JLF 2015

After much kwetching over whether to take the train down or fly, eventually I decided to drive down with the new driver, and hope for the best. As usual, given that I had planned an early start ( 5:30 am) the next morning, I ended up with two meetings in Gurgaon that got me home past 9 pm and left little time for thoughtful packing. Serviceable clothes and boots were chucked in, along with spare cape and puffa jacket with hood, keeping last year’s 2 degrees plus windchill mornings in mind.
Then of course, due to work events, I found myself unable to sleep and eventually dozed off only past 3 am, making 5:30 untenable at the outset. Resigning myself to seeing whatever little of day 1 I could manage, I set off, tucked into the middle seat with a pillow under my head and a blanket on me, catching some much-needed zzzs. Imagine my surprise when I found the car pulling into the hotel by 10:30 am, a bare four hours after I left! Though late for the inaugural session, I arrived by the tail end and snagged a seat by Mimi, my soul sister.

The first session, on a new biography of Lawrence of Arabia, was fascinating. Jonathan Shainin was a great moderator who asked thoughtful questions without hogging the mike (something most Indian session moderators could learn from), and Scott Anderson narrated the amazing story of West Asia politics in the post-world-war era, where 20-somethings in the UK drew up lines that divided up countries and set up the roots of the present-day conflict. Greater Syria had said it wanted to remain united, in a poll, while present-day Iraq had said it wanted to be split as per Kurds and others. Of course, precisely the opposite was done, and the Sykes-Picot agreement split the nation that wanted to remain together into Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan, while Iraq stayed a united nation-state. This also negated the promises made to King Feisal by TE Lawrence with the full agreement of the British side…was this where the seeds of distrust that continue till date were sown?

I tried to attend the next session on the decline of reading, which features Girish Karnad and Nayantara Sahgal – the panelists I was interested in – but possibly due to the presence of Prasoon Joshi, the Ford Samvad venue was so full it seemed it would burst if anyone in the audience so much as sneezed! The tail end of Devdutt Pattanaik’s session on the power of myth was quite interesting, though, as an alternate.

The Nordic Noir session by Hakan Nesser and Nils Nordberg was really rousing, punctuated by their very dry and wry sense of humour. When asked what about Scandinavia led to the growth of such lurid crime fiction, Hakan blamed it on the weather!

Jung Chang’s session on the Empress Cixi was a deepdive into Chinese history, starting with her own life story. As a young girl, her family was pro-Mao until the Cultural Revolution, and thus quite privileged When her parents turned against Mao, her father was arrested, tortured and turned mentally unstable due to the treatment he received, while Jung Chang worked as a steel-worker and a doctor, all without training, as Mao believed that training was too bourgeois! Her mother too was physically assaulted by various Red Guards and quite viciously beaten. Once Mao died, Jung appeared for a scholarship exam and became part of the first Chinese contingent of students sponsored by the State to study abroad.  

She spoke eloquently about how all the while she was in China, she had the urge to write but had to keep her thoughts hidden in her mind for fear of reprisals, but when she came to England, free to express herself, words failed her. It was years later when her mother came to stay and narrated the story of 3 generations of women from the family that Jung began to write again, the output of which was Wild Swans.

Her research on Cixi revealed some fascinating facets of the Empress who is otherwise reviled as a temperamental despot. Jung found evidence of her feminism in the banishing of the custom of bound feet, and said the Empress had a very strong will to protect and strengthen China, leading to her support for the Boxers and antipathy towards the Gai-jin, and many measures that served to bring China from medieval to the modern age.

God’s Traitors was yet another fascinating biography of a family of Catholics under Elizabeth Ist’s reign. Historian Jessie Childs maintained that the kind of religious control sought to be exerted during her reign was later wall-papered over with the legend of ‘Good Queen Bess’ and through contrasting Bloody Mary’s reign that brought the Inquisition into England. However, I feel she missed stating that much of the persecution of Catholics was due to Elizabeth’s own legitimacy which would be called into question by allowing Catholicism free reign. She was only legitimate if Henry VIII’s repudiation of the Catholic Church was upheld, and Catholics were all too keen on not only practicing their faith but bringing a Catholic heir to the throne – Lady Jane Grey, Mary Queen of Scots and others. Therefore it was more a pragmatic way to hold on to power rather than deep religious faith that drove Elizabeth, in my opinion.

This session was followed by a crackling conversation between Shabana Azmi, Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s daughter Salima Hashmi and poet Ali Husain Mir (who looks like a young and delicious Muzaffar Ali). They discussed their very different circumstances growing up, the influence of their fathers on their values and their decisions, the routine their celebrated fathers followed when they wrote…all punctuated with the most apt poetry of their times. A very poignant letter from Faiz when he was in prison, written to his wife, stated that pain and unhappiness are two very different things and the sooner we come to understand that, the better we will be able to deal with life. Pain is caused by external circumstances, while unhappiness is caused by one’s own reactions to events around one. Pain is not in our control while unhappiness is. Quite in line with my philosophy of life - Happiness is a Choice. Now to implement that!!!

Day 2 unfortunately was a wash out, quite literally. It began raining by evening on Day 1, and the organisers hadn’t prepared for that eventuality. Therefore all the open air venues were awash in water, with seats stacked under tarpaulin and pukka venues were so full with a sea of humanity that they looked like Churchgate at peak traffic. Mimi and I decided to take the day off and go wandering about Jaipur, browsing through various unusual boutiques, eventually fetching up at the Anokhi CafĂ©. Only half the Litfest attendees seemed to have had the same idea and we had a 40 minute wait for a table. The food, when it came, was well worth the wait, however, with the most lusciously fresh greens and cheeses in the salad, and fabulous desserts. The only letdown was the mezze platter which was inedibly bland!

Meanwhile, the third of our JLF trio, Sonya was due in that morning from Mumbai but hadn’t reached. Finally we managed to contact her to find out she’d been doing a Bharat Darshan. Her flight had been unable to land at Jaipur due to the torrential rain. Diverted to Delhi, they found that one runway was not functional due to fog, and followed two other similar flights to Ahmedabad. After twiddling her thumbs half the day, she finally made it to Jaipur by 2 pm! She excitedly called from the venue to tell us that sessions were resuming as scheduled at 4 pm.

Mimi and I rushed back to attend the last session of the day, Hamlet’s Dilemma, with Vishal Bharadwaj and Basharat Peer, Tim Supple – theater director specializing in Shakespeare and Jerry Brotton from the Global Shakespeare project, moderated by Suhel Seth. It turned out to be a terrific session, discussing the universality of Shakespeare on the one hand, and the fact that he’s best enjoyed as a theater piece on the other.  The director and Basharat Peer discussed that Kashmir, rather than Haider, had become Hamlet in the film. Irritatingly, the audience seemed more interested in why Vishal had chosen to focus on Kashmiri Muslims rather than the Pandits in the film. While Basharat sportingly defended the decision by stating that he didn’t see how the theme of exile fitted into Hamlet, whereas fratricide did, Vishal frankly lost it and stated that he was not making a documentary but a story. If Kashmiri Pandits were so worked up about it, why didn’t they ask Vidhu Vinod Chopra who had made Mission Kashmir and was a Pandit to boot?

Mimi and I ended our day with a trip to 1135 AD in the Amer Fort. It’s a beautiful ride to the fort, along the bypass road up the mountain. The Fort looks surreal, with the moat reflecting the starry night, and the twinkling lights in the courtyard emulating those stars. It’s a pity that the menu isn’t either more imaginative or more authentic and robust; however the place is worth a visit just for the setting.

On Day 3, we set off bright and early, determined to maximize the day at JLF. The previous day’s rained out situation had left us feeling somewhat hungry! We began the day with Selfie, the art of memoir, which had a very diverse panel of guests. First was Brigid Keenan, a hoot a minute, who regaled the audience with some pet stories of a diplomat’s wife’s existence. Then came Anchee Min, whose harrowing story and searing honesty was quite incredible. We were underwhelmed by Joanna Rakoff who came across as superficial, while Mark Gevisser gave us an incredible insight into South Africa and into a writer’s mind. As a child, he used to curl up with the automobile map and the phone book, sending imaginary letters across. Imagine his surprise when he realized that while Alexandra, a black neighbourhood in Apartheid South Africa was only 2 pages away from his own white neighbourhood, yet it didn’t show up on the roadmap because black neighbourhoods were never mapped!

We next wandered across to the session on Wanderlust, where Brigid read out some truly chuckle-worthy bits from her memoir. Each of the 7 panelists read out an excerpt, the second most interesting being from William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain, which I’ve always relished.  But overall I realized I don’t enjoy readings unless they are truly skillfully done…I’d much rather attend a panel discussion or an interview, where you hear the author’s opinions, about his or her struggle and what shaped their writing, as opposed to a reading which frankly you can do by yourself sitting at home.

The session on The End of Antiquity, while articulate, was a bit too erudite for my liking, and I felt a little lost in the sea of information that was pouring out. Then followed the Murty Classical Library session, but that too turned out to be a reading from which I beat a hasty retreat and attended Samit Basu’s highly humorous and entertaining Q&A session. The Fox and the Crow was being moderated by my friend Sayoni, so I toodled along and saw the most amazing illustrations I’ve ever seen in a children’s book in India – dramatic, evocative and not at all kiddy. I attended half the session and then joined Javier Moro’s Red Sari session. He sounded quite the Gandhi champion as he naively stated that he didn’t believe they were a corrupt family and brushed her involvement with the Quattrochis escape from India under the carpet, but it still sounded like an interesting book to read.

The last session we attended was The First Firangis – two Indophile authors had written amazingly similar books interweaving stories of early foreign visitors to India with their own life stories. Jonathan Gil Harris discussed how weird he found the multiple conversations that are on-going in any Indian gathering, and discussed how the early Europeans had to literally remould their physical entities – from eating habits to what they wore – to adjust and cope with India.

We attended the music session at Clarks Amer, which featured Coke Studio’s Sain Zuhoor with a fabulous Sufi performance. We followed up by a ritual visit to Tablu, Clarks's open air bar which was sadly quite deserted this year and played sad trance style music as opposed to the rock we had enjoyed all these years.

I decided to stay back longer than planned on Saturday so I could get my fill of JLF, since I had the car and thus a flexible schedule. I raced across to attend the second Murty Classical Library session, this time thankfully a discussion between Arshia Sattar, Girish Karnad and Sheldon Pollock. They laid out the aims of the MCL, how the thought had arisen, what they planned to do, how they were sourcing translators and the 100 year aim of having at least 500 books from the MCL. The only thought I found disconcerting was that they planned to issue the translated text with the same type of syntax as in the original – Sheldon Pollock said it was part of the experience of being ‘not you’; I just wondered if I wanted to be not me badly enough to struggle through the grammar of an ancient language. What was interesting though was his assertion that it would take only two days to learn Sanskrit.

The Twilight Zone was one of my favourite sessions, verbose moderator notwithstanding. (As an aside, can someone please take all the Indian moderators aside and tell them their job is to give the floor to the speakers, not join them or dominate the conversation wholesale.) Gideon Levy was so fierily on the side of justice and so anti the Zionist policies against the Palestinians in Gaza, it was truly delightful to hear. Gideon’s point on patriotism was that if you love your country, it’s your job to make sure it’s the most just, that it is on the side of what’s right.

As usual, in discussions on West Asia, the lone Palestinian on the panel barely got the chance to make a point, especially since the anchor, Hardeep Singh Puri was so enthusiastic at the sound of his own voice that he drowned out almost everyone else except Gideon. Finally, during the Q&A session, an audience member asked if we could hear Fady’s opinion, which had the whole audience cheering, Fady included! After a weird start to Q&A in which the moderator went about collecting all the questions before handing them out, he again started dominating the answers until I couldn’t bear it any longer and started a football chant of ‘Fady! Fady!’ at which point the moderator had no choice but to hand him the floor. Fady read an excerpt from a Palestinian poet that said that when a victim starts to commit murder, he should no longer be viewed as a victim. It was harrowing to hear both Gideon and Fady talk about the plight of the Palestinians and how badly they are treated. Kai Bird was very hopeful of a 2-nation solution, while Gideon and Fady, for different reasons, felt the time for it had long gone by. Curiously enough, after that I read Brigid Keenan’s Packing Up in which she discusses what they saw during the Palestine Literary Festival, and the mindless, conscienceless exercise of power demonstrated by Israeli soldiers to festival panelists as well as Palestinians they saw there. It really breaks the heart!

The last session I attended, quite paisa vasool, was the one on the 2014 elections in India with Rajdeep Sardesai and Mihir S. Sharma as panelists, chaired by Madhu Trehan. It was a rollicking discussion with much humour, trenchant criticism and many jokes of which baba was the butt. It was fabulous to hear the in-person accounts of election stories and the worries of what lies ahead. One of the worrying aspects of post-Modi India was the shut-out of the media by the government. The panelists discussed how all news was now released late at night, too late for analysis and the government was withholding direct interaction, thus leading to the media just printing up the PIB releases of the day. Moreover, Rajdeep felt that many journalists were so hungry for a newsbite or exclusive that they were busy taking selfies with Namo and towing the line in hopes of favour being shown, letting down the purpose for which the Fourth Estate existed. The session and the Q&A were crackling, and a terrific end to JLF. Still felt I had got cheated out of Day 2 but the last day sort of made up for it.

I made my way to Rawat’s for some kachoris and pheni, and curled up in the car with my stash of books, to wind up my Jaipur sojourn in true Rajasthani style.


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