Jaipur Literature Festival 2010

by Ahalya on February 7, 2010

jlf5In a nutshell, I was both hugely disappointed, and pleasantly surprised by the fest. The JLF (which was held from 21-25 January this year) changed the way I will read books, shop for them, and think about authors. But, I do wish that there had been more space, more time between events to chat with readers, and more room given to the publishers and editors.

I found out more about the ‘reading culture’ of the day and age we live in than would have been possible by a walk through some of our best, or unknown bookstores.

Part I: Jaipur Literature Festival – Overview

First, the venue. Diggi Palace is where the festival has been held since the start. I did not get to see the palace, the sessions are held in the lawns and in the durbar hall. From what I have heard from JLF veterans the festival has been growing exponentially, and very soon the crowds will become unmanageable. I saw evidence of this on all the days I was there, except funnily enough, on the last day of the festival. On the first three days there was barely standing room in the most of the venues. So, if you are planning to go for the festival next year, carefully plan which sessions you want to attend, and get to the venue way before time. If you can’t get in, stand outside the tent and listen in. The acoustics are fine. That’s what I had to do sometimes.

Sessions: There is something happening in all of the four venues all the time. Starting from 10 a.m. till 6 p.m there are book readings, panel discussions, and interactions with the audience. After 6 p.m. the music performances begin.

Of the many sessions I attended, the ones I really appreciated were the ones in which the publishers got to interact with the authors and the audience. For me, those sessions were full of valuable knowledge. In my opinion, the book reading sessions could have been better utilised by having the author talk about his/her writing experience rather than simply reading from his/her book. But well, in a way, the book reading sessions helped me get acquainted with authors I had not read.

The speaker-audience connect:

What I really liked about the JLF was the egaliatarian-ness of it. Entry is free and you could find yourself sitting next to the author of your favourite series, or a lady who has read every single word ever written about Jane Austen, or a young boy who can demand from Roddy Doyle, ‘Why do you have so many dogs in your books?’.  For me, the most important event at the Lit Fest was where I got to listen to Alexander McCall Smith and asked him to sign my copies of his books. I even got to speak with him for 4 minutes 35 seconds!

And there were so many well-read people there! At the risk of sounding bookist, I was amazed at the wide variety of readers we have in this country (and the world). I should get out of Mumbai more often! There were readers who could converse with ease on esoteric subjects with authors who write mighty tomes on the subject, and there were intelligent conversations I overheard during tea and dinner between people who seemed to have been reading their way through life! There were several schoolchildren there as well, and they picked up an eclectic choice of books from the only bookstore at the venue. Large groups of them would flit from one venue to another, but I was kinda happy that most of them didn’t seem like they were hating the festival or were being forced to attend.

The Rest of It: While I wasn’t rushing from one venue to another, armed with my notebook and warm woolies, I was perenially looking for a place to sit and gather my thoughts. Because of the packed schedule I was unable to sit for several sessions that seemed to be more important than the one I had attended. So my advice, go with friends and split up. They have uploaded videos of some of the sessions, but not of quite a few that I had missed. Take notes, after you attend the fourth session of the third day, you start forgetting who said what and if you had heard this author say this about that author or vice versa. Move around during tea and dinner time. Dinner is served only to paid delegates, speakers, organisers and members of the press, there aren’t too many eateries around Diggi. It will be next to impossible to chat someone up at the venue because you just don’t have the time. 

Part II: Speakers

I will start with Devdutt Pattanaik. Unfortunately, I did not get to attend the session in which he was the speaker, but managed to listen in on the session where he was the moderator (the speaker was Roberto Calasso). And I was blown away by the exactness of his language. The precise, neat, complete way in which he can explain some of the most complex subjects of mythology. You really must read his works.

066_modAnd Alexander McCall Smith. He is the real real reason I went to Jaipur, to be honest. I wasn’t thinking about the rest of the festival. Did you know that he writes at least 5000-6000 words a day, and he nearly never rewrites his first draft! Well! No wonder he manages to write so many books a year, and more power to him!

Geoff Dyer: Witty! I really liked listening to him talk about Travel Writing, and I hear that he is writing another book, this time based on his travels in the south of India.

Brigid Keenan: How had I ever missed hearing about her? She is also a travel writer. A hilariously reluctant travel writer. Scared of every form of transport, convinced that the vehicle or the driver is totally dangerous. I recommend her book ‘Diplomatic Baggage’ for those who want a different kind of travel writer to read.

Claire Tomalin: A diligent researcher I have begun to idolise. She has delved into the lives of so many literary greats (Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens’ mistress) and presented really important details about their writing and personal lives that she has managed to unearth.

Mridula Koshy: I picked up ‘If It Is Sweet’, a month ago and wasn’t able to take it in more than a page at a time, but that’s because the images she conjures with her words tend to stay on in my mind long after the the last words on the page have played out. I heard her speak about the art and the importance of short stories and I realised that this is a woman who can really make words do her bidding. She weaves her thoughts into words beautifully.

Nilanjana Roy: She was the moderator for quite a few sessions, and I ended up attending those sessions for her, even if I did not know the speakers on the panel. I loved the way she would reign authors and the audience in, finding similarities between what was said and what was once written by someone, adding depth and value to what the authors were saying.

Lord Meghnad Desai: I had read his columns in newspapers and expected someone who would always be way too serious for me. How wrong I was! I was entertained immensely by listening to his thoughts about Sita, and the kind of wife she was. I am preparing to wade into the fat tome he has written about Indian history.

Michael Frayn: An author I found in BCL one June many years ago, and in whose book I found some important advice which I cannot share in a public forum such as this. He is the author of the hugely successful play ‘Noises Off’ which I would have loved to see.

There were many, many more authors I would have loved to write in detail about, and I will. Soon as I get my thoughts together and read their books. If you could share with me your experience reading the works of any of these authors, do write in.

Oh yes, one thing did strike me as very odd. The Tehelka Readership Survey, the results of which were published to coincide with the festival. It got it all wrong, about everything. Sample size: 1152 people. Nine cities. And what they found was that Delhi and Mumbai have the lowert book budget, that women make up only 15% of the reading public (in English), and that not a single reader surveyed in Chandigarh or Delhi read for pleasure. The findings of this survey were unanimously slammed by Ravi Singh (Penguin India), Urvashi Bhutalia (Zubaan), Amitava Kumar (author) and V. K. Karthika (Harper Colins). And I am glad they slammed it in no uncertain terms. A sample size that small doesn’t make sense at all!


{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Swapna March 13, 2010 at 11:14 am

Hmm. I got tips for a couple of new writers (the travel category mostly) from this post. Travel + humour = ideal. Must wait until I get back to Cochin, I think, though.
What on earth do you find to say to the writers? I couldn’t think of a word to speak, except possibly “You…oooh”, which wouldn’t make for very intelligent conversation and in fact might have the event organisers descending on me armed with softly padded straitjackets and a lock with a single-use key.


admin March 20, 2010 at 3:05 pm

Let me know what you think of Brigid Keenan! I hope you like the book. And what do you tell authors, nothing interesting, as it turns out. All I came up with was ‘I love your books, I really do. And I hope you NEVER stop writing’… there was some more, but that’s the gist of it. I sounded SO LAME!


Swapna March 25, 2010 at 12:02 pm

Can’t have been as lame as that if you spoke for over 4 min and he didn’t edge away from you. Unless you had his sleeve in an iron grip.


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