Saturday, February 5, 2011

My Experience of the Jaipur Literature Festival (January 24 and 25, 2011)

(Published on The Publisher's Post):

Mohsin Hamid in conversation with Chandrahas Choudhury

Last year I missed the Jaipur Literature Festival as Gyaana was busy with a parallel event in Delhi – its own debut. Hence, it became doubly important to visit Jaipur this year, and witness what has emerged as the grandest literary experience in India over the last few years.

Funnily enough, everybody the world over seemed to know about Diggi Palace except that residents of Jaipur, especially the traffic policewallas (we made the journey by road), who directed us to all the palaces in the city except Diggi.

Eventually, I made it. Wandering amongst the bevy of literateurs and aspirants I reached the venue for ‘Pulp: Popular Fiction and Its Seductions’, led by Namita Gokhale , Faiza S Khan, and Pritam Chakravarthy.  It was tepid to begin with, but warmed up slowly. There were comparisons between Tamil pulp and English. One of the questions raised by the audience was why sex is all right when it is written about in literature, but frowned upon when it appears in pulp.

Soon after, Faiza (from Karachi), waiting to begin a discourse on Pakistani risalas, was surprised to be told that she would have to switch to another extract from Humayun Iqbal’s Challawa than the one she originally planned to read. Reason: the unexpected presence of several schoolchildren at the venue! Hence rose the question of modulation, moderation, and censorship, and how to deal with schoolchildren at such events. An important question – yet to be answered – though it’s apparently been raised at the Jaipur festival earlier.

It was interesting to hear that through the risalas, people in Pakistan have been exposed to sex and sexuality in the Urdu text for years. It sells. It is accepted. It’s only when it appears in English that there are instances of public outrage. ‘After all,’ said Faiza, ‘the West didn’t invent sex’. Very true!

 I bumped into a hassled looking Jai Arjun soon after. Not that you could blame him. Jaipur was pretty warm (right in January!), and the sheer number of humans at the venue probably raised the temperature by another few degrees.

I walked in for ‘Patchwork Lives’ at 2.40 pm, and realised it had already started at 2.30 – bang on time. Impressive. And this strict adherence to time kept me impressed both the days.

The session was scintillating, as expected, with the inimitable Jerry Pinto, Jai Arjun, and Jaishree Misra at the helm. Jerry spoke about Leela Naidu’s ‘autobiography’ that he has written in the first-person; and Jaishree spoke of her historical fantasy novel on the life of Rani Lakshmi Bai, happily banned by the UP government subsequently, since she had dared to depict Lakshmibai as a womanly character with emotions – pro-love and anti-battle.

I had interacted with Jerry over email a couple of times, and wanted to meet him post-session. I extended my hand and said, ‘Hello, I am Divya,’ but never got an opportunity to say Divya who, because the crowd had already ambushed him by then.

Next: JM Coetzee, the Nobel laureate! ‘Imperial English’ had Coetzee, Ahdaf Soueif, Adam Zagajewski, Mrinal Pande, and Githa Hariharan on the dais. Though all the participants were/are distinguished writers in English, they mentioned that they’re not really comfortable with the language! Yes, they do write in English, but they actually live in their mother tongue. [It’s interesting that during his session in Delhi, post Jaipur, a national daily mentioned that Orhan Pamuk said, ‘It’s poetic to write in your mother’s language.’]

I was reminded of their words during Mohsin Hamid’s session the next morning (The Reluctant Fundamentalist), who called himself ‘a mediocre writer in Urdu’.

Hamid’s novel (shortlisted for the Booker in 2007) has been translated into Hindi, but not Urdu yet. A lady read out from the Hindi version, Changez ka Bayaan. To Hamid, ‘writing is a marathon, not a sprint’. He said that he creates a room – a space – with multiple doors and windows, and leaves the reader there to do what he/she wishes to do. Also, sex is important to him in a novel – a point reiterated by Martin Amis and Jay McInerney later (Writing in the 1980s). Hamid said the spiritual and sexual are related (‘both being activities of transcendence’), and that he treats sex with respect in his novels.

Tarun Tejpal in conversation with Manu Joseph
Apologies, Mr Tejpal and Mr Ahmed Rashid! I would have to skim over the two sessions – though both men would perhaps qualify as modern-day superheroes in their own ways. Ahmed Rashid has lived amongst and dealt with the Taliban in Afghanistan all his adult life, and I needn’t elaborate upon Tarun Tejpal. Amazing stories there!

Let’s then proceed to ‘The Suitable Book’ – by my favourite, and very favourite, Vikram Seth. Not too many people relinquished their seats in the front lawns the entire day – because they didn’t want to miss the 3.30 session!

Vikram Seth is a small man, but such a tall figure! The entire session was brilliantly alive, witty, and entertaining. Somnath Batabyal, the young interviewer from Germany, matched Seth’s wit and maintained the electrifying atmosphere. Seth narrated anecdotes and incidents from his childhood, spoke of his mother – Justice Leila Seth, and about A Suitable Boy. Perhaps some people are still unaware that Seth’s also a sculptor, and trained in classical music. He read out from his published and unpublished poetry collections and, most thrilling of all, he spoke of the much awaited A Suitable Girl – the sequel he is yet to write, allowing the audience a glimpse at his ruminations. 
Vikram Seth in conversation with Somnath Batabyal

He allowed a question to ‘the lady in red’ in the front row – and that was me – and wasn’t that the most fantastic moment!

‘Do you believe in creative writing courses? Do you think creative writing skills can be acquired?’

He answered that creative writing skills can be honed, and that he did one himself at Columbia for poetry. ‘The point is not to become a writer. The point is to write a poem you can’t not write. It is better to store up experiences and return to them when you have found clarity of expression.’
He ended with the poem, ‘The Frog and the Nightingale’ from Beastly Tales on special request – the winning stroke of the evening indeed!

1 comment:

  1. an aspiring writerJune 20, 2011 at 5:39 PM

    i enjoyed reading the article--it was informative and interesting at the same time----have heard much abt Jaipur festival---would love to be part of it some day!!!