Literary noises

There were just two complaints I had of the Jaipur Literature Festival where I spent three very fulfilling days this week. The first was my utter exasperation with two gentlemen, appearing in rapid succession, who insisted on engaging me in conversation on the biases of TV channels. In normal circumstances I am happy to proffer my two-anna views on anything remotely linked to the media but on this occasion I may have been needlessly frosty. The reason: I was sitting quietly by myself, soaking in the wisdom, wackiness and poetry of Vikram Seth who was speaking at the tent barely 50 meters away. This was after all a literary festival and I had come to enjoy the fare.
The second occasion was two days earlier, when I failed to find a chair inside the marquee for a session by the South African-born writer J.M. Coetzee. Instead I found a place where I could at least hear this legendary figure, if not see him speak. Coetzee has a reputation for being incredibly shy and wary of public occasions and it was quite apparent that this was an opportunity of a lifetime. Coetzee, not surprisingly, didn’t speak about either the state of the world or agonise over his inner turmoil. He said he would read a short story which he had specially chosen for the occasion.
I made myself comfortable as he began his reading. I don’t think he had even finished two sentences when his soft voice was overwhelmed by the vernacular chatter from a family of five that included a brattish eight-year-old boy, discussing their lunch. I tried a “shshsh” and, instead, got strange looks. The chatter increased as two others on my left began speaking to their friends on the mobile phone about nothing in particular. My distant encounter with Coetzee was soured by the Great Indian Noise.
I tried to find another place but by then I had lost the thread of his narration.
The problem may well be attributed to something that fashionable writers call semiotics.
A “festival” conveys a multitude of meanings in the English context. The raucous weekend in Glastonbury each summer where people end up caked in mud is a festival in the more robust sense of the term. But festival is also the description for the gathering of genteel publishers, bibliophiles and others in the picturesque village of Hay-on-Wye.
In much of India, a festival implies a carnival, a fair and a mela. The idea that a group of people can sit in pin-drop silence (as those seated inside the marquee did) soaking in the story of an elderly gentleman about cats and Catholics, and then proceed to describe it as “good fun” would be absolutely preposterous to the family that kept me from enjoying Coetzee. In their minds, they were the ones having “fun” and enjoying a family outing on a Sunday; I was the weird guy insisting on some quiet in a public space.
India has a tradition of kavi sammellans and mushairas. But a festival of literature, made glamorous by exhaustive media coverage and the presence of beautiful people and even Bollywood notables is a novelty. The Kolkata Book Fair, which attracts more than a lakh of visitors, has evolved into a mela centred on stalls selling books. So too, as I discovered earlier this month, has the Vibrant Gujarat meet in Gandhinagar. The crowds flock to this event and even sat through seminars about investment opportunities in Newfoundland not because they were seeking investment avenues but because they craved a window to the world.
Colonial administrators often marvelled at the Indian penchant for tamasha. Many of those who found their way into the Literature Festival venue at Diggi Palace were unclear as to what exactly to expect. Some were excited by an earlier and quite baseless rumour that J.K. Rowling would be there to sign copies of the Harry Potter books; others imagined they could get some tips on creative writing; still others just felt it was the place to be. For all their undoubted popularity, even Martin Amis, Coetzee, Orhan Pamuk, Kiran Desai and David Finkel aren’t exactly household names in this part of the Orient.
A section of the 60,000 or so people who dropped into the festival did so because they wanted some exposure to the world of letters and to ideas that don’t facilitate an MBA degree. Despite the purposeless demand for autographs of anyone who looked remotely “famous” and inappropriate behaviour such as reserving every chair in sight and rudely walking out mid-session, there was also a realisation that arts, literature and non-vocational scholarship also have their place in an economically vibrant society. This recognition hasn’t as yet manifested itself in more book buying — an average Indian print run is 2,000 copies and even the festival bookshop sold just 9,000 books — and the growth of public libraries, but a start has been made.
As the Jaipur Literature Festival finds a place on the global map, the organisers will be under various pressures. There will be demands to regulate the crowds, to make it a paid, niche event and, at the very least, to ensure that there are fewer silly questions from the audience. There will also be demands to make it a festival of Indians engaging with other Indians on broadly India-centric themes and experiences.
This implies excluding sessions such as one on the Nile by travel writer Anthony Sattin and the one by James Mather on the British Levant Company — both of which I found rewarding.
Both pressures must be resisted. The annual event in Jaipur has become what it is because a cockily resurgent India is the “hot” story after China, and because Indians yearn, sometimes indiscriminately, for everything on offer globally.
I would rather tolerate my two high points of exasperation and inconvenience than see the soul taken out of the Jaipur experience.

Swapan Dasgupta is a senior journalist

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