Jaipur Lit Fest: We coulda danced all night
I have to announce right at the outset, that I've been to the Jaipur Literature Festival so many times, I have to double check whether this is my fourth or fifth year (it's the fifth!)... Festival producer Sanjoy Roy called me a "friend of the festival" last year, while festival co-director William Dalrymple thought I was more like festival "furniture"... Laugh track aside, I somehow morphed into a double role this year, not just covering it for CNN-IBN, but I was there as a writer, as well, moderating some sessions.
It's tough to explain just how massive this festival has become, without referring to the enormous crowds, packed sessions, or near-panic attacks that writers and journalists are prone to, at the sight of said enormous crowds. Some of the anxiety has to do with the fact that you're constantly worried about which session to get to (there's so much going on, at any given time, you're definitely missing out on something!), and which writer you're trying to interview, not to mention the Internet connectivity isn't the smoothest, so several near-breakdowns have definitely been staved off, just by the grace of...the universal flow of things.
Speaking of which, the vibe at Flow, the café-restaurant-bar towards the back of Diggi Palace provided an alternative space - much-needed - to unwind. It metamorphoses into a completely different zone at night, where the normal laws of space-time definitely cease to apply.
"Why do we even bother to leave," laughs rockstar-poet Jeet Thayil, when he spots us at Flow one afternoon, considering we'd left only around 3 in the morning!
But it's precisely these moments that the Jaipur Lit Fest rocks so well - an informal space, where you can spot the writer you want to talk to, and just walk up to them. Not always super for writers, who understandably have a morbid fear of being mobbed.
You also get a sense of the pressure in this day and age for all writers to be good performers. It's rare to get a writer like J M Coetzee who refuses to do interviews or panel discussions - his session consisted of him reading for 45 minutes to a surprisingly quiet audience. It drew mixed reviews. Some people were more than happy to just listen to him (like writer and journalist Manu Joseph), while others would have preferred him to be more interactive.
For younger writers, who haven't yet built their reputations, I dare say, this sort of festival is ideal in terms of exposure.
Last year, the high point for me - right up there with my interview with Roddy Doyle - was bumping into Hanif Kureishi, who I may have gushed to, but also apologized to for missing his session. "What on earth could be more important?" he asked. "I have to get back to Delhi, to work," I said, "it's terrible!"
"I dare say, you won't be missing out on much!" he laughed up at me, from his seat. I don't think I'll ever forget that moment. I also got to meet my literary hero Roberto Calasso, who I'd been enamoured with since university.
This year, apart from heavyweights like Ahmed Rashid, Martin Amis, Junot Diaz, and others, I was delighted to meet the wonderful Indian writer Namita Devidayal (of The Music Room fame - the book Mick Jagger raved about, no less) - in fact, I moderated one session with her and Tishani Doshi.
I was also delighted to read the other The Music Room author, William Fiennes (cousin to the actor brothers Ralph and Joesph Fiennes). I had a session with him the last day -- he's as poetic and sensitive and wonderful in real life as his book would have you believe. (It details his childhood, growing up in a castle with a brother who has epilepsy and partial brain damage.)
It's this wonderful mix and match that Jaipur does so well. Yes, the crowds have grown to almost unmanageable sizes, and several writers could be overheard complaining about some of the logistical issues to do with transport, press interaction and hotel room bookings... and there were rowdy elements thronging the venue to check out the girls, and drink themselves senseless, more than anything...especially in the evening, during the wonderful music concerts. But that doesn't detract from the festival itself. Larger than life, it sucks you in before you know it, the momentum building from day to day, year to year.
Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk and the lovely Booker Prize-winning Kiran Desai may just get the award for literary heavy-weight couple of the year...Sex and the City star Candace Bushnell was obviously a draw, but partly tripped on her way up the stairs (enormous heels not always lending themselves to stability!) but my candidate for best candid conversation was the Dominican American Pulitzer Prize winning Junot Diaz... so charming and funny and chatty, that he gets my vote for hit of the year!
We've been enamoured of Pakistani writers for quite a few years now ... while we singled out Nadeem Aslam and Daniyal Mueenuddin a few years ago, and Ali Sethi last year, this year I chat with Mohsin Hamid, Kamila Shamsie and Hussein Naqvi - who's won the inaugural DSC prize for South Asian writing, worth a whopping $ 50,000.
None of them were formal - all of them understand why the media focuses on them to ask larger (potentially annoying) questions on "Pakistani writers", but what I find hilarious is that they're all friends. So when I asked Naqvi who his favourite out of that group is, he said himself! Hamid said it's impossible to pick, but said he comes to festivals like this partly as an audience member, but "it's almost equally a chance to meet friends and colleagues. Kamila Shamsie is from Lahore, she's here, Junot Diaz is here...I had a chance to hang out with Rana Dasgupta -- all writers I like, am fond of and respect - it's a bit like a school reunion!"
But this is Indians and Paksitanis we're talking about, after all - so there's no getting around some of the challenges. Kamila Shamsie for one says she's been to Delhi 5 times, but has never got a visa to Agra - on compassionate grounds alone, I say the Indian government should step in, and allow her to see the Taj Mahal!
"For me, coming to India, spending time here feels like reconnecting with something," Hamid says. "I was grateful to be invited and it's special to be here in a way that's different from other literary festivals. It's an enemy land and a sibling at the same time."
A modified version of this appears in Dawn Herald, Pakistan this week.
More about Amrita Tripathi
Amrita Tripathi is a news anchor with CNN-IBN, and also doubles up as Health and Books Editor. An MA in Philosophy from St Stephen's College, Delhi University, she has also taught a few undergraduate classes at her alma mater, informally! When she is not tracking health issues, Amrita is busy chasing the literary dream. Her debut novel Broken News was published in 2010. Before joining CNN-IBN, Amrita worked with The Indian Express.