Tuesday, 30 March 2010

The January Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) - A Roundup

I was very excited when my husband told me in late December that he had a conference coming up in Jaipur on the 22nd and 23rd of January. I had been wondering how to convince him, for us to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival in the middle of our maddenning househunt and relocation to Delhi.

The fates were working in my favor and given our common interest in literature,  I was set to join him as we also tagged Sunday into this break, aiming to attend at least 3 of the 5 days.

We had decided to drive to Jaipur to enjoy the Indian countryside and mustard fields in bloom.
It had been over 4 years since we had eaten @ a dhabha, so we had to stop midway for breakfast of paneer pakodas (cottage cheese fritters) and anda burji (scrambled eggs, Indian style)
With sated tummies and the fog lifting mid-way through the (normally) 4 hour drive, we were now much more relaxed and able to enjoy the rest of the journey.

The company had provided really lovely accomodation at the Le Meridien, Jaipur But, while this was a brilliant property - well suited for conferences. It is a fair bit out of the city and almost an hours drive (in traffic) to the Diggi Palace Hotel where the Literature Festival was on.

So with the fog and late arrival at hotel necessiating immediate lunch :), by the time I reached the venue on Friday (22nd Jan) it was already 3:30 and more than half the scheduled programs for the day were over.

When I got out of the car, the first venue I saw had a "We the People Debate"  on the topic "Can the Internet Save Books?" being moderated by Barkha Dutt on the Front Lawns. Not being a great Barkha Fan and finding little new light being shed on the subject, I decided to wander around and get a feel of the place.

The online program (which I had duly transcribed into an .xls file - highlighting the events that I did not want to miss) indicated that events would happen simultaneously at 4 different locations of the grounds - Durbar Hall, Mughal Tent, Baithak and Front Lawns.

At this point, I should mention that entry to the Jaipur Literature Festival is completely free. This being its 5th year, it has since last year received immense media coverage and hence the crowds were really thronging the venue. Yet the crowd was extremely well behaved. No shoving or jostling. Seating on first cum basis. Those who did not get seats would politely sit on the floors in the aisles or stand on the sides or at the back. Best selling authors would also politely stand at the sides if the venue was full by the time they arived. But then authors are overall a very well mannered lot.

There was a delegate pass on a sliding scale costing around 2500Rs on the first day, (and 500 less on each subsequent day if I remember right)  which entitled holders to eat all 3 meals on the premises and a wonderful goody bag. But since breakfast and dinner was included in our hotel package, it did not make sense for us.

Just one of the little suprises - At one of the sessions; a quiet gentleman was sitting beside me, who raised a very intelligent question at the end. He was actually the Chief of Police of Jaipur. Where else would you see that in this country? (a quiet, unobtrusive, non assuming, non attitude throwing, well read Police Chief?)

Vasundhara Raje was present almost everyday for at least an hour or so with just one plain clothes person guarding her with nary a gun in sight. The media was falling over themselves to get a soundbyte from her (I wouldn't call it an interview), but I overheard a group of school girls saying "woh aurat kaun hain? aur media un ke peeche itne paagal kyun hain?" (Who is that woman and why is the media hounding her?) - Just the ex Chief Minister of your State darlings!

There were a few film personalities around - Javed Akhtar, Shabana Azmi, Girish Karnad, Rahul Bose, Neena Gupta, On Puri among others. But the "celebrities" at this festival were undoubtedly the authors.

A few bookshops like Full Circle had set up tents on the premises where you could buy books if you liked. Bestsellers and books by the authors were being sold, for those who wanted to pick up something after listening to an author speak or wanting to get an autograph on.

Girish Karnad for example was polite but clear that he would not sign on the notebooks that were being pressed on him by gaggles of giggling schoolgirls. He was very polite in saying that "My books are avilable at the bookshop, I am here for awhile. If you bring one of my books, I will sign it for you, but on principle, I will only sign on my own books"

Other authors were either of similar viewpoints or generally obliging all their fans. But even William Dalrymple(WD) was forced to draw the line when one of these schoolgirls(SG) took out a pirated copy of his latest book Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India and asked him to autograph it. I was right there when it happenned.
SG: Sir, Please Sign this book for me
WD: This is a pirated copy. I have not yet seen a pirated copy of Nine Lives, is it out already? I'm sorry, but I cannot sign this.
SG: Please sir, please sign it for me.
WD: I'm sorry, but I will not sign a pirated copy. (In an aside to Geoff Dyer-GD standing nearby) Geoff would you autograph pirated copies?
GD : (self deprecatingly) I don't think I'm popular enough for my books to be pirated, I've never been faced with one myself.
SG: But what is the problem Sir? Why will you not sign my book?
WD: Please buy an authorised copy of my book from the store here and I will be happy to sign it for you, but I will not sign a pirated copy.

I must mention that these schoolgirls I speak about are from a very reputed school in Rajasthan. The girls were all from Highschool (14-16 year olds) or engineering college (16-19yr olds) so old enough to know better. For the most part, they were well behaved, but there were some of them who were treating the whole thing as just another picnic.

They were at their worst when Chetan Baghat walked in. Of all the fantastic authors around, he, the least significant, who has written so much cr@p (Have you Read "One Night at the Call Centre"?) was surrounded by hordes of girls who were later heard whispering "You know? he smiled at me." Shows what a little controversy (3 Idiots and the credits for it - the orchestrated drama was still in the news) can do to a persons recognisability.

What I did like about the festival was that every session started on time. 4 parallel sessions, multiple award winning authors, eager fans and public wanting more time for question-answer sessions - yet every session started and ended on time. Authors politely asked fans to step out of the tent or off the main area, so the next group could get started and patiently autographed books for their adoring public on the side.

Brilliantly managed. Although I do think they will need to shift to a larger venue next year as the location was bursting at the seams this year.

Will write seperate posts about some of the sessions I attended - individually.

But to sum up, this is a wonderful idea with fantastic implementation, co-ordinated by Namita Gokhale and William Dalrymple and I hope and pray that it continues to grow in the coming years.

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