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January 29, 2017

The Zee Jaipur Literature Festival 2017: Of Curses, Verses and A Literary Marvel

Text by Huzan Tata

The tenth edition of the fest was all about ancient histories, new authors, and honing the art of writing…

I’m walking down the aerobridge, my copy of Breakfast At Tiffany’s firmly in hand, waiting to get to my seat so I can resume reading. In front of me is a familiar looking face, his nose already buried in a book. I walk a bit faster so as to be at his side, and as we step into the plane headed for Jaipur, I get a peek at his boarding pass for a seat two rows behind me, tucked into his copy of The Sleepwalker. It’s Eka Kurniawan, Indonesian writer, who was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year.

Such is the beauty of a literary festival. It brings Booker Prize nominees, new and acclaimed writers, bibliophiles and inspiration together on a single platform. This edition of the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) – that completes a decade this year – opens at its regular haunt The Diggi Palace Hotel, to a massive crowd charmed by the tunes of the Shillong Chamber Choir singing Vande Mataram and by Gulzar’s poetic words, before festival co-director William Dalrymple takes to the mike. “The first edition probably had 70 people, 12 of whom were Japanese tourists who got lost looking for Amer!” he reminisces. Ten years later, there are thousands of people packed like sardines, and soon everyone is scrambling for their schedules to pick an event to start the day with.

THE WORLD AT YOUR SEAT

The written word can take you from foreign lands to local shores, and from the Mughal era to Victorian England with the turn of a page. And a literature festival is no different. I start my day with a session titled Migration, that has writers of Iranian descent Lila Azam Zanganeh and Sholeh Wolpe and Belarusian poet Valzhyna Mort in conversation with Tishani Doshi about living away from home, crossing borders, and how it affects their work. Through their brilliant readings, you can almost feel their pain. But pain isn’t what Kashmiri writers Naseem Shafaie and Neerja Mattoo talk about in How Green Was My Valley – all they do is reminisce about their gorgeous land and what it used to be before unrest changed it forever. “My valley was beautiful because we had peace, we had people loving each other.” If only others understood.

A delightful session on foreign correspondents talking about the dangers and thrills of their job has the veteran Mark Tully regale audiences with stories of his days in the field. “The only time my life was under threat was during the Babri Masjid demolition,” he says. We then travel to the US with 2016 Man Booker Prize winner Paul Beatty, whose The Sellout is a satire on racial segregation and slavery (he hates slotting novels under labels or themes, we learn through the talk).

DAYS OF LORE

History takes precedence on our second day (also known as the-day-I-got-trampled-by-a-stampede-for-Rishi-Kapoor), as we sit enthralled by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand talking about the life of the Kohinoor, a ‘cursed’ jewel and the subject of their new book. Only a magician like Dalrymple can narrate 150 years of history in 20 minutes and have his audience in rapt attention. Later, biographer A. N. Wilson and Shrabani Basu take us through the life of Queen Victoria and her relationship with Abdul, her Indian attendant. While Indian and British writers take us through the growth of the East India Company within our borders (where once again, Dalrymple narrates with such candour – “Nutmegs were like the 16th century version of Louis Vuitton luggage”, bringing in the laughs), it’s Shashi Tharoor’s speech-turned-book An Era Of Darkness that has the audience applauding every word. “A senior British official once told me ‘We’ll never apologise to you because if we did, we’d have to apologise to 131 different countries!’” the politician tells me later. Karan Mahajan and Manu Joseph bring us back to storytelling in the present day, in Writing Our Times. “When you find someone in real life who is so unbelievable that you have to write about them, it is a triumph.”

THE LONG AND SHORT OF IT      

From the art of writing memoirs – where I discover the brilliant Hyeonseo Lee, who’s penned her story of escaping North Korea to build a new life – to rewriting myths and history for fiction, JLF is home to it all. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni reveals how she thought of rewriting mythology in The Palace Of Illusions simply because she wanted to give the women a voice, and we learn from Tully once again, how writing a short story can be as or even more challenging than a thick tome!

Both Anand and Wilson also join a stellar panel at The Biographers Ball, discussing the challenges, joys, highs and lows of capturing someone’s life in print. “You have to be slightly obsessive to become a biographer,” says Anand. A session on writing novels too, leaves us with innumerable lessons – “The reader knows nothing; you owe them everything” and “what you’ve written should impress you before anyone else” are just a few thoughts from the award-winning speakers that include Alan Hollinghurst and Adam Thirwell. Our final day sees women cheering a panel discussing Manelists, Misogyny and Mansplaining. The festival culminates by remembering the bard’s era, through Neil MacGregor’s Shakespeare’s Restless World.     

On my way back from Jaipur – my bag heavier thanks to the autographed copies I will add to my ever-growing collection – I am lost in thought, wondering if there will ever come a day when every face from the crowd will come to JLF solely for the love of books. Not to ogle at their favourite Bollywood or Tollywood star, or to sit in a session just to escape the sun (giving these people a piece of my mind has been on my bucket list for a while). Not to get an author to sign a book they’ll probably never open in their lives except to take a selfie with the autographed page. All that said, it’s always thrilling to experience a celebration of this magnitude dedicated entirely to the written word. After all, there are only so many times in your life you get to walk onto a plane with a Booker Prize nominee and to attend talks with some of your favourite authors sitting right beside you.

QUOTABLE QUOTES

“In many communities, who your enemy is is handed to you the day you’re born.” –Neelesh Misra

“Precious things may be found in unexpected corners…” –Amruta Patil

“Men and women make the same histories, but do not do so of their own choosing.” -David Cannadine

“When you’re writing about another person, you have to understand that they’re not very different from you.” –Manu Joseph

“The internet doesn’t set people free, people set people free.” –Timothy Garton Ash

“India is seeing Kashmir in a different light…the question of identity has done it a lot of harm.” –Neerja Mattoo

“Literature begins when one language enters another.” –Lila Azam Zanganeh   

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