On the last day of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), before dawn broke I woke up to the sound of prayer from the nearby mosque. The muezzin’s deep voice made its way to my hotel courtyard, its corridor and finally into my room. I woke up, turned on the light and VS Naipaul’s photo on the front page of DNA newspaper caught my attention, which was lying under the door of my hotel room.
“You don’t know what you’re getting into. You can’t go in, if you can, you can’t get out. This is ridiculous,” an irritated foreigner said as she struggled to leave Diggi Palace, the festival venue. Her brief tirade was heard by many who were probably waiting to catch a glimpse of Naipaul on the penultimate day of the event.
Minutes before his session was about to begin, the entry gate appeared to be blocked with teeming visitors. Unsure of being able to attend the session, I headed back to the hotel, disappointed. So did two journalists from Delhi I knew.
According to the festival estimates, a record number of more than 2, 00,000 people visited the Diggi Palace over five days. The sessions by former Indian president APJ Abdul Kalam and Naipaul attracted the largest number – 5,000 for each event.
“I realized how this festival, which in spite of its trifling inadequacies – the access is a nightmare, toilets un-kept and creepy commercialisation of even the kulhad tea – brought the high priests of literature right at my doorstep,” wrote Siddhartha Bose in the DNA story.
Indeed. The literature festival, believed to be the largest in Asia-Pacific region, mostly gets the attention of the press for reasons more dramatic than literary or intellectual. This year it was the emotional reunion of Naipaul and his former protégé and travel writer Paul Theroux that got everyone hooked to the show. The Nobel laureate, too frail to talk continuously, broke down as his ex-adversary compared him to Charles Dickens.
On the last day of the festival, commentator Suhel Seth reportedly taking BJP leader Shazia Ilmi to task excited many on Twitter. A friend from Delhi, a former journalist, texted me to know what had exactly happened. I didn’t watch TV debates or their adaptations, I told her.
And of course, the controversies over Ashis Nandy’s comments on Dalits or Salman Rushdie’s absence may be a thing of past but have hardly faded from public memory.
So I decided to look away from the bold headlines and explored sessions I knew nothing about or looked up names in the schedule I hadn’t heard of, ever. Like American Gilbert King, who talked about racial discrimination in the U.S. when four black men were falsely accused of raping a white woman in 1949. His book, on the same subject, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013.
Earlier in the day, a tall bearded American talked with Jeet Thayil about his fascination for footnotes, which sometimes exceeded the length of the main text. He liked to stretch moments into pages and pages, whether it was writing about a puff of air being blown or a man taking an elevator. Nicholson Baker, who has written a fair amount on sex, said he always felt uncomfortable about reading the erotic bits in public.
I also had a chance to listen to ancient texts written in Pali, Bangla, Kannada, Punjabi, Persian, Sinhalese in a single session. Although the guests translated their readings into English, the mere sound of so many languages in a matter of a few minutes was a novel experience.
And did you know ‘yeti’ is a dangerous creature that exists in Bhutan? Apparently no one has seen it, and those who do don’t survive to narrate the encounter. And then, there are these ‘transrunners’ – monks who learn to walk thousands of kilometers in 100 days. There are only a few such in Bhutan, we were told, and those who know this art don’t talk about it.
The world’s highest unclimbed mountain is in Bhutan as well. Located in the Himalayan nation near the Tibetan border, it stands at 24,981 feet.
From Bhutan I was transported to the fantasy world of Cat Weatherill, a British performer-storyteller. She dramatised the story of an African girl, Muthoni, and her necklace, which she gets as a gift for curing the ‘river goddess’ of her ailments. Also as a gift, the goddess saves the girl from a dragon. But the monster eventually devours other girls because they refuse to help the goddess. In another story, a grumpy and much-reviled old man ends up marrying his domestic maid, who wears wooden ears but hears nothing.
On Sunday, as the festival gradually neared its end, a huge number of people waited to see Ram Jethmalani and Shobhaa De for a session called “Devil’s Advocate”. As usual, it was hard to find a spot to stand and as the veteran lawyer and former union minister waved at the crowd, the Google Mughal Tent seemed to be drowned in a roar of applause.
I managed to find my way out of the venue as I had a train to board. Getting out of the main gate where people still yearned to get in, I thought of the woman who enjoyed her life wearing wooden ears made by her dead husband.
(Writing and photography by Ankush Arora)