Hitchhikers’ guide to the Jaipur Literature Festival

Written by  //  January 26, 2011  //  Media & Popular Culture, Uncategorized  //  2 Comments

(Mukul Sharma and Suhas Baliga recount their weekend expedition to the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival)

In many ways, we both share the dubious distinction of being ‘Almost Writers’; writers that were, would have been, could be, should be, can be, please be, and the many other bees that hummed around us, thus forcing us to indulge in writing and appreciating our writing, but never really up to the hard task of going to work with pen and paper, dwindling the riches and comforts of private practice, Volvo buses and a Bisleri bottle. This was the idea anyway. A bus ride to Jaipur, sight seeing, random debauchery and maybe if we were lucky, a little bit of the literature festival. As an Almost Writer, you don’t hound literature festivals, you follow them on twitter and facebook but only if it is really in the news, and has enough facebook friends hooking up links and updates. What also happens with Almost Writers, is you end up intoxicated in the wee hours of the morning in a compartment of the Shatabdi travelling ticketless and generally disturbed about having to make a trip on a precious weekend!

We did eventually enter Diggi Palace; a haveli converted into a heritage hotel and the venue of the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) quite easily.  There was little hustle, much bustle, like a late entrance into a leisurely Delhi wedding reception lunch on a winter afternoon, and yes, with a fair spattering of ‘firangs’ (To the credit of JLF, we were forced to turn our heads many times over by as many Indians, but more on that later).

On the front lawns there stood a massive (but gorgeous!) crowd, not much like the wedding reception, but the most colourful, most interesting – waahs and oohs resounding. On the stage, Gulzar, Javed Akhtar and Prasoon Joshi holding the crowd to much drama, Akhtar explaining away sub-standard Bollywood fare by describing it as a glorious gift of democracy, yes – democracy, which makes India beautiful and ofcourse, tasteless, what gets produced, and what writers produce reflect a coalition of flavours voted in by the masses. Gulzar was soon conducting a viva voce on which old songs a school girl knew that made her say they were so much more simple and better. Then there were other piquant observations which suddenly paled into the background when one of us noticed that many in the audience were having beer, and of course why not, on a glorious sunny winter afternoon in Jaipur. Why not!

Akthar - Art and democracy

An estimated 50,000 visited the JLF over its 5 days, an unusually high number for a literature festival, which left many of the participating authors overwhelmed. There were higher numbers on weekends, when some of the Delhi crowd did its literature road trip. The crowds though were surprisingly well behaved for an Indian crowd. One would bump into people to hear apologies and a sincere smile. Though we are all close to a stampede, after all this was a pilgrimage sight, credit to the sponsors – there wasn’t a 100 rupee express darshan. There weren’t x-ray machines, frisk and feel ups, caste system (all areas are open to all, being a Delegate only helps if you want to binge on scotch at the same counters). From writers, to film stars everyone part of the same throng which shifted from venue to venue through Diggi Palace. You could smell the next person, who wouldn’t smell like the next, if you are keen on that kind of thing. Though trust us, you wouldn’t mind some of it at all!

Festival throngs

For us, on both days the routine involved wading through these throngs from venue to venue, venue to watering hole, from the hole to the pool, and back to the venues, the shops, the book signings. Each time, there would be distractions. We are rushing for this session on Memoirs but wait; there is a gang of college (or school?) kids humming Knocking on the heaven’s door….with a guitar and we stop there, beer, cigarettes and all. There’s a panel discussion on The Future of Pakistan between Mani Shankar Aiyar and MJ Akbar but we stop to hear Arundhati Subramanian recite her poem the accusation of being too un-Indian to be writing about India.

The sari says it all!

There were moments; when you felt blessed; to be listening to famously reclusive JM Coetze reading out a story of the soul – of a Spanish cottage and an old woman with cats; you felt happy to join everyone who hung on to every single word, spellbound; you laughed when Ashok Chakradhar forgot the name of the moderator and went on to recite beautifully the awful poetry that came out of Kapil Sibal and his cellphone; ironic moments when you stood in the “Merril Lynch” Mughal Tent or the “Economist” Durbar Hall listening to an American, a Brit and a Mumbaikar talking about their respective memoirs being moderated by a Malyali and forgot that globalisation was a word you first heard in a school debate.

A story for the soul

There was much for the literary inclined, there was much for the celebrity inclined as well; for those who swung both ways, it was an orgy. Om Puri walked undisturbed. Few noticed Tarun Tejpal, fewer did, Rajat Kapoor. Koel Puri drew the stares, so did Kabir Bedi. Ruskin Bond got mobbed and didn’t look particularly pleased for it. No one bothered Vidhu Vinod who looked ready to punch the next guy who got in a foot’s radius. Orhan Pamuk was chatty while signing the books, Coetze dignified.

Bond, Ruskin Bond.

There were the diplomats, the bureaucrats, the politicians, an ex CM, a current CM. Add to this Jaipur school kids, attractive volunteers, the famous aunties of Delhi, their daughters, splash of Mumbai artsy and Delhi arsty, a lot of fartsy, small writers, big writers, readers, dedicated readers, loyal readers, potential readers, potential writers, students, academics, family picnics, skin and hair of various colours, countries, communities, elite, some not so elite, some certainly not, a fair bit of intoxication and everyone easily conversational, the invitation was warm. The sunrays blew away the breeze, cigarette smoke graced the air. This was joyous, noisy and throngy but warm and fun.

Rock!

After indulging the literary, the evenings broke into revelry and a concert. Indian classical followed by sufi rock. The qawwali made better by the alcohol and hope of love, as threads of conversations with beautiful strangers were cheered by hands rising in applause; matching the beat. You picked up from where you left; along with that glass.

Qawwali

Classical

However, joyous and eclectic the crowd, like one of one of our lovers (collaborating can be tricky!) put it so well – there are three pillars to a festival, the art, artist and audience and the better the festival, the more seamlessly they interact. This was the crowning glory of JLT. Yes, maybe there was more English than Indian or international, yes, maybe Shell was sponsoring an event, maybe it was all getting a little too political at times, a little pedestrian sometimes, we all had our observations and reservations.

But with the finest of art, the finest of artists, an audience of connoisseurs, fineness of spirit doesn’t sit all too far. On two winter Jaipur days, we found much warmth and epidemic enthusiasm. The spirits conspired to make JLT the joyous party we little expected but thoroughly enjoyed. We wish to return, year after year.

About the Author

Suhas Baliga is a Delhi-based lawyer and constantly interacts with policy, government and business. His other interests include history, politics and popular culture. He hopes that in his engagement with Critical Twenties blog, his randomness will be excused as provocation!

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2 Comments on "Hitchhikers’ guide to the Jaipur Literature Festival"

  1. Tanushree Baidya January 27, 2011 at 5:39 am ·

    Almost Writers in a JLF.. .. The cynicism , the honest appreciation, the descriptions, the enthusiasm et all.. good read.. :)

  2. Sidharth Chauhan February 3, 2011 at 4:21 pm ·

    great post guys – you should stop this self-deprecation and unleash your writing talent more often :) Hope to go to the JLF next year, preferably with ticketless travel

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