Sound and fury at 2019 Jaipur Literature Festival
There were fewer manels this time. More women on panels. But we need more, more, more of them.
If you’ve been gripped by American novelist Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, I assure you the experience is nothing like hearing him read it. He’s about as arresting a speaker as the next person, but, when he reads, his electric prose magnifies in voltage.
Or maybe, it’s the storm. The one that engulfed the Jaipur Literature Festival, sneakily, on its first day, when freezing rain, lightning and thunder descended on its venue, the Diggi Palace.
The storm had felled a tree somewhere, but it ended up punctuating Whitehead’s narrative, full of power and pain, admirably.
Braving it to get a chai and samosa, I spotted a woman rise from the audience to accost Shashi Tharoor with a question. The session was called “Tharoorisms” and as I tried not to shiver, holding chai in one hand and a samosa in the other, she attacked the Congress MP and writer for kissing the ring of populism over Sabarimala. Her perseverance was marvellous. She went at him like it was a bright sunny day.
Others began to defy nature too. Not to get at Tharoor, but because JLF’s various session venues were overflowing with people. The festival had a footfall of four lakh this year.
Some like to romanticise the JLF attendee, calling her a “world citizen”. But while JLF has people coming in from various countries and continents, it seems to comprise, for the most part, a cross-section of Jaipurias.
An IAS officer stationed here, without family, once said to me ruefully, “Jaipur is a conservative city.”
That’s precisely why seeing so many Jaipurias embrace this festival of literature and ideas – like Bengalis do with Durga Pujo – was heartening.
That said, some of the sessions at JLF may give you reason to recoil. “Writing about the Rich”, for instance. Or “How to Get Published in India”.
In any case, the great thing about coming to a place where there are over 500 speakers, and six panels taking place simultaneously, is that you can easily avoid those that threaten to strike terror in your heart, and seek refuge, instead, in the one or two or three talks that are bound to interest you.
If you feel like being startled, for instance, you can listen to why Narendra Kohli (at the vanguard of modern Indian epic writing) believes he may have written a “Communist Ramayana”. His book cover looks like a Ramjanmabhoomi poster and I thought his co-panelist, Yatindra Mishra, was confused by this comment, because he was frowning for most of the time, but then later on I figured it’s an expression he likes to wear.
Talk of the “New New York Novel” may cheer you up. No more prominent “white” (F Scott Fitzgerald, Saul Bellow, Edith Wharton... ) or African American (James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison…) writers from New York. NoViolet Bulawayo, Tania James and Tanwi Nandini Islam spoke hopefully of defying the expectations of not just ethnicity, but also genre.
You also came upon two brilliant, unassuming scientists – Venkatraman Ramakrishnan (structural biology) and Priyamvada Natarajan (astrophysics, cosmology) – discussing their groundbreaking work, but also more immediate issues of government funding and the ethics of genetic science. An audience member asked them, “How do ribosomes respond to music? Do they dance?”
God save democracy!
JLF almost always has a session on the writer’s process. This isn’t eventually as insightful as you may be led to believe: every big novelist describes a vastly different process, which has helped each of them be remarkably successful.
In so many words, if you’re hoping for tips – make up your own. But where else would you hear Yann Martel speak earnestly about using a “treadmill desk” for writing, so he can burn calories and write at the same time.
Even as he was saying this, I could sense the crowd utter a sort of collective gasp. “What a superhuman!" or "What a madman.”
Either that or they may have been wondering, “This is why the fellow hasn’t written anything as good since Life of Pi. Priorities all over the place.”
Andrea di Robilant, Pragya Tiwari, Gurcharan Das and Veena Venugopal discussed how we should view problematic artists and their art. And whether the myth of the creator is inextricably tied to the creation. What if an artist’s problematic persona permeates his or her work (example: Pablo Picasso’s misogyny, Ernest Hemingway’s ultra-machismo)? What if it has played a role in creating the work? Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, seminal in the development of Cubism and Modern Art is said to be a product of his anger and jealousy towards Fernande Oliver.
The art critic John Berger wrote: “The dislocations in this picture are the result of aggression, not aesthetics.”
What when the celebrity sculpted out of the artist’s problematic persona sells his or her art? Das, staunch defender of art’s right to be consumed in isolation from the artist, seemed to have lost at least some of his hair, while he tried to answer these questions.
At another place, another time, three Jaipurias standing in front of me looked quite nonplussed. Dhruv Raj Sharma had just said to them that Sanskrit, Latin and Greek have common keywords and well over 60 per cent of the English language is actually “Indian”.
I tried to get them to move so I could get a better view of the stage, but they were so distressed by the fact that they were not unique as a people, so occupied in discussing this, that I couldn’t muster through.
In another session, Simon Sebag Montefiore was to confront a similar truth. He had just demonstrated the violent history of the Romanov empire through a gory stand-up that would have filled Quentin Tarantino with envy.
Murders. Assassinations. Trysts. He had expected the faces of his audience to contort with some horror.
Instead, a section of the audience merely looked back at him with casual interest and understanding. And when he said, “The Romanovs were quite unlike any other family,” I noticed some banas (young Rajput men) guffaw dismissively and leave. Maybe they should do a stand-up for Montefiore sometime.
The sessions didn’t stop. Nobel, Booker and Pulitzer-winners kept looming large.
Through the five days there were sessions on why the financial trust on which entrepreneurship is built evades developing societies, on the Jewish novel, sci-fi, biographies, Rome, Faizabad and Ayodhya, the Templars, the Mughals and all they did for us, Manu and Dalit RSS workers, genetics and paleoanthropology, nature, climate change, Panini's Sanskrit grammar, Tehran, garbage, artificial intelligence, a begum and a countess, poetry, the Right To Information Act, the Kumbh Mela, defining aspects of Indian literature, Ibn Battuta, Dalit literature, gender, gender violence, #MeToo, more on #MeToo… and so much more.
The festival has been conscious of increasing the number of sessions on gender and LGBTQIA+ subjects, but we always need more.
It also needs to increase the number of Hindi sessions (particularly for its Jaipuria audience) and sessions on other Indian languages. It needs even more sessions on Dalit and Adivasi writing and issues. There were fewer manels this time. More women on panels. But we need more, more, more of them.
Yet, to broaden their ambit without depleting the gamut of subjects they cover already, they’ll need sponsorship. And, truly, most of all, JLF desperately needs to lose that title sponsor. The ZEE group’s channels have been accused of hate campaigns against JNU students and scientists such as Gauhar Raza, as well as targeted propaganda against Muslims.
The debate over the colour of money is not new and, on JLF, there have been many tweets and articles about this.
Festival producer Sanjoy Roy said on the last day of the festival, “If somebody says this money is good or this money is bad, well, let us know what it is and then we’ll look for the right kind of money. But till then these are the people who make it possible for hundreds of thousands of people to access this festival free.”
Sounds fair, but also a bit disconcerting – if a festival as widely covered and attended as JLF cannot have a wide choice of sponsors, what chance do other arts and culture initiatives have?
Moving on, there were fewer sessions in JLF this year on satire. However, as usual, there were moments that lent themselves to it. Like the finale. A debate with eight speakers.
It was a farce from beginning to end.
The topic was “Do Liberals Stifle Debate?”.
Agreed. The subject is suspect. A bit like asking, “Are the Aristocrats Instigating Public Opinion?” in the aftermath of the French Revolution.
One hoped though that some contours of argument from either side would emerge from the speakers.
Instead, the strangest theses, expostulations and screams were heard emnating from the stage. To be fair, Vikram Sampath addressed the topic at hand, and Mihir Swarup Sharma engaged with it, to rubbish it.
As for the others, their speeches went from comparing BJP to Congress (each side had two representatives: Kapil Sibal and Salman Khurshid from Congress; Hardeep Singh Puri and Sonal Mansingh representing BJP), to being Dharmic or Adharmic (Makarand Paranjpe), to Richard Dawkins (Paranjpe) and Francis Fukuyama (Puri), to Indira Gandhi (Sagarika Ghose), to Stalin (Paranjpe), to Gandhi (Ghose), to the North Sentinel Islands (Ghose), to dancing and how liberal it is (Mansingh). Some speakers kept switching sides mid-speech, as if this were a block and tackle competition.
At the beginning, I felt giving each speaker just two to three minutes to make their case is a travesty. By the end of the debate, however, I felt like hugging whoever came up with this idea with unending gratitude. If I had to listen to any more of “my random, unsubstantiated thoughts on anything in the world” I felt I would just collapse.
After the speeches, questions were asked by the moderator Sreenivasan Jain as well as the audience, and things devolved into a mudfight, with lies being bandied about (Puri said no riots had taken place when the BJP was in power, completely obliterating the memory of Gujarat 2002).
The funniest thing was that while each speaker seemed to think of himself or herself as a liberal, no one seemed to agree on what a liberal is, however, and nearly everyone seemed to have the wrong idea of its definition.
At the end, Jain conducted a kind of positivity experiment, asking each person on stage to say “nice things” about another.
I should perhaps come up with one of my own now, to recover.
The author of the piece is a freelancer writer.