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January 29, 2016

12 Best Takeaways from ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival 2016

Text by Tanisha Choudhury

These were the moments that inspired us most!

1. Namita Gokhale, one of the festival’s co-directors has been known to describe the festival using a different metaphor every year – one year she called it a pilgrimage or literary kumbh mela and another year a bargad ka ped or a spreading banyan tree. This year the metaphor she used is kathasaritsagar which is the sea of stories.

2. “I think it does change a writer. Certainly a lot more people are paying attention to what I say – sometimes for good and sometimes for bad. That can provide a forum to talk about really important issues. Not that I am trying to become an activist or seizing it to do that. But I do think it makes me more conscious of people paying more attention. Book sales don’t hurt either. But it’s also something that you have to laugh at, a little bit. You can’t take it too seriously. At the same time, I recognise that it has created opportunities, not just for the book to have more exposure but for ideas and issues I want to get off my chest and that ultimately is a good thing,” Marlon James on life after winning the Man Booker Prize for his book A Brief History of Seven Killings in 2015.

3. Ruskin Bond delighted the audience with tales from his school days. After poking fun at a teacher in a skit he wrote, he wasn’t given his school leaving certificate and today, 65 years later he is still waiting on it. “Even if you’re thrown out of school, it shouldn’t stop you from doing something good with your life.” He also gave tips on playing truant – “if you run away from school, make sure you have enough pocket money. The time I ran away from school, I neglected that and the next day when I felt very hungry I came back in time for lunch.”

“I have often written stories about disadvantaged children or those who are having difficult times, because I see something of myself in them. I think many famous authors have had difficult childhoods…when they’re older it helps them to depict, honestly and truthfully, the world of childhood,” Bond’s insight into children’s fiction.

Ruskin Bond also gave some timeless advice on friendship, especially the kind he writes about -“As you get older you realise, you mustn’t look for perfection in your friends. You must look for affection.”

4. Esther Freud spoke about writing advice that worked for her. What separates “the men from the boys, you either do write everyday or you wait for inspiration to strike… I was hoping this wouldn’t be true, but for me it was…. The other thing I discovered that helped me so much was to find the right time of the day when I’m at my best.”

5. “It’s supposed to be cathartic… I don’t feel it necessarily is. I don’t feel that I’m draining a poisonous pus out of the boil of my life…I started out being fascinated by stories about young people growing up because that’s what you’re doing when you read… I was just always fascinated by casting myself as the hero of my own life.” The legendary Stephen Fry spoke about why he and people in general write memoirs. The other panellists discussing the same agreed that memoirs are neither particularly cathartic not narcissistic, as often believed to be, because the author still has to construct a character or a narrator and tell gripping stories.

6. Shobhaa De spoke eloquently about the true meaning of modernity and the warped version of it that we aspire to in our country. “The word modernity is misunderstood, misrepresented, misinterpreted particularly in our context, because there is confusion about what modernity means. To me, it means an absence of prejudice. An open mind is a modern mind. But to have that in our cultural context is not always easy…it’s particularly challenging if you are a woman…A modern woman is instantly suspect…she is bad for society, someone who is upsetting the status quo. Modernity, very simply, is equality and opportunity and a culture and country that recognise that in a fundamental way are a modern society.”

7. “The bleakness of my novel is connected to what an immigrant leaves behind. It’s quite a hopeful thing to voluntarily leave your country for another country. There are dreams and aspirations that come with that. But there’s also a door closing behind, a door that will probably never be opened again. The consequences are usually felt by generations to come.” Sunjeev Sahota painted a poignant picture of the immigrant experience, both in his novel The Year of the Runaways and at the panel, talking about his own experience as the child of immigrants and someone who will perhaps never have a land to call his own.

Read our interview with Sunjeev Sahota here.

8. William Dalrymple made a passionate case for travel writing and its enduring importance. “Some of the earliest texts of man’s writing are books of journeys… from Gilgamesh to the Genesis, through to the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata, it’s a form that has appeared simultaneously and independently in almost all cultures of the world. Travel writing predates the novel by thousands of years.”

9. Marlon James quoted V.S Naipaul on a Jamaican slum – “…it is a place of such ugliness that you can’t take a photo of it, because the beauty of the photographic process will lie to you about how ugly it really is.” He then spoke about his own artistic struggle in writing his book. “That was a challenge. How do you write about ugliness, how do you write about violence, how do you write about unpleasant things? I have a very ambivalent view about beautiful writing about terrible things. There’s a part of me that understands it, but there’s also a part of me that thinks it lets violence off the hook.” He left us with a thought provoking question that was reminiscent of what Susan Sontag has said before – “Is there something to be lost when you subject horrible things to something aesthetic?”

10. Irving Finkel startled the audience with his opening declaration “Board games are at least 9000 years old!” He also made a delightful case for the importance of preserving ancient Indian board games and urged young Indians to take up the task, since he couldn’t do it himself from London, being as he was a curator at the British Museum. When an audience member asked him whether he thought phone games were a threat to traditional board games, his reply was a shudder, followed by “I see them as a threat to humanity.”

11. “You think of yourself as the bird. There is a weird splitting – part of you knows you’re standing on the ground and part of you is with the bird. It’s just really interesting as a psychological phenomenon. You can be something else for a while and there’s a real refuge.” Helen Macdonald, the author of the hugely successful, soaring novel H is for Hawk, spoke about how falconry helped her in the grieving process when she suddenly lost her father.

12. Margaret Atwood said, “One thing that the novel can do is take you into the reality of the time it has been recording for much longer in the future than television can do.” Speaking about the endurance and perpetuity of novels Colm Tóibín called the novel “a shimmering, glittering form that changes as time changes,” reminding us of Neil Gaiman’s description of stories as ancient symbiotic living organisms that shape us as much as we shape them.

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