(Also published on Medium. But with lots more pictures which I couldn’t put here.)
You get here every year, and it gets bigger. I cut my classes and persuaded my parents to get on road with me for five whole days, because I knew this.
Jaipur Literary Festival was celebrating their 10th anniversary this 2017. I’d come to Jaipur’s Diggi palace twice before for this & the festival repeatedly blew me away. Now as it stretched from 19th to 23rd January — I would come here and find out something else. Aging helps!
On the verge of 15, you talk to strangers much better.
You can breathe in a oceanic crowd and not freak out at the multitude of sweaty bodies pressing into yours. You can ask the speakers questions, and not evaporate in thin air when you see your face is on the big screens, and your heart threatens cardiac arrest.
Aging is awesome.
I came to the festival prepared for battle. I picked my best clothes, then stole some of my brother’s clothes, and stuffed a suitcase. I was armed with a blue diary.
On the 19th as I passed under the yawning mouth of Diggi palace, under a blue crumbling tomb leading to the fluttering strings inside — the crowd was already getting huge and humming with anticipation.
Now I see the possibility, dear reader — that you have no clue what I’m blabbing about.
What’s the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival?
Are you an outsider?
I give you a quick overview:
It’s an annual five day love-fest for brainy people everywhere.
Or anybody who’s ever picked up a book. And felt curious about Science, History, Politics, Geology, Mathematics, Culture, why smart people are barmy, or when the next Harry Potter’s releasing out already.
They host over 140 sessions in 5 days. Which means crazy 7 hour days — 6 sessions at 6 venues simultaneously.
Over 1300 speakers & over 1.2 million book lovers have been welcomed on grounds.
Go figure. If you think books are boring & unpopular, this is your cue to crush yourself under a giant bookcase.
When I look back upon it a word always springs to mind.
The purpose, the big sponsors pouring money into it, the wealth and flow of ideas which they celebrate is genius. My heart is happy and warm to the important adults making this happen. Giving voice to inspiring people who aren’t heard enough, rallying big human talent at one spot. They gift public service to the masses and exposure to people like me.
Do you see the wonder sparkling like lightening bolts around me? You see how lovestruck I am. Now is not the time to wonder why not Edward Cullen instead, like a normal teenage girl.
Thus, I begin a quick series for 5 days of this incredible festival.
I will write about the sessions I heard and what they meant to me, share a few quotes, a couple funny experiences and much advice. And rage a little why a kid’s throbbing heart makes you quiver and shiver needlessly when you talk to smart adults.
I will write about what touched and impacted me, in hopes that it might do the same for you.
11:15–12:15 Baithak. Lila Azam Zanganeh, Sholeh Wolpé, Valzhyna Mort.
The sense of anticipation was keen in this glass paned room, the only indoor enclosure in all the 6 venues, because it was the first session of the festival.
We sat before a trio of talented women poets from Iran, Belarus & France. They talked about their homelands, exile from it and longing, and how poetry brings expression to that.
‘Take me back. To warm goulash, the frying sizzle of the markets, the countrysides,’ Wolpé said. Her words brought an invisible Iran to life in the room.
Valzhyna Mort was a quiet Belarusian lady with a thick accent. ‘The wind blew it’s bones as we slept head to head in a field of memory.’ She joked how people didn’t often recognize which country she was from.
But the poet I connected with most was Lila Azam. A tall thin poet with a big smile. Lila was from a bunch of different cultures, and was brought up in a Christian communal. She was a linguist, and her accent radiated texture.
‘Language is deep rooted in everything, isn’t it?’ she said. ‘It connects you to the whole world. I have 7 passports, none of which I identify with. I feel like there is nowhere I belong, so I belong everywhere.’
Sitting there, I marveled at the speakers. They felt foreign to me because they were. Heck, I’d never even heard of Belarus until 15 minutes ago. They talked talked about their countries and their part of the world, and showed us how everything wasn’t as as rose tinted as we assumed.
It was special to hear them. I realized something.
I think India’s youth perhaps, is pushed to believe in India’s weaknesses & black spots. Poverty, millions of people, dirt, crime, destitution. Oho.
Such mess.(I mean look at how other countries are racing! Look at Amayrica. I heard they’re building WallMarts on Mars now. Or something. Huh what? We gotta stop comparing ourselves to them? Alsi Bharat Not Nakli Amayrica? Rubbish.)
On this same festival that I met another writer.
Rumena Buzarovska. She came from a small European country, and she’d never seen a crowd of this scale in her whole life.
‘Life is compellingly in India. Everything is happening on such a grand scale. The variety of languages people speak here gives me so much happiness as a translater. Colors, people, culture. And the funny thing is, my whole town is tinier than the crowd in Diggi Palace.’
When she spoke, a wall vanished in my mind.
I’d thought we were confined; a third world of sorts. The Western world must be much superior, advanced & better off.
Which world would a sleeping little boy in Europe exist in right now?
He’d never grow up in a neighborhood that was an adopted family. He wouldn’t call the milkman living across his street Bhaiya. He’d wouldn’t have Bollywood role models. He wouldn’t get the general dialect of about 4–5 different languages.
That little boy wouldn’t know what it feels like to see colors rise in the air in Holi, see Diwali crackers burst into the sky.
He wouldn’t know what it feels to live in the world’s largest democracy. He wouldn’t feel the nationalistic pride of a billion people soar with the force of a red cricket ball. He’d never see such diverse classes of people, living in unimaginable situations of life.
He would never have an opportunity to live in a place, where there was so much to be done.
But we do.
2. Freedom to Imagine
12:30–1:30, Samvad — Anne Waldman
I learnt little here and marveled more, at the enchantress Anne Waldman. She’s a poet born before my country’s independence, and far too much fun. Who says age means you’re a whiny old thing?
Anne talked about various things, a few of which I forgot. Which might be down to my dehydration, and the constant urge I had to walk over and slap the selfie addicted teens by the waterfall. I thought you came to educate yourself, not rack up Facebook likes.
Wait. You saw pictures on my Facebook timeline? And now you’re saying that I’m a teenager. Go away.
Anne Waldman taught me just how ridiculous this business of big ideas becomes slowly. There’s nothing you can’t write on. If you can feel it, you can write it. Anne said that she looked into the calm, reptilian eyes of a manatee. She felt like writing about him. Then she did.
This session, the crowd was treated to a melodramatic, satirical piece which Anne wrote about climate change. It’s full of (literally screams and yelps & theatrics bursting through the roof) about humans killing plants & animals.
I concluded that that Anne Waldman is a fun veteran, and I had to get a book of hers soon.
First impression? Witty, wry, optimistic. Ferociously energetic. Stringy black hair.
3. Madness & The Oxford Dictionary
12:30–1:30, Charbagh — Simon Winchester
If you bother to check the timings I put out on top, you’ll see that both this & Walman’s sessions happened at once. I bunked.
The cool thing about this literature festival is that if you lose the thread midway or get bored, you can just get up & walk to 5 different places.
Don’t you wish school was like that?
I think I should’ve been in this one since the beginning. Because as I hurried to grab a remaining pink seat amist a buzzing crowd, this is Simon Winchester was saying.
‘‘I told these two women on the train about the poor fellow who got his nether regions razored. And simultaneously, I could feel every man in the carriage kind of, cross his legs with a shudder.
‘Self castrating? Ah — calls for a new word in the dictionary!’ said the ladies.
And that’s just about all you need to know, with dictionary nerds, doesn’t it?’’
Mr. Winchester had clearly warmed up the crowd. He had a shiny bald spot, and was suited and booted. He wore clear spectacles. And he was darkly funny.
Then he talked about a heart pounding, hilarious experience. Having one’s book picked up for a movie deal. ‘I was out buying groceries, and the milk dropped from my hands. Then I called my agent, who told me to calm down. Maybe the message was false. It wasn’t.’
He spoke about actually getting on set, and the epiphany he had there.
‘I was talking to a lighting guy who was adjusting a crane light in the dark. He told me how they came in bigger sizes futher down the country. At that moment, so many people getting employed, dollars were being invested. Hundreds of people were coming from all over the place for this movie. And I thought, all this was happening because of a little book I wrote.’
4. Foreign Correspondents
3:45–4:45, Charbagh — Luke Harding, Madeleine O’Dea, Mark Tully and Mei Fong in conversation with Suhasini Haidar
I was lucky to already have a spot in Charbagh. This session would be the best of the day.
You know the type — Multiple panelists, supercharged issue, lots of perspectives, no time wasted, high interest.
Still can’t identify?
Well, it’s exactly the kind of place where you don’t dare to raise your hand for questions, because you’re terrified of your tiny age & ignorance.
What if you get up and ask, why Julian Assange has white hair? Or if Snowden hails from a family of snowy monsters?
This is the place where people flood out to the sidelines.
Starting off, a lady in a sharp black suit, Mei Fong talked about being judged for her gender as a foreign correspondent.
‘I think people like to imagine correspondents as suave, white men. James Bond style. When I met government officials, some didn’t even shake my hand, because they immediately assumed I was the girlfriend or PA.’
This was a fresh perspective. I think the festival really bore a bold mark of feminism this year.
Then the talk turned towards the danger of the job. About lockdowns, red zones and the price young reporters pay for a good story.
You see, I’d never really understood what a foreign correspondents exactly did. Now I knew in all scenes of war, famine and political shift I saw — someone was bravely holding a camera to that. Someone was talking along.
Mark Tully had a story to tell. The aged gentleman was another legend here.
‘When I was reporting on ground for the Babri Masjid in the attacks of ’92, and a crowd of Sikhs gathered around me. They had weapons. I heard something in the effect of ‘Maar do saale ko.’
I remember pleading in my broken Hindi. ‘Nahi, nahi! Chod do.’ They relented. I ended up bolted in a chamber somewhere.’
There was great agreement on the panel to the following.
Local journalists were the ones who truly helped out a foreign correspondent in a tight spot. They were the ones who suffering the most.
Suhasini Haidar with a wry smile towards her American & British counterparts. ‘You are protected to a certain extent by your governments and security laws. It gives you free access to a lot.’
A highly respected journalist at Hindu; she was the only Indian on the panel. ‘Local journalists in war torn areas of the world traceable & accountable to their governments. Their security is low, and their lives are at imminent risk.’
Mei Fong agreed.
‘People cook up a lot of glamour into the job. There’s very little. But if you live in the free world, there is one. You can say what you want to. There are a multitude of laws that protect the jounalist. So you can tell the truth the way you see it.’
Suhasini Haidar was out to clear more misconceptions people have of the media.
‘I think it’s a little funny. People accuse the media of swaying the country’s opinion this way and that. The media is corrupting us; the media is brainwashing us. Oh — we’re all in it together.’ Her smile is amused.
‘Mostly I have little idea about what the others are doing, because we have to focus on getting the story first. We all have different visions. If you put us in a room together, we’d probably climb over each other to give you the headlines.’
And the way it does, the talk eventually turned to Donald Trump. It would with most sessions this year. And most people weren’t very pleased with the poor man.
‘I think his presidency dawns a new age in journalism,’ said Luke Harding, an acclaimed Englishman working for The Guardian. He was a light haired person with infectious energy. A big voice. (Admittedly, the way all these journalists talked impressed the heck out of me. Modulated, deep, broadcasting voices which sounded pretty important.)
‘Trump will truly make better journalists of us all. There’s more secrecy to him than any world leader right now. So we’re going to have a lot of fun with him. I’m telling you, don’t expect skeletons in Trump’s cupboard. There’s a whole roving bus of bones traveling down there.’
‘And so this is the time, we need you to buy our newspapers more than ever. We need you to support well researched, fresh reporting .’
I left with a head full of new knowledge. I eavesdropped on some women talking fiercely about paying the journalist, and I made a few new friends.
What more I realized, were the immense lengths breadths of writing.
Heck it could actually be a dangerous job.
Behold, an incredible first day. I got back with my parents to the guestroom at 8 am, and crashed at 8:10.
I wanted to fall asleep as soon as my head touched the pillow, but my brain was still whizzing with the day’s happenings.
I couldn’t wait to go back tommorrow.
Hiya reader. Do hang about, because I’ll finish my glimpse into Day 2 in a short while for you to read. Please hit the ❤ down there if you enjoyed this. If you think a friend might too, share it with them.
Thank you for taking a few minutes of your day to read this.