The biggest perk of my job in Kathmandu so far has been a last-minute trip accompanying my boss to the 2014 Jaipur Literature Festival. I returned from a three week holiday to Australia and Cambodia fully expecting to wallow in the rest of the Kathmandu winter, barely enduring tepid bucket showers and twelve-hours-a-day power cuts, missing my partner, with few lights on the horizon expect the monsoon season and hot showers again.
Less than two weeks later I’m in Jaipur, staying in 5 star luxury at the ITC Rajputana! And doing two of my most favourite things–being in India (all the better, Rajasthan) and being bookish.
Being a work trip, we haven’t come for the full five days of the festival, and I’m busy jumping around between sessions so haven’t been able to do the same amount of reporting as I did for the 2013 JLF. My experience of the festival this year has been somewhat different, but I think that’s worth reporting in itself.
Our first day at the festival was day 2, Saturday. The crowds are even worse this year, and there are 6 different stages at the Diggi Palace, as well as a separate publishing event, Bookmark, being held at Narain Niwas a short drive away. The crowds have been crippling: it was always the case that if you weren’t early for a session, you wouldn’t get a seat, but now there isn’t even standing room if you don’t arrive early. Surely the organisers will have to start seriously thinking about this for future years, either by setting it in alternative or parallel venues, or perhaps introducing some kind of token fee system for some sessions.
Day 2 began, for me, with an interesting session on the global novel, featuring Ethipian-American writer Mazaa Mengiste, Jhumpa Lahiri, Jonathan Franzen, Jim Crace, and Chinese-British Xiaolu Guo, and moderated by Chandrahas Choundhury. The whole gamut of perspectives on that slippery term ‘global literature’ were put forward. Jhumpa Lahiri stated the common opinion (among literary and academic types, anyway) that ‘global’ is a current marketing term for literature and music, and that perhaps ‘international’ or ‘universal’ is more apt for the kind of literature being discussed. Mazaa Mengiste shared a different opinion, telling the audience about a cousin of hers who moved from their home country to Italy, and then Bulgaria, and finally the US, and is now a filmmaker. This kind of ‘global’ citizen is the person writing truly global literature, sharing experiences and entering language worlds that are beyond simple marketing categories. Jim Crace held a much more simplistic perspective, stating that, to him, global literature is that which intrigues readers from outside, that gives the broader world an insight into Nigeria or Poland or Brazil. But, as Jonathan Franzen rightly suggested, this perspective runs the risk of being simply a nostalgic exoticisation.
Other highlights of day 2 were the horrendously cliche-titled panel ‘Behind the Veil’ which brought together women writers from Turkey, Iran, Egypt and Somalia, moderated by the ever-wonderful Urvashi Butalia; and a discussion between talented Nepali author Manjushree Thapa, new Bangladeshi author Farah Ghuznavi (see my review of her short story collection Fragments of Riversong in The Asian Review of Books), and Indian feminist publisher Ritu Menon. Someone had pointed out to me earlier in the day that it seemed as if women writers were being put together, leaving the ‘general’ or ‘mainstream’ panels male dominated. This may be true to some degree, but these panels consisting entirely of women were very well attended, and one young lad was brave enough to ask “why don’t more men support feminism?” A good question, which prompted just wry smiles.
I kicked off day three of the JLF, my second, with a well-attended but not oppressively crowded session called ‘Beauty and Fidelity: Texts in Translation’, featuring a Chinese-English translator (Carlos Rojas), a Hindi author (Geetanjali Shree), her English translator (Rahul Soni–also Asymptote literary journal’s India editor-at-large), a Marathi author (Sachin Kundalkar) and his English translator (Jerry Pinto). The pairing of the authors with their translators made for fruitful discussion, as did the addition of somewhat of a wildcard, Carlos Rojas.
The panel immediately discarded the topic, which summarised that old adage of translation (“that translations are like women: either beautiful, or faithful”) and, as Jerry Pinto stated, is both offensive to translators and to women. Having not heard of Marathi-language author Sachin Kundalkar, I was enticed into buying the English translation of his novel Cobalt Blue by the wit that both he and his translator, Pinto, displayed. A favourite anecdote of mine was when Kundalkar told how the Marathi and English versions of the novel have reached different audiences. The young weren’t drawn to the Marathi version, but he now gets messages from youngsters saying how much they enjoyed his book and look forward to the Marathi translation!
The second session of day 3, ‘Dispensable Nation: Afghanistan after the US Withdrawal’ (with a panel of scholars, writers and journalists specialising in Afghanistan, and moderated by William Dalrymple) was so crowded that I was sat on the ground a metre from the stage. Despite the fact that I could only see Dalrymple’s face and could barely make out any voices because of my awkward proximity to the side of the speakers, I would have endured the full session had there not been a freezing cold, foggy wind. So I went book shopping instead. Several others I spoke to after the session were disappointed that William Dalrymple tended to dominate the discussion with his war-horse stories of Afghanistan.
Being a huge fan of Urvashi Butalia, I attended her session ‘Savage Harvest’ with Navtej Sarna, the son of an eminent Punjabi author who wrote about Partition. Translation was once again pointed to as a necessary way of disseminating forgotten or ignored experiences, and the fact that Partition literature can still be discussed in such terms six and a half decades after the event shows how much more needs to be done.
In the afternoon I attended the parallel event that was being hosted this year: Bookmark, held at the nearby Narain Niwas, an effort to get publishing professionals together to talk about challenges and opportunities that the industry faces. By all appearances it was a small event this year, and attended mainly by small publishers, but the event is something that the JLF organisers will be trying to develop in future years. The discussions–from Indian and international publishers, editors, book-sellers, and so on–were more specialised and industry-focused than many of those held at the Diggi Palace, but for people with any interest in the industry it was a welcome opportunity to interact with other professionals. And the calm of the Narain Niwas grounds was more than welcome.
Day 4 of the JLF 2014 brought sunnier skies, meaning that sitting around outside became much more pleasant. It was also a Monday, so much of the throng had returned to Delhi (or wherever else from whence they came), making movement between venues at Diggi Palace less of a scrummage.
At every festival there are people who you’ve penciled in to see, and those who you end up listening to because you have a free hour and have managed to secure a seat. Sometimes these latter prove to be revelations, introducing you to writers not otherwise on the radar. Adrian Levy (in conversation with Vikram Chandra, whose epic Bombay gangster novel Sacred Games I am a big fan of) was one of these finds for me, not least because I had a long chat with him over dinner this same night and he proved to be a thoroughly nice man. Levy, with his partner Cathy Scott-Clark, has most recently written The Siege, a non-fiction work on the 26th November 2008 terrorist attacks in Bombay. Most of the session was spent discussing his main ‘protagonist/antagonist’ (my term, not his) David Hedley, a fascinating and complex creature. As Vikram Chandra described him, “If I had made him up and put him in one of my novels, nobody would have believed him.”
My Himal Southasian colleage, Aunohita Mojumdar, appeared in the next session, ‘Elephants in the Room: India and its Neighbours’, along with representatives from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Bhutan. The chair, a former Indian diplomat, opened by saying that while India might be an elephant, elephants are widely loved, gentle creatures. Aunohita rightly pointed out that they also have a tendency to crush things in their path, indiscriminately.
This afternoon was also spent at the Bookmark event for publishing professionals. As I wrote yesterday, this was industry-related, so while it was interesting and important for those in the industry, I don’t think it needs South Asia Book Blog’s special attention. Being our last evening in Jaipur, we stayed for the entertainment at Clarks Amer hotel, and I’m glad we did: the fabulous Tuarag band from Mali, Tinariwen, played for about an hour. After some lovely conversations with writers over dinner in the delegate lounge, I was sorry to be leaving the festival a day early, having to travel back to Delhi and then on to Kathmandu the next day. Despite the excellent networking opportunities for work, there were so many interesting people I didn’t get to see. Gloria Steinem! Nadeem Aslam! Robyn Davidson! But, we woke up the next day to torrential rain and thunder storms, which lasted all the way through Rajasthan and into Delhi, so in the end praised our own good foresight at calling it quits when we did.