the flight back to Mumbai, I take out my journal and write down a list of books I want to read, that have been inspired by listening to authors, and by recommendations from other readers at JLF.
1. Intertidal: A Coast and Marsh Diary by Yuvan Aves
2. Sun Birds in the Morning, Grey Hornbills at Dusk by Bulbul Sharma
3. Footprints on Zero Line: Writings on Partition by Gulzar
4. Women and Power by Mary Beard
5. Red River by Somnath Batabyal
6. The Amur River by Colin Thubron
7. Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov
8. The Patient in Bed Number 12 by Raj Kamal Jha
9. Around The World in 80 Games by Marcus du Sautoy
10. Raja Ravi Varma: The Shaping of an Artist by Ganesh V. Shivaswamy
I am seated next to two retired doctors from Chicago. They have come to India for the JLF, they tell me. They will now do a South India temple tour and then return. It seems apt: Spiritual nourishment for both the brain and the soul in one go.
More stories soon, on the exciting JLF authors I had conversations with - Ben Macintyre, Patrick Radden Keefe, Mary Beard, Vivek Shanbhag, Ivy Ngeow, Hernan Diaz and Katie Kitamura.
And until next week, happy reading.
Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org