words and pictures by Jose Varghese
With 136 literary events spread across five venues in five days and more than 100,000 visitors in attendance, this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival was once again what Newsweek editor Tina Brown once aptly called ‘the greatest literary show on earth’. At its humble start in 2006, the festival’s directors, popular Indian writer Namita Gokhale and India’s favourite Scot William Dalrymple, could never have imagined it would evolve into such a successful event in such a short space of time. In 2007, Sir Salman Rushdie was among the festival’s more famous international guests who helped draw interest from the wider literary world. This year he once more brought worldwide attention to Jaipur when he was denied a chance to return to India and speak at the three sessions where he had been scheduled to appear. Even a video link with Rushdie had to be cancelled after protests were reignited over the blasphemy charges against his book The Satanic Verses. Ironically enough, this led to numerous discussions about freedom of speech, and several writers read excerpts from Rushdie’s novel to express their solidarity.
Controversies apart, the 2012 festival had many attractions for regular book lovers too, including talks on long and short fiction, performances of folk art forms, music, poetry readings, and discussions of non-fiction in both English and Indian languages. With multiple events on offer at any one time, I found it almost impossible to decide which to attend, but fought the temptation to run from one venue to another before each session had finished. (The festival website features videos of most of the sessions, and I am still catching up with the ones I missed).
There were, though, many, many writers I just knew I couldn’t miss out on seeing: Ben Okri, Tom Stoppard, James Shapiro, Michael Ondaatje, Ranjit Hoskote, Ilija Trojanow, Kunal Basu, Mohammed Hanif, Richard Dawkins, K. Satchidanandan, Tim Butcher, Philip Gourevitch, Steven Pinker, Shashi Tharoor – the list could go on and on. I wanted to see them all and attend as many of the discussions as I possibly could. But that takes stamina. Midway through the first morning, the friends I was with announced they were taking a break, claiming that eight continuous hours of listening to writers talk would give them a headache. I, however, never missed a morning session, even when I had to queue for over an hour to secure a seat in the sixteenth row to see Oprah Winfrey. Many others were turned away, though, and for a while we feared the session might be gate-crashed by the throngs of disappointed fans. All this for a session that was just like any other Oprah Winfrey show, but the crowds and commotion were all part of the spirit!
A few of the programme’s events included discussions on short stories, though as is frequently the case, these were overshadowed by the attention given to novels. In one of these, David Davidar, the famous Indian publisher, spoke about the difficulties of getting a collection of stories published, especially for new writers, though he suggested that linked stories might have better luck. Kunal Basu, author of the collection The Japanese Wife, said he didn’t see any reason why it should be so hard to publish short stories in India. Short stories in regional languages, after all, get a lot of attention here. He said that it had not in fact been all that difficult to get his collection published, but that it had happened after he was already established as a novelist. The title story of his book has even been made into an award winning movie by Aparna Sen, starring Rahul Bose (who stars in the movie version of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children as well). Other sessions also dealt with translations of short stories from Indian languages to English, and a number of stories were read in their entirety to an appreciative audience. That should give a strong cue to both the festival organizers and Indian publishers.
The highlight of the festival was the DSC South Asia Literary Prize. The winner was announced following memorable readings by the authors and translators of the shortlisted novels. Shehan Karunatilaka, a Singapore-based Sri Lankan writer, bagged the $50,000 prize for his ambitious novel Chinaman, which had already won the Gratiaen Prize in Sri Lanka. One of the judges, Dr. Fakrul Alam of Dhaka University, praised the novel for its understated yet innovative narrative style which he said was in the tradition of works such as Tristram Shandy. Although Karunatilaka’s novel revolves around cricket, it cleverly takes a peek at present day Sri Lankan society, and Dr. Alam said the judges had found in it an entirely new voice, one that was contemporary and engaging.
The Jaipur Literature Festival can rightly claim to be the biggest literary event on earth, not only because of its size but also in terms of the quality of writing it presents. Everything is very well planned – something which is quite difficult in a time and place where the unthinkable can happen at any moment. The list of authors coming to the 2013 Festival was already provided in this year’s catalogue, and there are names to satisfy every literary taste. Be warned, however. Once you’ve been to the Jaipur Festival, I can guarantee you’ll want to come back – to renew the friendships you’ve made, to interact with your favourite authors and buy the latest books, to collect autographs, and, if you’re a writer, to look for publishers for your own work. Most of all, though, you’ll want to return because it’s the perfect place to reflect on what really matters in the literary world.