JLF 2024: United by stories - Hindustan Times
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JLF 2024: United by stories

Feb 24, 2024 05:34 AM IST

This year’s edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival was attended by a range of celebrated authors from Paul Lynch and Georgi Gospodinov to Perumal Murugan, Shyam Selvadurai and Kai Bird. This ability to gather some of the finest minds from around the world under one roof remains the festival’s unique selling proposition

You may love it or hate it, but you just cannot ignore it. This is perhaps the best way to describe what the annual Jaipur Literature Festival has come to mean for authors, book lovers, publishing industry professionals, and journalists, who write about the world of books. It is big, vibrant, heady, stimulating, tiresome and heartwarming – all at once. At the 17th edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival held at Hotel Clarks Amer from February 1 to 5, everyone seemed excited to attend “the greatest literary show on earth”.

The session on community libraries featuring Rituparna Neog (centre left) and Mridula Koshy (centre right). (JLF 2024)
The session on community libraries featuring Rituparna Neog (centre left) and Mridula Koshy (centre right). (JLF 2024)

In keeping with this year’s theme, Stories Unite Us, the festival featured Indian literature in languages like English, Hindi, Urdu, Sanskrit, Rajasthani, Odia, Malayalam, Bengali, Tamil, Kannada, Assamese, Punjabi and Lambadi. There were speakers from various countries including South Africa, Mexico, Australia, Mauritius, Bhutan, Lithuania, Belgium, Bulgaria, the Maldives, Japan, Ireland, Sri Lanka, Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and more.

Everyone from Paul Lynch, who won the 2023 Booker Prize for his novel Prophet Song, and Georgi Gospodinov, who bagged the 2023 International Booker Prize for Time Shelter, to Perumal Murugan, winner of the 2023 JCB Prize for Literature for Firebird, and Merve Emre, winner of the 2021 Robert B Silvers Prize for Literary Criticism, was part of the festival itinerary.

Author Paul Lynch (JLF 2024)
Author Paul Lynch (JLF 2024)

This ability to gather some of the finest minds from around the world under one roof remains the festival’s unique selling proposition. Unfortunately, Indian audiences continue to be deprived of Pakistani authors who used to be a fixture at earlier editions of the festival. This absence is, however, not a surprise given the downgrading of the diplomatic relationship between the two countries after Ajay Bisaria – the former Indian High Commissioner – was asked to leave Islamabad at short notice in 2019 following the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that gave a special status to Jammu and Kashmir. Bisaria was at the festival this year to speak about his recently published tome Anger Management: The Troubled Diplomatic Relationship between India and Pakistan.

The festival did not shy away from addressing thorny political issues. Devika Rege, whose novel Quarterlife, unfolds against the backdrop of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s electoral fortunes in 2014, spoke about the research that went into understanding the milieu that she was writing about and presenting Maharashtra as a case study for trends that were more widespread. At the same time, she held forth on the limits of classifying a work of fiction as a political novel. She believes “the task of the novel is to observe and not to be polemical.”

Journalist Antony Loewenstein, author of The Palestine Laboratory: How Israel Exports the Technology of Occupation Around the World, had a full house cheering him on as he spoke about how Israel is building a coalition of ethno-nationalist states and tyrannical regimes. The moderator, journalist Suhasini Haidar, stated that the conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir could not be compared to what is happening in Gaza.

Author Perumal Murugan (JLF 2024)
Author Perumal Murugan (JLF 2024)

As part of JLF’s outreach programme in partnership with Pratham Books, speakers like Marcus du Satoy, Karen Anand, Anjan Sundaram and Kamini Dandapani, among others, also went to schools, colleges, and NGOs to give young people an understanding of what it is like to work in diverse fields such as mathematics, journalism, history, disability rights, and mental health.

The concern with disability rights and mental health extended beyond programming to other parts of the festival, building on the expertise of grassroots organization Nupur Sansthan that has been working with persons with disabilities in Rajasthan. There were sign language interpreters at many of the events, wheelchairs were available, and the media contingent was hosted at a hotel that hires people with disabilities – all steps that will ensure that accessibility is not just a buzzword to earn brownie points.

Speaking of accessibility, one of the most powerful sessions at the festival was a panel on community libraries with Delhi-based free library movement activist Mridula Koshy and Rituparna Neog, a queer rights activist and library educator from Assam. They spoke passionately about the need for open spaces where children and adults from all socio-economic backgrounds can access books, information and knowledge so that reading does not remain an elitist pursuit.

The festival had sessions on climate change, fragile ecosystems, conservation, food security, environmental issues and migration with speakers like Mridula Ramesh, Peter Frankopan, Louise-Fowler Smith, Robert Macfarlane, Colin Thubron, Yuvan Aves, Arefa Tehsin, Gargi Rawat, Ilse Köhler-Rollefson, Sam Miller, Aarathi Prasad, and Siddharth Shrikanth.

One memorable session had Hemali Sodhi, Bhuchung D Sonam, Gunbir Singh and Sanjay Jha talking about their love of dogs. It was much needed after all the other heavy conversations on geopolitics and existential angst and allowed people to sit back, listen to mushy anecdotes, and have a good laugh.

The music stage saw some great performances (JLF 2024)
The music stage saw some great performances (JLF 2024)

Elsewhere, Vanessa Sasson and Shyam Selvadurai spoke about their novels Yasodhara and Mansions of the Moon respectively. Both novels attempt to step into the shoes of Siddhartha’s wife, Yasodhara. In conversation with poet Arundhathi Subramaniam, Sasson noted that while reading the Jataka Tales, she learnt that “Yashodhara was the Buddha’s wife in every lifetime where he had a wife and not just the one in which he became the enlightened one”. This made her realize that “theirs was a bigger tragic love story than Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet or anything that the West had ever produced.” She said, “Imagine the scale of a tragedy that plays out across lifetimes where the protagonists keep returning to each other until the final lifetime where he lets go.”

Author-screenwriter Satyarth Nayak asked mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik why he wrote Bahubali: 63 Insights into Jainism. “Jains are less than 1 per cent of India’s population but they contribute to about 10 per cent of India’s GDP. I used to feel very awkward that India is overwhelmed by Hindu mythology when we have so many mythologies,” Pattanaik said, adding that Jainism has helped him lead a better life. “The best thing that I learnt from Jainism was to be calm and composed.”

Another highlight was the session on 40 years of feminist publishing in India, featuring Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon, who started Kali for Women. The panel made it clear that idealism alone is not enough to sustain an independent publishing initiative. Where money is scarce, social capital comes in. Menon said, “We had publishing experience. We knew the nuts and bolts of the process. We knew people in the industry. We had to persuade and cajole authors into writing. Unlike today, there was no question of advances.” Butalia added that they would “never have made it without the support of the women’s movement”.

The line up at the Jaipur Music Stage included the Tapi Project and Alif, Salman Elahi, Harpreet and When Chai Met Toast. Sadly, the rains played spoilsport on the evening Grammy Award winner Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt was scheduled to perform at the spectacular Amer Fort, and the venue had to be shifted to Clarks Amer. Adding to the musical feast were morning music sessions with Kalapini Komkali, Phil Scarff, Priyank Krishna, Anoop Banerjee, Saptak Chatterjee, Kamala Shankar, and The Trio One World, and afternoon sessions with Vidya Shah. The festival concluded on a high note with The Bluegrass Journeymen collective and Rajasthan Trio performing at the Writers’ Ball at The Leela Palace, wisely held indoors away from any unexpected downpour. As authors said their goodbyes to each other, and hurried back to their hotels for last-minute packing, they seemed struck by the realisation that the party was over and they had to get back to their writing.

Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.

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