Festival report: Jeffrey Archer, Ben Okri, Shashi Tharoor, Manisha Koirala and others light up Jaipur Lit Fest 2019
With a focus on subjects ranging from war, politics and climate change to gender, science and technology, mythology, cinema, activism and more, the 12th edition of JLF offered new perspectives
Turning twelve is a decisive occasion in one’s lifespan. It’s the year just before the teens. Whether people or entities, the 12th year is critical, when one explores and strives to expand perspectives. So when the 12th edition of Zee Jaipur Literature Festival opened on January 24 at the Diggi Palace, everyone, from the festival organisers — festival producer Sanjoy K Roy, festival directors William Dalrymple and Namita Gokhale, publishing houses, authors, speakers and importantly visitors — readers, non-readers, art lovers and music fans, were all looking at what the Jaipur Literature Festival 2019 would deliver in the following days.
With a line-up that boasted names such as Pulitzer Prize winning author Andrew Sean Greer, Yann Martel and Ben Okri — both Man Booker Prize winners, Australian writer and a prominent voice of the secondwave feminist movement Germaine Greer, Hari Kunzru — one among the Best of Young British Novelists recognised by Granta in 2003, author and MP Shashi Tharoor, lyricist Gulzar and his filmmaker daughter Meghna Gulzar, actor Manisha Koirala who launched her autobiography Healed, lyricist Javed Akhtar, actor Shabana Azmi, authors Anjum Hasan and Jayant Kaikini, poets Ruth Padel and Rajathi Salma and nearly 500 other speakers, it didn’t come as a surprise that the world’s largest literary festival drew over 400,000 visitors.
Magic happens all the time
On day one of the festival, among the star speakers, the father-daughter duo of Gulzar and Meghna Gulzar were the biggest crowd-pullers. Meghna’s book on her father titled, Because He Is, though published in 2004, continues to engage Gulzar’s fans across the globe. Talking about her approach to the biography, Meghna said, “It’s the lack of objectivity that is the charm of the book. There’s an emotionality that makes it more honest.” But it was her recitation of a poem she had written as a child that evoked a roaring response from the audience. The poem read: “I have a father who gives me money. I’d hate him not rather, he loves me as honey. I love my father too, he polishes my shoe. He’s sometimes sweet, sometimes funny, but today, I want money, so away he is running!’ The session concluded with the father and daughter praising each other’s abilities to strike a balance in their relationship, even as friends.
From relationships to scientific explorations, the first day also included the session Mapping the Heavens, a conversation between Priyamvada Natarajan (an astrophysicist and Professor at Yale) and author Veena Venugopal. Priyamvada, who penned the critically acclaimed book Mapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas that Reveal the Cosmos discussed how significant and yet insignificant we are in the cosmos. Talking about what happens out there in space, the astrophysicist said, “Magic happens around us all the time. Some we witness and are amazed, and some we don’t. Irrespective of our participation in it, some magical phenomenon keeps on repeating itself without being seen, in the universe.”
Of myths and writers
Day two started with a bang when heavyweights from the fiction genre — Andrew Sean Greer, Ben Okri, Vikram Chandra, Tania James — were in conversation with author Chandrahas Choudhury about ‘Where Does Fiction Come From?’ The session began with Andrew’s witty observation about writers: “We are all dying to know what the others think (about where does fiction come from).” One of the highlights of the session was ‘the link between writing of novels, and the myth that underlies them’. Reflecting on myths as structures that are old and powerful, Vikram shared, “Readers respond to them without even realising it. We are a narrative-seeking and narrative-making species.”
Ben added his perspective: “Myth is not just what we make of life. It’s also cycles and rhythms.” He was referring to intuitional writing, which does not make a direct effort to replicate reality. Instead, it uses rhythms to convey the experience of a story. The conversation ended with the writers sharing their evolving writing styles, and Tania confessed, “My stories are getting shorter and shorter,” helping her experiment more. While Vikram said, “I am much more suited to the longer craft,” and Ben added, “The short story betrays itself in every sentence, which is consequently more scary, while the novel is a more generous and forgiving form.” This repartee between the authors drew a resonating applause.
The more thunderous clapping, hooting and cheering was reserved by the crowd for the session, ‘Eleven Gods and a Billion Indians: Will Virat Kolhi be The Biggest Celebrity if Indian Wins the World Cup?’ — a discussion featuring Boria Majumdar, author of Eleven Gods and a Billion Indians, TV journalist Rajdeep Sardesai and MP Shashi Tharoor. The panel was in conversation with authorjournalist Prayaag Akbar about what makes the Indian cricket team worship-worthy. Boria shared his experience about writing the book and how during the Anil Kumble controversy, Kohli held the ethos of the gentleman‘s game through his approach and behaviour.
“What the BCCI did at that time was absolutely the right thing to do. This is cricket, it’s the captain’s team, it’s not football, it’s not where the manager calls the shots. Ultimately, the captain takes the flak. When people say Virat is rude, stuck-up and snobbish, they should realise that they don’t know his version, I know it. Virat has not spoken a word in the public domain about this controversy. It says a lot about the man, his character and integrity. The cricketer says, ‘I am an icon at personal convenience. If you think I am right, you will hail me, but if you think I am wrong, you will not hesitate even by a second in trashing me.’ Which is one of the reasons why he cocoons himself.”
But it was Tharoor who drew the maximum applause for his acidic yet witty remarks about the current affairs of the country within the cricket context. While the panel was divided on who makes for a better India story (the making of a hero from an ordinary Indian) — MS Dhoni or Virat Kohli — the concluding statements on the cricket World Cup winners prediction seemed unanimous, that India does stand a chance to win it.
The rich and mighty
There was also a session on ‘Writing about the Rich: From Gatsby to Starry Nights’ with a panel that included Shobhaa De, British editor and TV presenter Rachel Johnson and author Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi. De started off by saying that one needn’t apologise for one’s wealth, and made a plea for rich literary characters to not be made to suffer so much. Rachel added, “Why are you allowed to satirise the super rich, but you’re not allowed to satirise the super poor?” The funniest comment of the session was when the panelists agreed to the idea of “Little money, little problems and big money, bigger problems.”
Day three witnessed a medley of subjects that included travel, race, migration, colonisation, climate change, desire, love, mythology, art and Bollywood. It was also a day of many women-centric exchanges, one of which was ‘The Changemakers: Bollywood Behind the Scenes’. The conversation between authors Gayatri Rangachari Shah and Mallika Kapur (who wrote Changemakers: Twenty Women Transforming Bollywood from Behind the Scenes), cinematographer Priya Seth, producer Guneet Monga and stuntwoman Geeta Tandon, focused on the perils of being a ‘behind-the-camera’ professional and how challenging it is for women to assert themselves in one of the biggest film industries of the world.
The other highlight was ‘Heads You Win’, a conversation between Jeffrey Archer and Barkha Dutt. The afternoon session started late because of the outpouring of Archer fans. The session opened with Dutt introducing the author as the “irreverent, fabulous, inimitable” Jeffrey Archer. The author shared stories about his initial days when he started as a writer, and also shed some light on his craft, “I think I am a storyteller, it is a God-given gift.” The highlight of day four was a conversation between actor Manisha Koirala and Sanjoy K Roy, on the former’s autobiography, Healed: Life Learnings from Manisha Koirala. “After having been through this journey of cancer and living with the idea of death every day, I have learnt one thing,” said the actor, adding, “Today, no matter what ups and downs I go through, I take it in my stride as a learning experience.”
While Manisha spoke about conquering cancer, Tamil poet and author Rajathi Salma shared her story about how she managed to become a writer, despite all the setbacks. Salma, who was a panelist along with poet Akhil Katyal, Punjabi novelist Desraj Kali, Malayalam author NS Madhavan and author Kanishk Tharoor at the session ‘Reclaiming the Mother Tongue’ spoke about regional languages and translations. Salma, who was awarded the Mahakavi Kanhaiyalal Sethia Award for Poetry at JLF this year, shared her insights in response to why students who lack proficiency in English feel underconfident and said, “English is a language of access, not of knowledge.”
With such power-packed four days, the fifth day too kept up the momentum. The most important session in the morning was undoubtedly ‘Breaking Free: A New Kind of Beautiful’ featuring Australian writer and feminist Germaine Greer, English professor at Ashoka University Madhavi Menon, actor Manisha Koirala and Odissi dancer Sonal Mansingh in conversation with author and skin cancer specialist, Dr Sharad Paul. The question raised at the panel was whether ‘women today are under pressure to please others, or try conforming to others’. In response, Greer shared her thoughts, “We have assumed that a woman is an object, because a woman buys make-up products, and a boy does not have to put on any makeup.”
She observed that while beauty is derived from one’s “mitochondrial DNA”, the aura of one’s inner beauty is of much more significance. She also insisted that young people must focus on living and leading with confidence, without the requirement of the reassurance resulting from artificial physical customisation.
With such insightful sessions, readings and book launches, the primary venue of the Jaipur Literature Festival, Diggi Palace, was the epicentre of intellectual exchange. JLF hosted over 500 speakers from 30 countries in over 250 sessions. With a focus on subjects ranging from classics, war, espionage, intelligence, politics, climate change, gender, entrepreneurship, science and technology, mythology, crime, history, cinema, art , activism and more, the 12th edition of JLF certainly expanded perspectives, and is ready to go onto its 13th edition!
What got our attention
A scintillating performance by Usha Uthup, who despite the dropping mercury, wrapped herself with multiple layers for her show at the Jaipur Music Stage
‘Clothing as Identity’, a fashion show by artisan designers from Kutch. The designers showcased indigenous weaves, block prints and tie-and-die prints in different silhouettes.
A literary experience by Man Booker Prize winner Ben Okri, who presented The Griot — a new kind of live literary experience in the tradition of bards and griots, ancient storytellers and custodians of oral traditions at Amber Fort.
A performance at Amber Fort by the Sitar Ensemble of Shakir Khan and Azeem Ahmed Alvi from the Etawah gharana.
@aishatax and @simarb_92
The writers were at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2019 by invitation.