JLF 2018 sidelights:Of Virginia Woolf and a curious game of musical chairs
The Jaipur Literature Festival, which opened at Jaipur’s Diggi Palace on January 25, is an annual pilgrimage no book lover wants to miss. There will be over 200 sessions on themes ranging from fiction and non-fiction to journalism and travel writing over the course of five days.Updated: Jan 29, 2018 12:25 IST
While the session entitled Vita and Virginia: The True Love Story Behind Orlando, which was all about Virginia Woolf’s passionate love affair with Vita Sackville West, was quite superb, a few in the audience couldn’t help being distracted by a curious game of musical chairs being played in the tenth row. Certain presumably high ranking gentlemen had arrived with lackeys who ‘caught their place’ while they themselves darted in and out. As soon as a higher-up left, having tired of ancient gossip about Virginia and Vita, an underling took his place, only to respectfully vacate a little later. It’s the sort of incident that deserved a sarcastic pamphlet from the Bloomsbury Set.
Too Much food for thought
A fracas ensued at a session on food fe aturing Kota Neelima, Lathika George and Sarah Raven in conversation with Vir Sanghvi. Incensed by what they described in a series of tweets as unforgivable “sexism and mansplaining”, the Zubaan Books team walked out of the venue. They were particularly upset at an exchange during the question-and-answer slot. Differing accounts of the exchange lit up discussions at the festival and on social media.
Tips from the pros
A session on the craft of writing that had Helen Fielding, Amy Tan, Chika Unigwe, Joshua Ferris and Micheal Ondaatje sharing their techniques provided writers in the audience with some helpful tips. While Chika Unigwe, author of On Black Sisters’ Street, who believes research is essential, thinks a daily goal-setting and rewarding technique works, Helen Fielding revealed that when assailed by self doubt, she reminded herself that she had already published novels before and could do it again. Phew, glad to know that even the wildly successful have their moments of uncertainty.
The birds and the bees
Since Prasoon Joshi was a no-show, his session was replaced with a weirdly interesting one entitled The Sea Bird’s Cry! Among the nuggets of birdy info it proffered was a gem about the relative size of bird brains and their sex lives. Albatrosses can live up to 85, and the longest marriage recorded lasted 50 years. Those with long partnerships have huge brains. Serial monogamists hover near the average, and the stupidest birds with multiple polygamous partnerships literally have pea-sized brains. Ah, the discovery of moralistic birds!
Jeeves in Jaipur
The session on The Wodehouse Effect that had Shashi Tharoor and Swapan Dasgupta bickering over PG Wodehouse’s politics featured many other amusing moments. Funniest was Philip Norman’s ability to effortlessly quote Wodehouse including this classic exchange between Bertie Wooster and Jeeves:
“‘Good evening, Jeeves’‘Good morning, sir’
This surprised me.
‘Is it morning?’‘Yes, sir.’
‘Are you sure? It seems very dark outside.’
‘There is a fog, sir. If you will recollect, we are now in autumn – season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.’
‘Season of what?’‘Mists, sir, and mellow fruitfulness.’
Of course, Norman got a round of well-deserved applause.
The session On First Novels that featured four first time writers provided many of tips for aspiring authors. Diksha Basu, author of The Windfall that’s received rave US reviews, believes writing demands persistence. Clearly, she has a lot of it considering she had a baby four weeks ahead of the book’s release. Writers have to make time, she said. “The excuses not to write always existed even before marriage and a baby. It is all up to me,” she said. Wise words those.
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All about Stasiland
At a session on Nazi Germany, Anna Funder, author of All That I am and Stasiland, stressed that her books, which focus on stories of resistance to the regimes in erstwhile Nazi Germany and in USSR-controlled East Germany, were not an attempt to “make up for the silence of the majority”. While much has been written about Nazism, stories about the Stasi regime are still emerging. Some of this information is chilling. The Australian author spoke about the “insidious” surveillance methods of the Stasi authorities, who stole underwear from homes to use them to train service dogs to recognise a particular individual’s scent. Brr!
Tempering down reality to write fiction
During a session on love, sexuality and writing fiction,
authors Manu Joseph and Amitava Kumar discussed how the lines between fiction and non-fiction were being blurred. “One of the things that has interested me in Manu’s latest book, Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous, the fiction here does more than what news can do. There’s news, there’s fiction, and there’s interest in developing further,” he said. Joseph replied: “In fiction, two things are factual – the analysis of gender and description of places. In fact, life is filled with moments that feel fabricated but in fact, sometimes you have to temper down reality in order to write fiction,” he said, as the audience applauded.
If there was any doubt about Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s star power it was completely dispelled at his session on Manto. What’s the connection between Manto and Nawaz? Well, he is the protagonist in Nandita Das’ biopic on the Urdu writer who wrote with so much feeling on the Partition. The front lawns, the largest venue at JLF, was so packed with the actor’s enthusiastic fans that movement to any other venue could only be attempted at snail’s pace. Unsurprisingly, the session had many stellar moments. When moderator Vinod Dua asked how he had prepared for the role, Nawazuddin replied that he had found it difficult to get into character as Manto only spoke the truth while he lied frequently. “I am not like Manto and that was a challenge,” he said to much applause and cheering.
Filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj has turned poet with a collection of nazms and ghazals that were translated to English by Sukrita Paul Kumar. At a session, Bhardwaj recited ghazals and nazms in Hindi and Urdu, while Sukrita recited their English translations. Incidentally, his poems include English words like ‘text’ and ‘girlfriend’ that surprisingly didn’t sound absurd. “With poetry, it is the intention that counts, not the language,” he said in response to a question on whether poetry is lost in translation. Writing poetry isn’t easy. “I had to struggle a lot to sound different. My nazms were sounding like a pirated copy of Gulzar sahab’s work,” he said.
The Rosogolla wars
The session entitled Rosogolla Wars did not include any people from Orissa on the panel and so there were no real battles on stage. Ajoy Bose, Arunava Sinha, Sanjoy K Roy, Sudeep Chakravarti and Swapan Dasgupta held forth on Bengaliness. Everyone agreed that Bengalis are parochial and often look down on other linguistic communities. Apparently, these tendencies are strong even within the so-called probashi community. Sanjoy K Roy, JLF organiser, recalled that when he was marrying a “non-Bengali” his family had thrown that old line about culture marrying agriculture at him. Despite all the discussions, the provenance of the rosogulla remains shrouded in mystery! However, the panelists did eat a few of them on stage while the audience salivated.
What you see is not what you get
The BBC has a reputation for rigorous journalism. However, when it was invited to film a school into North Korea after the death of kim Jong Il, the BBC was, apparently, taken in by the propaganda. The school was for the children of the elite, and the 70 students in it were the only ones studying in the entire country. According to writer Suki Kim, the rest of the kids had been taken out of school and put to work on construction sites. But the BBC visited the only functioning school, filmed the premises for days and went back thinking this was the norm in the city
Star struck at JLF
One of the strange pleasures of being at a grand literary jamboree like the Jaipur Literature Festival, is having celebrities, stars and ah, Nobel laureates stroll past. Muhammad Yunus, whose The Three Zeroes is just out, was spotted on the first day at the press terrace, that insufferable space where the world’s media persons seem to meet once a year. Tabla maestro Zakir Hussain happened to be onstage right then holding forth on syncretism, music and culture during a press conference. The look on Yunus face was pure joy. Clearly, even Nobel Laureates are enamoured by celebrity performers.
Who’s Afraid of Margaret Alva?
At the session entitled Women and Power, where the discussion ranged from Margaret Atwood’s Bad Feminist Op-Ed to the negative portrayal of women on Hindi soap operas, Congress leader Margaret Alva shared how once the late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi told her that men in the party were afraid of her and perceived her as anti-male. Alva said she told Mrs Gandhi that, in politics, it was a very good reputation to have.
The Elephant in the room
A conversation with academics Upinder Singh and Maya Jasanoff, Gandhian Tridip Suhrud, and historian Patrick French brought up some important questions on the state of violence and the violence of the State. Strangely, though, no one brought up the Padmaavat controversy that’s top of mind right now. The audience didn’t let the panel off the hook. An incredulous member pointed out the incongruity of having a discussion “On Violence” without mentioning the violence currently unfolding. Nobody seemed to have any clear cut answers but Maya Jasanoff chose to take a larger view and pointed out that states tend to push violence to separate groups.
Hermione Granger’s North Korean fans
Her North Korean students may not know of Neil Armstrong or the Internet, but author Suki Kim, author of ‘Without You There is No Us; Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea’s Elite’ did manage to screen Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban to her class while teaching English. She says she had been making them write weekly letters and essays as exercises ostensibly to improve their language but in truth to know the details of their personal lives and how they formed thoughts. Since all critical thinking has been obliterated from the country’s education system, essay writing was the hardest for her students and much disliked. While watching Harry Potter, Kim had hoped they would be blown away by the special effects. But the loudest gasps and sympathetic cheers broke out when, in the movie, Hermione complains she has to finish an essay for professor Snape’s class!
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