Report: Jaipur Literature Festival 2023

ByChintan Girish Modi
Feb 06, 2023 10:40 AM IST

The 16th edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival saw everyone from the Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah and Booker prize winners in attendance and featured interesting sessions that included marginalized voices

Going by the 16th edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) held from January 19 to 23 this year, the “greatest literary show on earth” seems to have settled comfortably in its new home – Hotel Clarks Amer. It was beaming with energy, conversation and spectacle as booklovers from across the world gathered to hear literary heavyweights and enthusiastic debutants. Even those who were missing the good old times at Diggi Palace last year seem to have grudgingly accepted that the change of venue is not as bad as they made it out to be.

Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah at JLF 2023 (Jaipur Literature Festival) PREMIUM
Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah at JLF 2023 (Jaipur Literature Festival)

The festival sessions that were open to all took place in six different spaces at the hotel – Front Lawn, Charbagh, Mughal Tent, Durbar Hall, and Baithak. Some were woven around a star author, book release or specific genre whereas others touched upon wide-ranging topics such as climate justice, diplomacy, caste, agriculture, tuberculosis, migration and democracy.

Daisy Rockwell (Jaipur Literature Festival)
Daisy Rockwell (Jaipur Literature Festival)

A separate section called Jaipur BookMark (JBM) was created for writers, translators, editors, publishers, literary agents, booksellers, festival directors, grant-makers and other stakeholders from the literary ecosystem to participate in thematic roundtables and talk business over chaat and beverages. JBM had sessions on publishing for children, developing markets for translation, reading the fine print in contracts for audio and OTT, among others. These sessions had depth and insight; the relationship between the panellists and the audience here was one of equals. There was room for engagement, pushback and counterarguments.

The best part of JLF was a chance to hear several award-winning Indian and international writers. Among these were novelist Geetanjali Shree and translator Daisy Rockwell of the 2022 International Booker fame; Zen Buddhist priest and fiction writer Ruth Ozeki, winner of the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction; adman-turned-novelist Shehan Karunatilaka, who won the 2022 Booker Prize; author and anti-caste activist Meena Kandasamy, winner of the 2022 Hermann Kesten Prize; novelist Khalid Jawed and translator Baran Farooqi who shared the 2022 JCB Prize for Literature; university professor and novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah, who got the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature; author-academic Bernardine Evaristo, winner of the 2019 Booker Prize; and Tanuj Solanki, who got the 2021 Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar.

It was interesting to watch how different authors wore their accomplishments. Some threw their weight around on and off stage, and expected deference; others displayed humility in their interactions and felt responsible to pay it forward and open doors for colleagues. Some readily posed for selfies with fans; others seemed too exhausted to indulge such requests.

Authors Geetanjali Shree and Pushpesh Pant (Jaipur Literature Festival)
Authors Geetanjali Shree and Pushpesh Pant (Jaipur Literature Festival)

Rockwell earned much respect and goodwill because she brought her mentee Vaibhav Sharma from Saharanpur – who translates from Hindi to English and vice versa – to JLF, and ensured that the mentoring process went beyond technicalities of translation and included how to navigate the publishing industry and also field questions from journalists. Rockwell was also honoured with the Vani Foundation Distinguished Translator Award 2022-2023 for “her contribution towards making Hindi and Urdu visible on the global literary landscape”.

Evaristo spoke about how she used to be an extremely private person before the Booker Prize. People were suddenly interested in her life, and this was unfamiliar territory. Over time, she found herself opening up and it seemed that she could even write about her “origin story” as a bi-racial person, her relationship to creativity, and how she persisted and persevered. Since she got misquoted several times, she thought that taking the reins in her own hands made more sense. She also mentioned wanting to be a source of inspiration for others who are sometimes dejected by how long it takes for public recognition to come.

Gurnah, who was born in Zanzibar and grew up as a refugee in the United Kingdom, talked about how anti-immigration rhetoric continues to thrive under the leadership of UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak who is of Indian descent and whose parents migrated from East Africa. He also opened up about how the Nobel Prize has led to his work being translated into various languages; when these editions are launched in major publishing markets, he is required to travel to other countries. This is rewarding but “only up to a point”. He said, “There are certain nagging things that have to be done when you get a big prize like that.”

There were several compelling speakers including P Sainath, Katherine Rundell, Sathnam Sanghera, Tiffany Tsao, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Jerry Pinto, Vandana Shiva, Tripurdaman Singh, Siddhartha Mukherjee, Manisha Chaudhry, Kiran Manral, Ravish Kumar, Deepti Kapoor, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Rita Kothari, John Keay, Chigozie Obioma, Tansen Sen, Manoranjan Byapari, Arunava Sinha, Mini Krishnan and Anthony Sattin.

It was heart-warming to observe that languages spoken in different parts of India – Sindhi, Bangla, Gujarati, Punjabi, Bodo, Tamil, Bhili, Rajasthani, Kokborok – were being celebrated through festival sessions scheduled under the umbrella of “Jaipur Writers’ Shorts”. While they did not get as much time and space as English, the effort to represent deserves praise. Additionally, there were sessions on Hindi, Urdu, Bhojpuri and Rajasthani literature.

Shehan Karunatilaka and British publisher Alexandra Pringle (Jaipur LIterature Festival)
Shehan Karunatilaka and British publisher Alexandra Pringle (Jaipur LIterature Festival)

In the past, JLF has been criticized for platforming majoritarian voices. The feedback seems to have been well-taken because the 2023 edition featured academic Suraj Yengde, poet-critic-publisher Yogesh Maitreya and scholar-rapper Sumit Samos – all of whom are known for speaking and writing about caste discrimination in contemporary India. I hope that the next edition of JLF will up its game and feature more voices from marginalized communities – especially voices of women, non-binary, trans and queer persons from oppressed castes.

When a festival grows in size, it is difficult to strike a balance between scale and substance. Whether JLF did well in 2023 or failed miserably on this count is a matter of opinion because people usually draw their conclusions based on what they attend, and not what they end up skipping. To be honest, people do skip a lot. I did too because each day was packed with so much stimulation that I needed short breaks to process not only ideas and information but also the fact of being surrounded by a massive turnout of people jostling for space and air.

People come to JLF for multiple reasons; all of which are valid in their own way. Some come to be seen, to build professional networks, and to attend the after-parties thrown by publishing houses. Some show up to meet their beloved authors and get books signed. Some are there to hang out with fellow book lovers, make friends, expand their knowledge, discover new interests, get tips on how to write their own books, and also because it is something enjoyable that they like doing every year. These categories do overlap at times.

And so the show goes on.

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

The views expressed are personal

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