On a train to Jaipur junction: Namita Gokhale offers an enjoyable celebration of old-fashioned storytelling
As co-founder of the Jaipur Lit Fest, along with William Dalrymple, you couldn’t ever hope to match up to Namita Gokhale, when it comes to podium encounters with literary giants, rubbing shoulders with rising star writers or sharing those polite jokes on the festival sidelines.
Her new book, Jaipur Journals, is being described as ‘an ode to JLF’, but it’s really far from a festival diary, and rather, a celebration of the joys of writing. She tells us more...
Did the incident with the portrait of Lord Tennyson and Tagore really happen? Were you there and how hard did that make you laugh?
I made up the whimsical story about Stella Murch's deliberate confusion between Lord Tennyson and Tagore - and yes I chuckled as I wrote it!
There's a quaint quality in the tone and elements in the stories here - from the train rides to the amusing conversations. Did you want to, in a sense, make this an example of classic storytelling, rather than fit in with new-age ideas of short, clipped, SMS/Whatsapp/Insta-friendly millennial affairs?
You are quite right, Jaipur Journals is indeed an old-fashioned exercise in storytelling. I didn't set out to do this, but the characters and their stories as they enacted themselves in my mind and played out on the page have a sort of stylistic innocence in the telling. I don't always write like this but I'm glad this novel about writers and the writing life turned out in the tone and voice it did.
Tell us about the thought process when you decided against putting together a festival diary, and instead, chose to be inspired to write short stories. What were your considerations there - to not be too journalistic in your style, and yet pack the stories in with so much fact and information?
It was never my intention to write a festival diary. These inter-related tales are set against the backdrop of the vibrant Jaipur festival, and the festival is indeed itself almost a character in the novel. I am so immersed in the litfest through the year and every aspect of it is so deeply embedded in my mind and heart that all the details and vivid descriptions came tumbling out unasked!
And yet, there is more to Jaipur Journals than the situation and location. There are the backstories, and each character has a credible independent narrative. I'm delighted that they hold together, with each individual story adding to the sum of the others.
While you were writing the stories, how immersed were you in the idea of primarily enjoying your writing, and especially the dialogues, characters and personal exchanges in the stories? Were you conscious that you were working on a themed collection of stories?
These stories wrote themselves quite effortlessly - which is not always the case with my books. I had enormous fun writing them, and I think this comes through in the style and tone. The transitions between the different stories also happened quite spontaneously, and I didn't have to rewrite and edit it much.
I would let my mind go blank and look on indulgently as the story - or the stories - galloped off in different directions. There were whimsical twists to the different plots which added to the creative joy of working on them. I do hope some of this communicates itself to readers.
You have obviously been a part of very many sessions on the JLF podium, surrounded by many an illustrious name from the literary world. Tell us about your scariest encounters, the moments that you would prefer to forget, but simply can't because they are too hilarious.
The most terrifying encounter was surely when the mobs descended on the lawns of Diggi palace the year when Salman Rushdie was prevented from speaking at the festival. I can never forget the ecstatic crowds that greeted Oprah Winfrey, nor the love and respect with which Dr APJ Kalam was greeted by young and old. There is a special set of memories associated with each year and each edition.
How much of a theatrical person are you in real life? Have you considered short plays or sketches for the stage, emerging out of this collection of stories?
That's a very perceptive question! I had not really worked on theatre - except for some plays I wrote in the eighth grade which are surely best forgotten. However, there is a play-script I have recently written with my friend and longtime collaborator Dr Malashri Lal, which will be published later this year, and which I hope to be actively involved in staging. I don't want to talk much about it just yet, but I'm madly excited about it.
There are some moments in Jaipur Journals which are sheer drama. We worked on some quite enthralling podcasts in different voices which were aired during the litfest. I do hope it gets another dimension apart from print - let's see!
In some segments of a few stories - as a reader, you suddenly stop and think, this could have so easily been drafted out as poetry. Tell us how you keep your prose so fluid, fresh and open - in a way that gets us to enjoy writing and language that much more.
Thank you for the compliment. It's not always easy to write a layered story and also keep it fluid and simple. I think perhaps the distinct eccentricities of the characters, the unpredictable twists and turns in their lives and the whimsical joy with which they are presented has managed to communicate itself.
For our millennial followers, we have to ask - would you consider possible multimedia extensions of the book? For example, would you imagine audio-books, short films, mobile-friendly app-based stories, or even a video game or a TV docu-series?
The audiobook of Jaipur Journals should be out soon. I would love to play with other hybrid platforms, and meta-fiction should lend itself easily to multiple interpretations. These are stories about stories, and there are infinite mirror narratives that could be framed around them. I've already begun on my next novel but I know some of these stories will ensnare me again with the infinite possibilities of refracting and retelling them.
Looking around Jaipur today, what other kinds of modern-day stories would you like to see based in the city, and told from a Jaipur-centric perspective? Do you think it's time for more books and stories to be written and based on Jaipur?
Jaipur is unique in being both modern, trendy and cosmopolitan, and yet also deeply entrenched in and respectful of its literary and artistic traditions. The folk and performative traditions of Rajasthan have some unique aspects. The pictorial narratives of the Phad scrolls and the Bhopa who recounts them are an intrinsic part of the Jaipur Journals story. There is the Kaavad tradition that has narrative paintings in a portable wooden shrine that unfolds to reveal stories within stories. The structure of my novel could even at some level be compared to the Kaavad style with each story opening windows to another.
We have to ask about your most recent JLF experiences. Who did you meet, tell us about your most interesting conversations, and any anecdotes perhaps that you'd like to share with our readers?
My novel opens through with Anura, the young writer, all of twelve years old, who encounters the aged and eccentric Rudrani Rana on the train to Jaipur. I'm fascinated by the new generation of young writers who are telling and presenting their stories with such confidence and conviction.
INR 599, Penguin-Viking.
— Jaideep Sen