Jaipur Lit Fest – A Sea of Stories

 

The illustrious Jaipur Literature Festival has been swiveled into different depictions for various people. For bookworms it opens up a wider spectrum to the literary world, a new excitement. For intellectuals it gifts opportunity to finger notorious brainy heads they wouldn’t normally meet.

It is a colorful affair with pizza for holiday making families, while remaining the hottest selfie spot for everyone under 18 & in a miniskirt. Not to mention, it also regularly dishes out a fresh batch of inspired, young & hungry dreaming writers who go truckling all over the place in desperate search of advice. This 2016, I was one of them. 

I was snoozing in bed in Gurgaon, when someone dropped a silent bombshell upon me. Nice of them to slip it in my inbox. They missed my hysterics over the three precious days already past & with them Margaret Atwood, Stephan Fry & Amish Tripathi – if you don’t recognize these names you should be ashamed of yourselves.

Putting guilt aside, I harassed my bemused parents into submission, tossed mine & my mom’s clothes in a handbag, booked early morning Shatabdi train tickets – which has got to be some sort of a record for a 13 year old – spent a sleepless night & nearly missed the train as our Ola cab came bustling on the dark, early morning road just fifteen minutes before the departure.

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After two ditched bookings, my mother indignantly phoned Ola Customer Service & had ‘a word’ with the man on other end. I think she frightened him.

Yet after a few close car wrecks on those astonishingly foggy streets coupled with the admirable enthusiasm of our dedicated driver, I secretly understood it was because of my mother.

It was due to her that I now sat in this thudding train, watching the deep highs & lows of the plains under a sky which grew clearer & bluer every second. 

Ah well mothers. Even when they’re wrong, they turn out right. 🙂

 

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Carrying the infected, oddly salty scent of the train we stepped on the station, to almost instantly find our military rides.

By the grace of my father’s rank as a Colonel & an eminent 25 year career which left many fond memories in my early childhood, we could get good rides & lodging on practically any given state in the nation, through a network of Army friendship & buddy-hood.

Now quick as we were in roaring off in the jeep outside the airport, what wasn’t as instant was actually hunting out the Diggi Palace.

Through a haze of bottle-necked roads with surprisingly small buildings but still a lot of ruckus, we wasted over an hour dropping off at the hotel & back. At last we stood at the gates of Diggi Palace.  

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You may say it was a shade dramatic. Hundreds of people swirled ahead paying for Entry Passes & fending off hawkers, picking up newspapers even though there would be no time inside to read them. But they’re free, my mother argued over the din. Can Indians resist anything free? 🙂

 Evidently, the festival had come a long way. What started with 14 speakers in 2005 and in 2007 still prompted a crowd of 400, now holds half a million on its grounds. Hailed as the ‘largest literary fest with a brain’, it has been replicated in other parts of the world but none which similar success. 

The sky overhead hung with shimmering, angel-like Rajasthani puppets in strings. The lady’s pallu quivered in the air as she saw a bustling world just beneath her painted feet. Dust rose high on the cobbled roads & a waterfall somewhere, burst afresh.


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Jaipur certainly surpassed everything in its preparations this time. But as many would tell you, it would have been more peaceful & meaningful had it been quieter. Everyone has the right to join the Fest, but I’d never really expected such a crowd.

 

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It made me wonder to see so many people, because there weren’t Bollywood stars hiding behind those tents. Just books. Everyday authors, silently crusading literary geniuses who probably deserved to be known more than Kim Kardashian.

Books had been an oblivious, secret world to me & I’d never truly realized its powers until I arrived here. It was a hunger, an excitement for books which I secretly felt had never been cherished.

The festival proved me wrong point blank.

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I can eat books…& more books…


With all the talk around the festival, I think no one gets to what it actually is. Now simply put, it is more or less 5 days of constant sessions.

174 of them. 🙂

Brainiacs, big wigs, authors, politicians & nerds – call them what you will – are decidedly awesome. As you stumble into the main alley of the grounds, you will be handed a colorful map which proves simply the vastness of the area.

Many would advise you to just come a day early, because it is impossible to navigate the grounds with a gossiping army swirling about.

Probably it wasn’t a good idea for me to arrive on the second last day. A Sunday. And if you lose your mother thrice, like I did & the phone dying off…

Be prepared for a wave of maternal fury. Be rest assured, you first day may be slightly wasted. 🙂

Charbagh, Front Lawn, Samvad, Durbar Hall, even locating the bookstore will make your head spin in the swirling crowds. A lot of different places for a lot of interesting talks happening at once, making it tantalizing to choose.

Plus, all these cultural names sound rather cute coming off a foreign tongue & make no mistake – there were a ton of tourists there. A lot.

First up, I’m proud to dish out one of the personally favorite talks. It was ‘On Empire.’

Continuing the age-old villainy of the British Raj & the massive absorption of resources, Congress leader, history nerd & eminent for his Oxford speech, Shashi Tharoor questions whether Britain should pay reparations. British MP Tristam Hunt takes the opposite side, also known to be a considerably learnt historian. 

Mind the expression, but the energy was simply on in the talk.

The crowds tried to grasp each man’s articulate yet nebulous points, chuckling at the comic relief occasionally provided by mediator &  Tharoor’s old college friend Swapan Dasgupta.

Both politicians rallied back and forth with historical points, the exploits of the British on Indian resources, culture & trade. Tharoor commented on the irony of Indian Constitution nearly replicating the British Parliament system even after independence because ‘that was what we had been taught and conditioned to.’ He also named Nehru as the primary voice of rebellion.

Dasgupta showed mock horror. 

‘You mean Mahatma Gandhi wasn’t our main leader?’

‘Aw no, of course not.’ sighed the Congress MP exasperatedly. ‘See Swapan is trying just so hard to get me a headline in the papers tomorrow.’ A burst of laughter broke out on these words.

While agreeing to the brutality of his country’s measures, Hunt argued for the development which the British left in their wake.

But together, both made a rather important point about the absence of true information and knowledge of Britain’s imperialism in the textbooks of its own school children, an essential part of their history they may never know of. A bloodied, buried secret.

As both politicians agreed finally, that it was better to ‘leave the past in the past & not force Britain to pay large sums to the Indian government. The more practical measure would be to reach people through NGO’s.’

Even as this matter was left in peace for the governments, agreement surged ahead on how our history shapes us, and forgetting it would only make us the weak & ignorant ones.

As PM Modi himself talks about ‘looking to the future’ a new leaf has turned over. Even as this matter was covered in peace, our roots should never be forgotten. The British Empire, even with its villainy at times, must be exposed to our children.

Questions opened up and even I got a chance to ask, having luckily thwarted a front seat in an overflowing tent. But the clear whopper of all the questions, was when a man asked how the MP’s own moral compass allowed him to be on one of the ‘most corrupt party in all of Indian history.’ This followed huge whopping cheers in the crowds. 

Tough crowd.‘ chuckled Tharoor. He went on to rightly explain how one authority cannot be blamed as the big & bad, often it is the unseen bureaucrats & middle men who snatch away ‘the regulated financial aid to a man living below the poverty line, the government hospital bed which forces the pregnant lady to give birth on the floor.’

These articulate points did seem to stir up general acceptance in the listeners as they applauded enthusiastically moments later.

Now let me glance through some other important talks. ‘To the Stars & Back’ saw the first woman ever of Iranian descent & Muslim religion, complete her dream to travel in space. I found many of her experiences in training & childhood memories rather inspiring but also morose.

Her most notable line runs, ‘When I was in space, so far above, the earth was beautiful. When you reach high enough to see the whole picture the lines blur. Cities blur and countries fade into each other as the entire earth seems one. It makes me wonder at the boundaries we unseeingly now place.’

Next up,the Travel Session exposed a rather undiscovered world to me. I found out the sheer beauty of travel description, and how each author as they read their work on the podium had achieved so many different ways of artistically presenting a thing. Each claimed that contrary to some misconception, travel writing certainly wasn’t dead & wasn’t going to be so for a very long time. 

Colin Thubron, widely acclaimed as the greatest travel writer alive, turned out to be an unassuming old gentleman with decades of experience.

He seemed quaintly surprised to be admiringly referred again and again, and at least exclaimed, ‘I feel the only way for me to now match up to your expectations would be to disappear in a puff of smoke.’ This followed a smattering of chuckles. 

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He advised young writers to ‘Note down details. The way someone’s eyebrows arched, how the wind felt on your face. This helped me a lot.’

On ideas: ‘Simply find your own way of seeing the world. That is imperative, because you cannot copy another writer’s voice.’

Adding to the pile of advantages for bookworms in here, the Lit Fest also serves as your dream destination to meet writers who would normally be home, writing in their pajamas. (I plan to adopt the cleaner lifestyle! 🙂 ) Rest assured, not all of us are like that.

I found Nilanjana Roy. An intellectual speaker with a deep, wonderfully warming voice she made articulate points on the vast literature of India and how Bengali, Urdu, brilliant literature in our country is left unappreciated due to our preference of Western authors & how there is so much literary magic left to be read in our own nation.

In frantic hurry, I bought her new book ‘The Girl Who Ate Books.’ and earned a sweet message on the cover.

 

Strangely enough, I left from this festival feeling unnaturally wise for my age of barely a decade and a half. That’s shorter than most people’s writing careers! I felt nostalgic that this crazy experience was coming to an end, but joyous as well for the help it had given me. 

It had been only two days, yet the knowledge I had gained seemed to last me the entire year. I found myself scribbling notes on the journey home, about all the other amazing talks I couldn’t possibly have space to describe here. 

The Jaipur Literary Fest I decided, wasn’t only for book eaters. For if you looked closely enough there was something for everyone. Culture which could relate to every country, ideas which can spark off new ventures. Intelligent ideas about everything imaginable, which isn’t so different from my own blog I think! 🙂

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I hope my own experiences make you come on your own next time, all the way to Jaipur. It is most certainly worth it. From traveler to traveler, you may have trouble with the tickets, the heat and the crowds. You may be battling a cold and running around for a handkerchief half the time like I was.

But without doubt, one thing is certain. 

You will take back a sea of magical stories with yourself. 

***

Thank you for reading this through. I hope I’ve got you psyched enough to be there next year, but trust me. It’ll be worth your time. If you’re a fellow literary bookworm, or if you simply enjoyed my whirlwind experience…I’d love to hear from you! Tell me your own.

Show some love and share this!

Take care.

 

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