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The Jaipur Literature Festival: A carnival to remember

Resplendent peacocks welcome you as you enter the gates of Diggi Palace. And then you are subjected to an airport style scan and frisking — only done a lot more politely and quickly. The vibrant colours of Rajasthan are all over the premises. And if you prefer to be an early bird like me, you will find the long-haired Sanjoy K Roy standing there to greet you with a warm smile. William Dalrymple couldn’t be around this year. Welcome to the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF2019).

I asked some of my friends whether they were interested in accompanying me to the JLF. One response which intrigued me was: “It is supposed to be very pseudo-intellectual. You can always watch what you want on YouTube. Why do you want to be there?” I let the idea sit in my head for a few days but I couldn’t get over the impulse. I had to be in Jaipur. I wanted to experience what was called “the greatest literary carnival on earth”.

General entry was free after online registration. What could be better! My friend, Puneeta agreed to join me only on the Republic Day weekend. I looked at the long list of attending authors in the packed programme and decided that I couldn’t miss my favourites on Day 1 and 2. So I reached there all by myself on Day 1. As I scrambled to the Diggi Palace after dumping my bags in the hotel, the Ola taxi guy grumbled saying he didn’t know why all roads leading to the venue were jam-packed. Traffic was moving at a snail’s pace. Khaki clad policemen snapped at taxis who were slowing down. But then it was their job. The attendance this year at the JLF was around 5,00,000!

The first thing I had to get used to was being called ‘Aunty’. Well, the average crowd there was below 30 years of age, and people like me were outnumbered. There were two categories of participants in that age group. The first were the genuine readers, several of them keen bloggers. They listened intently, and asked really thought-provoking questions. You looked at them and felt proud that the GenX in India was reading so much. The other group of youngsters were those who came to gawk at the celebrities, take a hundred selfies, and enjoy the food and shopping experience. This category was typified by a lad I encountered in the queue on Day 1 who asked his friends, “Koi mujhe yeh batayega ki andar hota kya hai, aur log yahaan aane ke liye marte kyon hai?!” (Will some one tell me what happens inside and why people are dying to get in?)

But all credit has to be given to the efficiency and ‘TeamWork’ of the organizers. They had planned in detail and trained their volunteers to handle the burgeoning crowds. Catriona Mitchell constantly reminded us of evacuation procedures in case of a calamity. When you were warned to bring woollens you should have listened. Jaipur was freezing at this time of the year. And most sessions are in the open under colourful Jaipuri shamianas. And very thoughtfully every venue had an author signing tent beside it. Diggi Palace is a privately owned property and the owners exhibited warm Rajasthani hospitality by being present where the famous Diggi Tandoori Chai was being served. It was fun to see the food stalls and handicraft stalls. What I loved was seeing the swimming pool being innovatively converted into a Pool Bazaar.

My favourite time of the day was early in the morning. The venues were empty, I loved photographing them. And the idea was to get a vantage seat in the Front Lawn for the best sessions to follow. Mornings began with an hour of music. And each session was better than the previous one. On Republic Day, Vidya Shah’s repertoire from Sabarmati ashram’s prayers were apt. I enjoy calming music in the mornings so thumris, horis and bhajans were appreciated. That did lead me to wonder how the booming Usha Uthup would sound in the morning. But as always she sang marvellously and left us all overwhelmed with a pertinent song for the occasion: “It’s only words, and words are all I have”. She was in tears when she finished that session. Amar Sangam’s fingers strummed magic on the guitar.

But then JLF is all about the writers. Some of the biggest names in literature from India and abroad were in attendance. There were simultaneous sessions in six venues: Front Lawn, Charbagh, Mughal Tent, Durbar Hall, Baithak and Samvaad. And it was mighty tough to choose where to go and what to listen to. The biggest crowds were for Jeffrey Archer, Shashi Tharoor, Gulzar, Usha Uthup, Shabana Azmi, Javed Akhtar, Manisha Koirala, Yann Martel and Andrew Sean Greer. But none of the sessions went empty. People were listening, and interacting enthusiastically.

I picked sessions where authors spoke about their craft of writing and enjoyed them immensely. Yann Martel, Andre Aciman, Gulzar and Andrew Greer were authors who were very inspiring to upcoming writers. I particularly liked a session on the research needed in writing biographies. A whole series of discussions on women issues was lined up. There were also sessions teaching you about marketing and publishing, which I did not enjoy much. Each day there were book launches. After each session there were opportunities for book signing and the First Circle book shop was always packed with readers.

The quality of the discussions depended on the moderators. There were all kinds: well-read, inquisitive, provocative, sensitive, pompous, preachy, and boring. The same could be said of the authors. I have written separate posts about some sessions and plan to add some more posts in the days to come. So here, just have a look at some of the authors who made the trip to Jaipur worthwhile.

Personally, I loved the first three days, when Category One youngsters were in plenty. On Saturday (Republic Day) and Sunday afternoon the whole of Category Two landed up on the lawns of Diggi Palace, making me rather claustrophobic. I couldn’t take being pushed around by the crowds any more and disappeared as I needed to breathe. Long queues of people lined up to enter the venue even as I left at 4.30 p.m. I think Monday would have been much better without the gawkers.

I was all excited about the whole experience, which I found both intense and interesting. Every evening, I stayed till the peacocks started honking at dusk. One amused friend remarked: “You must have had an intellectual orgasm”!

Would I attend the JLF again? Yes I would. Simply because being with these writers and thinkers makes you feel better about the world. It opens up your mind and teaches you to respect diverse opinions. And most of all it, it showed me how much there is to read, and how little time I have.

What would I do differently next time? Pack in more woollens and be more prepared for Jaipur’s icy winds. And book online for extra baggage, as one is tempted to buy so many books and get them signed by the authors!


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