Jaipur Literature Festival 2018: The great literary jamboree
As with every year, the Jaipur Literature Festival 2018 thrived in the shadow of an impending controversy that thankfully didn’t break.Updated: Jan 30, 2018 11:15 IST
Things are truly fun at the Jaipur Literature Festival only if there are a bunch of aggrieved madmen mumbling incoherently in the background. Since India has many robust representatives of the Homo Dementicus species wandering the streets, specimens owing allegiance to one group or the other threaten to break into Diggi Palace every year. If it isn’t to jump up and down about Salman Rushdie, it is to protest Ashis Nandy’s comments about caste and corruption, or, as it was this year, to righteously wiggle their luxuriant mustaches about Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat. This would be funny if it weren’t also scary considering how many people descend on the venue (24% more this year than 2017’s figure of 4,50,000) to earnestly listen to famous authors, hoping some of that intellectual stardust will rub off on them.
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Still, what would JLF be without this certain frisson caused by the metaphorical barbarians at the gate? The spectre of the hordes who hurled stones at schoolkids in Gurgaon last week hung over the opening days of the festival. It was all anybody could talk about except, rather strangely, a panel on violence featuring Upinder Singh, Maya Jasanoff and Tridip Suhrud. They droned on about the nature of violence, the different kinds of violence, on whether the violence of the state was legitimate but did not address the enraged Rajput elephant in the room until an incredulous audience member brought it up.
Others, like film maker Vishal Bharadwaj, rode that elephant rather expertly. On the second day, during a conversation about Shakespeare and the ability to speak truth to power, Bhardwaj pronounced “Chutzpah,” with the connotation that his Haider brought to the word. “What’s been happening for four years now is ‘chutzpah’. If the Supreme Court says release a film, and it is still not released, that’s ‘Chutzpah’, isn’t it?” Bharadwaj believes this is the best time to be an artist. “When they strangle us, we will scream,” he declares, “This is the time for screaming.”
That fantastically filmy line couldn’t, alas, entice censor board chief Prasoon Joshi to make an appearance. Indeed, these past few years, the man has been such a fixture at the festival that he could have helped the harried hacks on the press terrace *insert upside down smiley to indicate irony lest Monsieur Joshi take offence*. But no go this year. Even after the film’s release revealed the Karni Sena should actually be blowing grateful kisses at Bhansali.
Predictably, the sessions featuring Bollywood celebrities were packed: Anurag Kashyap almost caused a stampede, Nawazuddin’s slot on playing Manto looked like Dadar Railway station at peak hour; even Soha Ali Khan’s session on The Perils of Celebrity (Ah, hand me my smelling salts, deah!) was crowded. And when the Bollywood circus moved on, Shashi Tharoor arrived to thrill the crowds as he thundered about the difference between Hinduism and Hindutva. Thankfully, this time there wasn’t a farrago in sight.
But it would be unfair to suggest that the crowds rumbled in only for Bollywood and the fetching Mr Tharoor. Sessions featuring Amy Tan, Micheal Ondatjee, Muhammad Yunus and Helen Fielding, among others, were all well attended. British celebrity gardener Sarah Raven’s talk had a lot of Indian gardening enthusiasts hanging on to her every word while Phejin Konyak and and Peter Bos -- whose book on the tattooing traditions of the Konyak tribe, is just brilliant -- fielded many admiring questions from former army men, who had served in Nagaland.
JLF is always thrilling for the Trivial Pursuit fan. This year, you learnt that the old Beeb was duped into thinking the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology was an exemplary educational institution. Author Suki Kim who went incognito in 2011 to teach there said it was brimming with “computer majors who did not know about the Internet” or that man had been to the moon.
You learnt the Beatles thought Maharshi Mahesh Yogi, whose Rishikesh ashram they left in a huff, had cursed them because their car kept breaking down on the way back to Delhi and their flight out of India.
And that Hitler was probably on meth and coke during the Battle of the Bulge.
There was much to thrill aspiring authors too. Diksha Basu, author of The Windfall suggested that, contrary to what everyone’s been told, writers should write what they want to write about and not necessarily about what they know. Lucy Hughes-Hallett author of Peculiar Ground pronounced it was best to write only when you had something to say -- advice plenty of Indian English authors would do well to follow. And then there was Tom Stoppard: “It doesn’t actually happen unless you have a pen in your hand.”
Every year, the JLF closing debate is a deafening affair. #MeToo: Do Men Still Have It Too Easy was a bit disappointing since few intelligent men were brave enough to openly display their prejudices. Manu Joseph conceded that even well-meaning men couldn’t be feminists and Bee Rowlatt thundered that “Men should listen,” to much cheering. Does this mean the end of the gender wars? Well, elated and fully spent, everyone went home happily to their unequal domestic relationships.
All of which reminds you of Harvard theoretical physicist Lisa Randall’s talk about dark matter causing a comet to crash into the earth 66 million years ago, decimating the dinosaurs, and eventually leading to the appearance of humankind. Sadly, for the misanthropes among us, the next collision is likely to take another 30 million years. All of which means that even if this year was controversy-free, JLF devotees will probably have to endure the shenanigans of Homo Dementicus at the festival for a few more years. Really, the success of the event, its special edge, depends on it.
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