Come With Me to 2016’s Most Famous Literary Fest
Imagine I’m holding hands with a book!
The illustrious Jaipur Literature Festival means different things to different people. For bookworms it opens up a wider spectrum to the literary world, a new excitement. For intellectuals, it gifts opportunity to pick famous brainy heads they wouldn’t normally get to meet.
It is a colorful five day affair with pizza for holiday making families while remaining the hottest selfie spot in Jaipur for everyone under 18.
Not to mention, it also regularly dishes out a fresh batch of inspired, young & hungry writers who go truckling all over the place in desperate search of advice. This 2016, I was one of them.
I was snoozing in bed in Gurgaon, when someone dropped a silent bombshell upon me, informing me that the festival had already begun days ago. Nice of them to slip it in my inbox. They missed my hysterics over the three precious days already past & with them the sessions containing Margaret Atwood, Stephan Fry & Amish Tripathi.
Guilt aside, I harassed my bemused parents into shipping me to Jaipur. I tossed my & mom’s clothes into a handbag, booked 5 am train tickets single handedly (which has got to be some sort of a record for a 13 year old ) & nearly missed the train as our Ola cab came bustling on the dark, early morning road just fifteen minutes before the train left. After two ditched car bookings, my mother indignantly phoned Ola Customer Service & had ‘a word’ with the man on other end. I think she frightened him.
But thanks to her, that I later sat in this zooming train, watching the deep highs & lows of the plains under a sky which grew clearer & bluer every second. Mothers: Even when they’re wrong, they turn out right.
Carrying with us the oddly salty scent of the train, we stepped on the station, to almost instantly find our military rides. By the grace of my father’s rank as a Colonel in the Indian Army & an eminent 25 year career, we could get good rides & lodging on practically any given state in the nation through a network of Army buddies. Now quick as we were in roaring off in the jeep outside the airport, what wasn’t as instant was actually hunting out the Diggi Palace.
Through a haze of bottle-necked roads with surprisingly small buildings but still a lot of ruckus, we wasted over an hour dropping off at the hotel & back. At last we stood at the gates of Diggi Palace.
It was a shade dramatic.
Hundreds of people swirled ahead paying for Entry Passes & fending off hawkers, picking up newspapers even though there would be no time inside to read them. But they’re free, my mother argued over the din. (Note to self: Can Indians resist anything free?)
The festival has come a long way. What started with 14 speakers in 2005, now holds over half a million souls on its grounds. Hailed world wide as the ‘largest literary fest with a brain’, it has even been replicated in other parts of the world but none which similar success. The decorations were breath taking.
The sky overhead hung with shimmering, angel-like Rajasthani puppets in strings. Dust rose high on the cobbled road. Jaipur certainly surpassed everything in its preparations this time. But as many would tell you, it would have been more peaceful & meaningful had it been quieter. Everyone has the right to join the Fest, but I’d never really expected such a crowd.
It made me wonder to see so many people, because these weren’t Bollywood stars that were hiding behind those tents. Just books. Everyday authors; silently crusading literary geniuses who probably deserved more recognition than they got. It made me happy to see such excitement for them now.
In one sentence, the Jaipur Lit Fest is 5 days of constant sessions. This time, there were 174 of them. Brainiacs, big wigs, authors, politicians & nerds — call them what you will — all arrive here in a convenient host. As you stumble into the main alley of the grounds, you will be handed a colorful map which proves simply the vastness of the area.
Many would advise you to just come a day early, because it is impossible to navigate the grounds with a human sea swirling about you. And if you lose your mom thrice, like I did, be prepared for a wave of maternal fury.
So let me tell you about the first session of the day, I’m sharing one of my favorite sessions: ‘On Empire.’
Continuing the age-old debate of the British imperialism & the massive sucking of resources from colonies — Congress leader, history nerd & viral Oxford speaker, Shashi Tharoor, questioned whether Britain should pay reparations. British Minister of Parliament, Tristam Hunt took the opposite side. He’s also known to be a considerably learnt historian.
The energy was simply buzzing for the talk. The crowds tried to grasp each man’s articulate yet nebulous points, chuckling at the comic relief occasionally provided by mediator & Tharoor’s old college friend Swapan Dasgupta.
Both politicians rallied back and forth with historical points, the exploits of the British on Indian resources, culture & trade. Tharoor commented on the irony of Indian Constitution nearly replicating the British Parliament system even after independence because ‘that was what we had been taught and conditioned to.’ He also named Nehru as the primary voice of rebellion.
Dasgupta showed mock horror.
‘You mean Mahatma Gandhi wasn’t our main leader?’
‘Oh no, of course not.’ sighed the Shashi Tharoor exasperatedly. ‘See Swapan is trying just so hard to get me a headline in the papers tomorrow.’
While agreeing to the brutality of his country’s measures, Hunt argued for the development which the British left in their wake.
Together, both agreed about the absence of true knowledge of Britain’s imperialism in the textbooks of its own school children. It was like a bloodied, buried history they never knew of. And both politicians agreed finally, that it was better to ‘leave the past in the past & not force Britain to pay large sums to the Indian government. The more practical measure would be to reach people through NGO’s.’
Even as this matter was left in peace for the governments, agreement surged ahead on how our history shapes us, and forgetting it would only make us the weak & ignorant ones.
As PM Modi himself talks about ‘looking to the future’ a new leaf has turned over. Even as this matter was covered in peace, our roots should never be forgotten. The British Empire, even with its villainy at times, must be exposed to the children of the world.
Questions for the qudience opened up and even I got a chance to ask. But the clear whopper of all the questions, was when a man asked how the MP’s own moral compass allowed him to be on one of the ‘most corrupt party in all of Indian history.’ This followed huge whopping cheers in the crowds.
‘Tough crowd.’ chuckled Tharoor. He went on to rightly explain how one authority cannot be blamed as the big & bad, often it is the unseen bureaucrats & middle men who snatch away ‘the regulated financial aid to a man living below the poverty line, the government hospital bed which forces the pregnant lady to give birth on the floor.’ These articulate points stirred up general acceptance in the listeners as they applauded enthusiastically moments later. I do think that wasn’t that good though, because the middlemen are only as lax as the leaders on top of them allow them to be.
I’ll have to gloss over some other important talks now. ‘To the Stars & Back’ was the first woman ever of Iranian descent & Muslim religion, complete her dream to travel in space. I found many of her experiences in training & childhood memories rather inspiring but also morose.
Her most notable line was, ‘When I was in space, so far above, the earth was beautiful. When you reach high enough to see the whole picture the lines blur. Cities blur and countries fade into each other as the entire earth seems one. It makes me wonder at the boundaries we unseeingly now place.’
Then, Travel Session exposed a rather undiscovered world. I found out the sheer beauty of travel description, and how each author as they read their work on the podium had achieved so many different ways of artistically presenting a thing. Each claimed that contrary to some misconception, travel writing certainly wasn’t dead & wasn’t going to be so for a very long time.
Colin Thubron, widely acclaimed as the greatest travel writer alive, turned out to be an unassuming old gentleman with decades of experience.
He seemed quaintly surprised to be admiringly referred again and again, and at least exclaimed, ‘I feel the only way for me to now match up to your expectations would be to disappear in a puff of smoke.’ This followed a smattering of chuckles.
He advised young writers to ‘Note down details. The way someone’s eyebrows arched, how the wind felt on your face. This helped me a lot.’
And on ideas it was: ‘Find your own way of seeing the world.’
Adding to the pile of advantages for bookworms in here, the Lit Fest also serves as your dream destination to meet writers who would normally be home, writing in their pajamas. I found Nilanjana Roy. An intellectual speaker with a deep, wonderfully warming voice she made articulate points on the vast literature of India and how Bengali, Urdu, brilliant literature in our country is left unappreciated due to our preference of Western authors & how there is so much literary magic left to be read in our own nation.
I left this festival feeling a little funny. It’s no small feat to know that people’s writing careers have been far longer than one’s meagre age of a about a decade and a half.
The Jaipur Literary Fest I decided, wasn’t only for writers. There was something for everyone. Culture which could relate to every country, ideas which can spark off new ventures. Intelligent ideas about everything imaginable.
An intellectual buffet where you can throw up twice over and it still won’t be enough.
I hope my own experiences make you come on your own next time, all the way to Jaipur. It is most certainly worth it. From traveler to traveler, you may have trouble with the tickets, the heat and the crowds. You may be battling a cold and running around for a handkerchief half the time like I was.
But without doubt, one thing is certain. You will take back a sea of magical stories with yourself.