I’ve only ever been to the Jaipur Literary Festival once. That was two years ago when my first book was just about to be launched. By some odd twist of fate the first retail copies of Dork went on sale at the little bookshop that runs at JLF each year. There was no larger purpose in scheduling it thus. I did not have a reading or signing or anything of that sort planned at JLF.
But I’d pestered the Penguin people for weeks and I suppose cracking open a box at Jaipur seemed ceremonial enough. The guys who ran the shop, the same guys who run the Full Circle outlet at Khan Market in New Delhi, promptly took a stack of fresh Dork copies and dumped them on the lowest rack of a bookshelf, next to Shoba De and Sidney Sheldon.
As the day progressed the stack receded farther and farther into the dark nether regions of the bookshelf while, in more prominent positions, books by Geoff Dyer and William Dalrymple literally vaporised by the stackfulls. Still I was most thrilled. Every few hours I’d pop in and check on status. And the Dork stack would cough and wheeze and splutter and shorten itself one comforting copy at a time.
Very quickly, however, I was engrossed in the festival itself. Sure, I spent hours agonising over what those early buyers thought of my book. Things were not helped by Samit Basu’s motivating quip one morning that he had started reading the book, but had fallen asleep after a few pages. (A terrible cameo awaits him in book three.)
Jitters apart, I was truly enjoying the festival. In many different ways.
Now when I went to Jaipur I had no idea who the organisers or founders of the event were. I knew Dalrymple was involved in some capacity. I had no idea what their ulterior motives were, what their political or ideological agenda were and whether they cared about other Indian languages. (I say ‘other’ because it is ludicrous to think English isn’t an Indian language.)
I also did not know what their criteria for inviting authors were. Was I jealous of some of the invitees? Of course. Did I want to be invited one day? Of course. I still do. The appreciation of your peers is highly valued in any profession, not least in a creative and particularly criticism-prone one like writing.
Also at no point was I thinking to myself “What does this festival achieve for the nation as a whole?”
When I was at Jaipur the only things playing on my mind were: Which are the good sessions? Which authors should I be listening to? As a young author coming to grips with this vocation, who should I talk to, what advice should I be asking for and what lessons did these fabulous writers have for me?
And my experience was absolutely fascinating. And very fulfilling. Lawrence Wright’s bag of tricks and tips for reporters I will never forget as long as my messenger bag includes an audio recorder. The session on travel writing was both amusing and informative.
A remarkable session on terrorism and the Middle East involving Wright and Steve Coll exposed me to nuance on a subject that is often analysed with staggering, stifling polarity. That session led me to buy and read several books.
I also met a few people at Jaipur who have remained friends and twitter-buddies since.
All in all, I had the time of my life.
I say all this because this year JLF has been the cynosure of attention for many reasons, most of them negative. There was that Rushdie imbroglio that overshadowed everything else. Then there were the readings of the Satanic Verses, the assassins, the quotable quotes, the outrage and, most distressing for me personally, the reams of punditry condemning the festival as pointless, irrelevant or a schmoozefest.
Most of that is perhaps true. But my point is: so what man?
Tell me this: what can possibly make a literary festival vital? At what point in a society’s evolution does a literary festival assume a position of critical importance? Which nation in the world can standup and say: “Look, we’ve solved all our critical problems. All our vital shortcomings have been alleviated. Now we start with our frivolous shortcomings. And top on that list is a thumping huge literary festival.”
I don’t think even one. Even Norway, with all that HDI and GDP, has to deal with insane gunmen and Indian parenting quirks.
In fact, when you think about it, literature and literary festivals are perhaps important precisely because they are not vital. They distance–some would even say elevate–us from the brutal and mundane that frustrate us in our daily lives. Why do you come home after work and see a rerun of Friends? Because you identify with the moral rectitude of Matt Le Blanc and Courtney Cox? Because you are 100% certain that the producers of the show don’t have some ulterior political motive in their scripts?
Who knows? More importantly, who cares?
Then why demand of literary festivals, organisers, participants or even audiences the morality, clarity of purpose, sanctity of intentions and social relevance that we demand of hardly anybody or anything else. And especially so of a privately organised literary event where the public is allowed to visit freely.
Can you spend the whole week schmoozing at Jaipur? Of course. Can you spend the whole week stalking celebrities or sucking up to the clique-ish publishing industry? Certainly. Can you spend the week in the midst of a few wonderful authors and artists enjoying discussions, debates and perspectives? Yes you can, even if the quality of sessions can be very uneven and often helmed by bizarre moderators. But hey, it is free and you can vote with your feet. Bad JLF this year? Don’t go next year.
Disagree with the mandates of the festival? Want to focus more on translated fiction, Marathi poetry or Malayalam travel writing? By all means organise your own festival. JLF does not have an exclusive national license on literary festivals.
If anything we need plenty more festivals all over the country. As any Chetan Bhagat event in a small town shows, there are readers everywhere in this country. And they love meeting and talking to authors. There are more languages, topics and issues than can be handled by a dozen large Indian festivals. But chances are that any such festival will be tinged by controversy. We are not a country famed for our ability to get along with each other. Or for our restraint when it comes to putting public figure on pedestals.
You are welcome to try to organise a literary festival that will condemn any kind of schmoozing, celebrity worship, low brow conversation, political partisanship, NRI fixations or ideological leanings. Feel free. But literary festivals can seldom be less polarising than literature itself.
However a lot of the analysis I see right now is saddening. It is akin to saying let us burn down cinema theatres because too many people watch crap movies.
No screens. No crap movies. No movies at all. Victory for good cinema?
p.s. No. I am not trying to get an invitation. Why would you think like that?
p.p.s. I am getting old.