I had been hearing about the famous Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) from friends in college for almost a decade and more but for some reason or the other, could never find the time to go for it. However, this year not only did I remember to register for the festival thanks to Facebook’s reminders but also asked one of my close friends if she would like to accompany me. She readily agreed and so did her husband. We booked our stay and train tickets early. My friend had been to JLF earlier but because it was my first time, I was truly excited about it.
By the time it was time to leave for Jaipur, Delhi had turned into a cold gloomy city with fog and pollution pervading the atmosphere; hence we were extra cheerful to get to Jaipur. As it happens so often in the winter, our train got delayed by almost an hour and a half. However, we checked into the hotel and reached the magnificent Clarks Amer which looked festive, the sun shone brightly and the JLF looked tempting to say the least.
The very first session that I attended at a venue called Durbar Hall was titled ‘Treasures of Lakshmi: The Goddess Who Gives’, edited by Namita Gokhale and Malashri Lal. I had missed the beginning but Vidya Shah’s invocation to Lakshmi was spell-binding. Her voice is soulful and melodious. Malashri Lal and Namita Gokhale discussed their book and it was quite interesting and full of nuggets of information. For example, Lal explained the difference between Kuber and Lakshmi. Kuber is also known as the god of wealth but unfortunately stands for the hoarding of wealth and its negative energies whereas Lakshmi is the goddess who gives, and radiates positive energy.
I ended up buying an earlier book edited by the duo called Finding Radha and it was quite a pleasure to get it signed by Malashri Lal, who was my professor at the University of Delhi and taught us Feminism and Women’s Writing in the late eighties at the South Campus.
JLF is a communion of book lovers, serious readers and the joyful young generation for whom making an Instagram reel is definitely more important than listening to the spoken word. Between running around and finding my favourite sessions, I stopped to have Kesar chai at a small kiosk shaped like a tapri, which is the colloquial Hindi term for the inconsequential tea stand in the middle of nowhere. The young enterprising students managing it seemed cheerful. They offered me a small bench to sit, a couple of cookies and a lovely kulhad of chai which smelled of saffron or kesar. The surroundings seemed to remind me of the reason I was there at JLF: to absorb completely the myriad experiences of listening to voices who know, to be with my friends I could never find the time to meet in Delhi and spend time to rejuvenate myself.
Food was a challenge that day as I could not find my favourite kachoris anywhere and settled for golgappas and chaat, which are the staple street food items all over North India and especially Delhi-NCR. Spending time with my ex-student/friend/mentee Aishwarya Jha in the late afternoon sun at Chaar Bagh had its own charm. I could never have found this leisurely afternoon elsewhere. Neither would she.
The second day I was all charged up and reached the venue at 10 am. The session I was heading for was called ‘The Power of Myth’ and was at the same venue as our afternoon leisure the day before, Chaar Bagh. The speaker was Anand Neelakantan, the writer of the prequel to Bahubali, the iconic film which broke all box-office records just a few years back. The writer was articulate and had an amazing voice which made him a good speaker as well. Talking about myths he recalled several epics like the Ramayana and how the different versions of the same epic told the stories differently in one way or another. Shakuntala of Kalidas, who was a court poet, does not have the same agency as the Shakuntala of Vyasa but Kalidas’s poetry is superior and steeped in Sanskrit literature. Vyasa does not make Shakuntala into a submissive woman, instead she has the courage to bring up the child alone in Vyasa’s ashram and not beg Dushyant to take her back. The contexts of the two poets were totally different and hence the difference in the portrayal of the heroine.
The one point that irked me about this session was the casual way the speaker spoke about some of the epics to elicit the applause of the younger crowd. In other words, he was playing to the gallery and a place like JLF demands a bit more sanctity about a subject as powerful as myth, which was ironically the title of his session.
The next session that caught my attention was titled ‘Modern Love’ and was held at Baithak. It began with the anchor Maria Goretti asking the panellists about what they thought was love. Being a fan of Seema Goswami’s column Spectator in Brunch magazine which I enjoyed a lot until the newspaper decided to switch it to the online version, I was looking forward to her take on Modern love.
Love in the present times, she said, had gone beyond the boundaries of a man-woman relationship. It could simply be the love between two friends, the love one has for parents or children or siblings, and even the love you have for a pet could come under the umbrella of modern love. The idea of love being only a romantic, physical and emotional bonding between young heterosexual couples is too limiting in today’s world. The other panellists, Anish Gawande and Shivani Sibal, and Maria Goretti continued the discussion in an interesting playful way. Gawande is a young scholar from Britain and is a representative of the queer community. (I came out in New York, no less, he told the audience almost as an aside.) I was pleased to note that he handled the questions masterfully, asking Maria Goretti as well to put forth her point of view. It is heartening to see bright young minds full of joy and laughter, ready to plunge into the conflicts and debates of the contemporary world.
The audience too was a curious, happy lot and the most applause came for a 76-year-old who said that the panellists’ idea of love was too intellectual and that even at his ripe age, he still fell in love every day—with nature, with his grandson and sometimes with young women too even though he has a wife at home!
Immediately after this session, I was drawn to the one titled ‘Anatomy of Love’ because the previous one had made me laugh, introspect and enjoy at the same time. However, this one couldn’t have been more of a contrast. The two young novelists from Britain, Diana Evans and Ivy Ngeow, seemed to be excited enough to talk about their works when they introduced themselves. But the anchor had a stroke of amnesia and completely forgot that the session was titled ‘Anatomy of Love’. Instead, he began a detailed introduction of their respective novels. It was almost as if he took his job as an anchor too seriously as he was an academic. He forgot that this was not his classroom at the university but an audience who needed to know the writers’ idea of love and its representation in their novels. He went off on a tangent and persistently asked them about their roots, the thematic tones and their process of writing… he simply forgot the ‘love’ part of the session. Academics should stick to the classroom; they are bad as JLF moderators. I felt especially bad for the writers because they seemed to be wondering as to when he would get around to the topic of the session.
Listening to these writers of the Nigerian and Malaysian descent, making a mark as British writers after their masters in England, I felt that the contemporary British novelists’ profile is no longer limited to England and in fact by drawing upon the experiences of studying and being brought up in Asian, African or any other country and transitioning to Britain to pursue their dreams, their works are enriched with these diverse contexts and are interestingly eclectic.
‘One fine Day: British Empire on the Brink’ had Matthew Parker talking about the downfall of the British and was my natural choice of sessions after struggling through the previous one. Parker seemed to be mourning the loss of the empire with blazing honesty and candour. He thrashed the royalty, wondered why the British continue to suffer from a colonial hangover, praised the Indian space programme and the healthy economy of India all in one breath. Always a proud Indian at heart, I felt a strange sense of elation in the Q&A session when a sari-clad NRI woman declared that India had moved on ages ago but the British were still clinging to this colonial hangover and still suffered from it.
The session was a clear winner with the audience because it was being held at the JLF where India ruled supreme.
Lunch was next on my agenda but the food court looked more promising than it turned out to be and I ended up settling for a small plate of lemon rice and coconut chutney. When I looked around for a place to sit, apparently there seemed to be none. Perched on a small bench with a plate of lemon rice is trickier than it seems and definitely more difficult than carrying a tote-bagful of books. I felt that more thought could have gone into this and perhaps the organisers did not check to see if there was enough space to put some chairs for people to sit and eat in peace.
Later in the afternoon, attending a session titled ‘Translation: An Equal Music’ was an absolute pleasure as David Hahn’s sense of humour and the easy banter between him and Daisy Rockwell (translator of The Tomb of Sand) kept the audience entertained. Rockwell talked about her work being an integral part of her daily routine and said that she continued to translate as and when she could, at home, outside and sometimes even in the waiting halls of schools where she was picking up her child. Hahn’s hilarious anecdotes included his memories as a restless child and remembering his mother sitting in the playpen translating peacefully and the entire apartment at his disposal. Arunava Sinha’s task as the anchor became much easier because of the easy camaraderie between Hahn and Rockwell who got along like a house on fire.
Moving on to the next session that I went for, ‘Steeped: Adventures of a Tea Entrepreneur’ by Brook Eddy was about her struggles in her journey of becoming an entrepreneur. Gender dynamics are essential in business and according to Brook, no one took her seriously till she got a man to invest in her venture and have him as her business partner. Brook said that she had been coming to the JLF all these years and was inspired to write her story in the form of a book.
The day ended with a beautiful session titled ‘Poetry Multiverse’ which had Maria Goretti, Ibrahim Waheed, Sukrita Paul Kumar and a few other poets recite their poetry to a packed house.
A word about the food at JLF. It turned out to be quite a disappointment. No seating for older people, food choices centred around the younger palate. e.g. waffles, burgers and pizzas, no decent south Indian outlet or even a north Indian for that matter and overpriced kachoris and chana kulchas left a bad taste (literally) in the mouth.
There was a clear demarcation for the privileged. The authors lounge, the speaker lounge and the friends and family had their own array of cuisine which was not available to the ‘janta’. Settling for a kadhi kachori and lukewarm lemon rice was my only option.
It was drizzling when we reached the venue the next day. Not deterred by a little rain, I headed to Durbar Hall for my first session titled ‘Leonardo da Vinci: Painter in the Court of Milan’. Five minutes into the session and I found myself mesmerised by the slideshow which was put forth by Luke Syson, director of the Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge, who began with the iconic Mona Lisa and went on to give the audience an enthralling session, talking about how Da Vinci, despite his reputation, was on a salary and produced an assembly line of paintings commissioned by the court and painted by him along with a bevy of budding painters most of whom worked with him or under his tutelage.
Syson went on to show us several prints of the original paintings and their copies made by his students, distinguishing the original from the copies. The drapery, the way the hands were painted, the way an arm appeared on the canvas and whether all the different parts of the painting were painted by several artists whom he mentored.
It was a learning experience for me as I knew very little about this famous artist although his context remains one of the most significant parts of our syllabus of BA Hons in English.
Mid-morning took me to Mughal tent where I attended a session called ‘Food, Love and Laughter’ featuring the vivacious Amrita Tripathi conversing with Karen Anand, Zack O’ Yeah and Maria Goretti. The panellists talked about their latest books and more importantly food.
Zack’s challenge to the audience—the promise of a refund if they didn’t like his book and no questions asked—came pretty early in the session. Karen Anand spoke about her journey as a food writer which began 20 years ago and also her love for simple home food which never has any alternative.
Goretti mentioned her beginning with a food blog and how her first book came out of it. She said that it was natural to go back to one’s roots if one wanted to cook authentically. Zack’s dig at his age and constantly heckling the anchor was an irritating one but fortunately Amrita handled him quite well. Goretti and Anand spoke from the heart and encouraged a young wife lamenting about her husband being a great cook and not wanting publicity.
Karen declared that it was high time Kentucky Fried Chicken was replaced by tandoori chicken all over the world, and was surprised that this brilliant idea had not yet occurred to a budding entrepreneur.
Limited food choices took me to the chhole kulche stall which was a sad option in terms of quality and quantity and did little to appease my hunger pangs. However, I was quite excited about my next session on ‘How Prime Ministers Decide’, where the author of the book Neerja Chowdhury was in conversation with Mandira Nayar of THE WEEK.
After an introduction to Chowdhury, it was clear why the venue Durbar Hall was almost packed by people. Here was a journalist who has quite literally walked in the corridors of power and who is quite close not only with the politicians but also their families. When Nayar asked about whether some prime ministers were vulnerable and superstitious, she talked about a specific incident in the life of Indira Gandhi who was an avid devotee of Chamunda Devi of Himachal. However, a trip to Chamunda Devi was cancelled by her on the advice of her staff. Two days later, Sanjay Gandhi’s plane crashed while he was flying it and he died. The priest said although the goddess did not mind the ordinary people cancelling a trip but when a prime minister did it, she deserved to be punished.
Chowdhury talked about the Congress’s alliance with the RSS as well. She said that she had included only those prime ministers who were fortunate enough to complete their terms. She also talked about why she had not included Prime Minister Modi in her book. It was because she did not have access to any kind of inside information about the PM and that was a major deterrent for her. She claimed to have inside information about all those PMs she has written about, and some of these are named sources.
The last session that I attended turned out to be the best as far as I am concerned. It was in the Mughal tent and was on ‘Mrs Dalloway’, one of my most favourite novels. In this session Merve Emre and Anish Gawande talked about the relevance and contemporaneity of the iconic ‘Mrs Dalloway’, a novel written by Virginia Woolf.
Emre spoke convincingly and with an enchanting confidence about the novel, instantly connecting with the audience with her easy approach and relatable manner. She expressed surprise at how great an audience we were, considering eighty per cent had already read the novel. She talked about working on the annotated edition during Covid with ample time on her hands and despite having her kids around her all the time. She spoke about her experiences as a teacher, her ideas on doing something collaborative like ‘Rap genius’ for Virginia Woolf and the other classics of the Modern era.
Gawande shone as an exceptional anchor, matching Emre’s wit, and the banter between them kept the audience suitably entertained.
Professor Harish Trivedi, who retired from the department of English at the University of Delhi, was a bit offended by Emre’s total indifference to the Indian reference in Woolf’s novel. His question began with “Where do you think you are sitting?” and very soon it was clear to the audience that Emre had stepped on his shoes. Professor Trivedi is a renowned critic and writer and well known among the Commonwealth nations. He is also an expert on Virginia Woolf and used to offer an entire M.Phil course on Woolf in the eighties. Soon enough, he went on to point out to Emre how the reference to India makes the novel more significant to the present audience.
Nevertheless, Emre handled both his questions and his ire with aplomb and clarified that the reference to India was perhaps in her subconscious all along. The loud applause which followed the Professor’s question was revealing though and it was quite clear that he had a fan following of his own in the audience.
Thus ended my third day at JLF and I left for my hotel soon after as we had to board our train later in the evening.
On my way back to Delhi, I was enraptured by memories of the wonderful sessions and speakers, the experiences of meeting long-lost friends and taking in the sheer joy of being a participant at JLF.
To conclude, I would like to put it out there that JLF has definitely enhanced India’s reputation and those of Indian writers to a great extent. It has slowly and steadily put our country on the map of the world and shown how things are done. Combining the cultural heritage of our country, various organisations dealing with climate sustainability, schoolchildren, college students, entrepreneurs looking for platforms, young adults grappling with what our intellectuals are writing, it has done what nobody else has for several years. Although, certain aspects were overlooked, the entire event instilled a sense of pride in one’s identity as an Indian.
Cricket does that and to a certain extent so does Indian cinema. But packed sessions on writers and books, long queues for purchasing books, lining up for book signings, these are definitely an optimistic sign for urban India. I was full of enthusiasm and hope for the young adults, who would benefit the most from this communion of getting together the best minds from across the globe.
Gauri Mishra is a professor at the Department of English at College of Vocational Studies, University of Delhi.