5 best bits of the Jaipur Literature Festival

5 best bits of the Jaipur Literature Festival

Who had the best session? Who was that awesome DJ? And did someone really call William Dalrymple a "pompous arbiter?"

Jaipur Literature Festival 2011Nobel Laureate JM Coetzee, one of the main draws of this year's festival.Under an unseasonably hot Rajasthani desert sun, unreasonable numbers of bibliophiles made their way to Diggi Palace for the sixth iteration of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF). With 223 speakers and 50,000 visitors, each of the 115 scheduled readings and discussions over five days pulled quite a crowd.

Much has been made of the crowds at Diggi -- are they the vanguard of a new literary army or flies buzzing around a boring belletristic elephant, to paraphrase one disappointed JLF veteran writing in Tehelka.

Billed as democratic -- and the world’s largest free literary festival cannot be denied that assertion -- the LitFest could be read as a microcosm of India. Either the representing multitudes speak to the robust state of literary affairs or symptoms of dynastic dyspepsia are already manifest in its leadership.

By a personal gauge, the festival in Jaipur is in the pink of health.

Words are accorded privilege, whether spoken or written, fictional or non-, in newsprint and online.

As a case in point, not one person abdicated even a precarious toehold at Nobel Laureate JM Coetzee’s session, despite the fact that he was simply going to read aloud from a story available in print, for a full 45 minutes.

Yet as the esoteric conversation between mother and son rendered in Coetzee’s precise and surprisingly unaccented monotone wound to a close, the applause was awed. Entire philosophies embedded in single sentences! It was the one moment in which the Jaipur Literature Festival was unashamedly undemocratic and Coetzee was owed his pedestal.

Here’s our list of the best of the fest:

Jaipur Literature Festival 2011Kamila Shamsie (L), Junot Diaz (C) in conversation with Chandrahas Choudhury in the 'Imaginary Homelands' session.

Best books: Naqvi, Le, Banerjee and Diaz

The breathless tabloid tone of most of the coverage has guaranteed the festival’s unchecked growth but hasn’t contributed much to the central conversation. Too little has been said about the literature. What should we read?

For regional language authors like K Satchidanandan, historically marginalized voices like A Revathy or even literary colossus’ like Adam Zagajewski who haven’t yet straddled India, Jaipur's Diggi Palace offers a very impressive pulpit to proselytize from.

The PR babble around the DSC Literature Prize for South Asia “envisioned as a unique and prestigious award... transcending the origin or ethnicity of the author” self-consciously stole the spotlight from its first winner, Karachi-based writer HM Naqvi and his debut “Home Boy.”

The rest of the writers had to sing for their supper, and what a symphony it was.

Vietnamese-born Australian writer Nam Le could have traded on his sweet smile but it was the stunning simplicity of the reading from his highly regarded short story collection “The Boat” that moored Le’s new fan following here.

Slouched low on a sofa, Indian graphic novelist Sarnath Banerjee peppered his presentation with anecdote, digression, and good-natured barbs at fellow artist/writer Samit Basu. His rambling, cheeky storytelling from “The Harappa Files” created a longing to be able to read, watch and simultaneously listen to a story. The future of adult Indian animation is his to claim.

Junot Diaz’s wit, wisdom and liberal use of expletives meant more eyeballs for his “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” Let’s call it a win-win for reader and writer.

Jaipur Literature Festival 2011Naqvi, with partner Alia, wins the DSC Literature Prize for South Asia and a US$50,000 purse.

Best hangout: Café Flow

The pop-up café and bar rendered in green trees and purple vinyl was where the folks tagged ‘the glitterati’ retired for the taking of a toast and tea, or whatever their chosen libation.

To become a regular at a bar that’s only in existence for five days of the year takes some doing, but hundreds managed to rise to the challenge.

The most memorable moment this year at Flow -- the affectionate abbreviation -- is a testament to the festival’s easy charm.

Pakistani novelists and intellectuals including Mohsin Hamid, Kamila Shamsie and Ahmed Rashid were chatting, fittingly at a table in the centre of the cafe. With one ominous groan as warning, the table and then the couch collapsed, leaving them unhurt but with legs akimbo in the air.

Hamid, quick to think on his head, yelled, “It’s an Indian conspiracy!” and everybody within a hundred feet also collapsed, in giggles.

Jaipur Literature Festival 2011If the Jaipur lit fest is now an institution then Café Flow is its canteen.

Jaipur Literature Festival 2011The label he prefers is ‘outernational’ -- an accurate term for his transcontinental sampling.

Best music: DJ Cheb-i-Sabbah

The final musical performance of the festival was rabble rousing, in the best possible way. DJ Cheb-i-Sabbah’s first turn at the tables in Jaipur was in 2009. That he was back this year for another closing set, with a new troupe in tow, makes him the default musical mascot.

The Arab-African spin master has been dipping in the desi devotional pool for a while now, mixing his beats with Vedic chants, bhajans and bhangra.

He layered and looped to the soulful Tunisian vocalist Ghalia Benali, Odissi/belly/ gypsy dancer Coleena Shakti, and the multiply-skilled artists from the loosely banded musical faction Rajasthan Roots -- Chugge Khan and Nathoo Lal Solanki.

This year’s performance held the added charm of decidedly dividing male-female opinion -- the men almost uniformly swooned at Shakti’s considerable and obvious charms while the women collectively championed Benali’s energy.

And for those teetering in the undecided faction, Chugge Khan, was an unlikely scene stealer. The diminutive dynamo wielded his Khurtal (wooden castanets) with such fierce energy that his hands blurred in motion. Even though he was hard to watch without worrying whether his head could withstand such vigorous banging, his beat and occasional folksy vocal were mighty easy on the ears.

Best session: Imperial English and Irvine Welsh

Picking a panel on ‘Imperial English’ could be judged an exercise in auto-exoticism but the four speakers, who’ve won every major literary prize between them, redeemed an unqualified moderator with wonderfully personal points of view about a language they speak, write and love.

Ahdaf Soueif from Palestine, JM Coetzee from South Africa, Adam Zagajewski from Poland and Mrinal Pande from India, spoke.

The panel could have pandered to polemics but instead chose to represent and reaffirm the malleability of the language in which many of us work and play in India.

In another sesssion, “Author simulates masturbation on stage during Jaipur Literature Festival,” read a popular Mumbai newspaper headline.

When Irvine Welsh read from “Skagboys” the prequel to his cult hit “Trainspotting” in his harsh melodic Scottish brogue, latecomers to the session thought they’d walked into a poetry slam.

Each of his sentences was end-stopped verse, and paragraphs were measured by caesuras.

An unsettling narrative surfaced about a young man settling into a weekly routine for jacking off his disabled brother to a twee television show personality.

In that emotionally and politically loaded sexual sequence, Welsh still got to the dark heart of humor, using expansive gestures to animate his reading.

Jaipur Literature Festival 2011"Trainspotting" author Irvine Welsh reads from his upcoming novel "Skagboys", while poet Jeet Thayyil looks on.

Best banter: Bal vs. Dalrymple

Festivals in India are a routine target for morality police masquerading as media, but even as the festival’s reach expands the attacks seem to get narrower, more petty and personal.

Jaipur Literature Festival 2011Open published a caricature of festival co-curator William Dalrymple.One local language newspaper printed a panel of front page photos, helpfully circling bottles of beer in attendee’s hands to mark the demesne of debauch.

All of which was just a bit of finger wagging, so to speak, after the punches thrown in the open forum of Open Magazine.

Hartosh Singh Bal, the political editor of said publication, threw a heavy-handed hook at the JLF zeitgeist and its co-director William Dalrymple.

In an op-ed entitled "The Literary Raj," Bal asks how it is “a White man” became “the pompous arbiter of literary merit in India?”

Dalrymple reeled to the ropes, calls the article “blatantly racist” and Bal a dirty fighter whose “principal grouse seemed to be the colour of my skin.”

Bal retreated to his own untenable corner with, “The Indian literary scene is marked by a clear sense of inferiority to the British scene, and continues to be beholden to it.”

If an eyewitness report is to be believed, the backstabbing ended the way everything in Jaipur did -- with backslapping and bonhomie.

Though next year an entry ticket may be required to witness the word mela at Diggi Palace.

Jaipur Literature Festival 2011William Dalrymple in conversation with Chris Mather, Gyan Prakash and Sir Chris Bayly at the most elaborate and decorated venue -- the Durbar Hall.

Aditi Saxton is freelance features journalist and a television scriptwriter currently living in New Delhi.

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