Plotting a literary movement

Written by Nikhila Gill | Nikhila Gill | Updated: Jan 31 2011, 05:09am hrs
How do we know what youre writing is true she asked. Well, if you look carefully on the first page of the book, he said, youll see it says: Novel. The Durbar Hall of Diggi Palace in Jaipur, with its carved double doors opening out into a chamber adorned with colourful frescoes, dusty chandeliers, antique speckled mirrors and a throne-of-sorts was privy to many such scintillating conversations. The throne, on the concluding day of the second edition of Jaipur Literature Festival circa 2007, was rightfully occupied by the Best of the Booker, Salman Rushdie, at his witty, acerbic best. After being asked in three different ways whether Pakistan was a part of his identity and three answers in the negative, Rushdie finally retorted, Not really, I know which side I am on, in the cricket Test! A 400-strong audience was witness to this afternoon session of repartees and a discussion of creative freedom and politics, history and fatwas.

Cut to circa 2011 and the Durbar Hall had been relegated to back pages so to say. It was now used to host the sessions that were expected to attract lesser mortals; the front-lawns are now where the action was. From being the venue, it became one of the five spots in the expansive landscape of the grounds that hosted conversations and readings. Even the stables, instead of their usual equine residents, saw authors and their audience occupy the space. If this isnt testimony enough to the exponential growth of the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival, perhaps the number of guests is. The festival that started with probably as many people as you could count on your fingertips has grown to become one that saw a multitude of people from across India and the world gathering at the inclusive and expansive environs of the Diggi Palace. The crowds can be overwhelming; feels a bit like being in Pragati Maidan, every once in a while, mused Nandita Aggarwal, Hachette Indias editorial director.

While the majority of the crowd listened, spellbound, to JM Coetzee declare that although he had opinions, he didnt find them very interesting and so, instead, chose to read a short storyA woman and her cats, sections in the crowd looked around in bewilderment. Yeh Javed Akhtar aur Gulzar ka session nahi hai (This isnt Javed Akhtar and Gulzars session), they said quizzically. Humne toh suna tha ki Shabana Azmi bhi aayengi. Yeh kaun hai (We had heard that Shabana Azmi too would be attending. Who is he), they wondered aloud as they looked around impatiently.

At the end of the reading, the audience was invited to get copies of their book signed. This hour was reminiscent of the hour Rushdie spent signing books. By refusing to sign scraps of paper, Rushdie ensured not only the sale of a few extra hundred copies of his work, but probably encouraged the people who bought his books to perhaps read them one day. And isnt that the point of what literary festivals are meant to encouragean interest in literature

It was this thought that is echoed by Sheldon Pollock, who expressed concern over the future of classical Indian languages and literature. Without the critical care of cultivating Indian classical literature of the past, literature before 1800 may disappear within two generations. Becoming involved is the key to saving it, he says. Addressing this concern, festival co-director Namita Gokhale points out that, In 2011, we have continued to showcase the strength and diversity of writing in Indian languages and include sessions in Hindi, Urdu, Sanskrit, Tamil, Bengali, Assamese, Oriya, Gujarati, Malayalam, Kashmiri, Punjabi, Nepali, Bhojpuri and Rajasthani.

However, the nagging question of whether literature fests just become a place to be seen, where people with no interest whatsoever in books come to stargaze remains. But it is exactly these people that events like the Jaipur Literature Festival targetthe non-reader who has yet to read a book. After all, it isnt the converts you need to convert, says Aggarwal of Hachette. Literature festivals definitely encourage book sales, perhaps not for very long, but people certainly tend to buy books during the course of the festival.

So have book sales significantly increased Krishan Chopra, chief editor and publisher, Penguin India says sales are irrelevant. It isnt a question of how many books are sold. Marketing literature isnt as glossy as selling cricket. Festivals are a forum used to make people aware of authors. Along similar lines, Vivek Mehra, MD & CEO of Sage Publications feels although there may not be big book sales at the festival, the event certainly ups the emotional involvement that readers have with the authors of books theyve read.

It would be facetious to say that all the members in every audience must have read all the authors or at least the majority of the work being talked about. A big part of the festival is to put authors and their audience together and allow them to interact, says Sanjoy Roy, co-director of the festival. This exposes people to writers and works they may never have heard of, allowing them the chance to explore.

A little further along the same trajectory, Chopra of Penguin is of the opinion that one of the spin-off effects of such interactions is that they help focus the spotlight on some of the important issues from around the world, bringing them to one venue, thus encouraging debate and discussions between the literati and the common folk. This is all the more important, given the youths growing interest in Facebook and all things online. Festival co-director, William Dalrymple says, The DSC Jaipur Literature Festival speaks about the current anxieties of the place of literature in the face of growing interests of the youth in social networking, gaming, and other technologies. The astonishing growth and success of this festival in a short time is a testament to the fact that there is, at the very least, a force acting to counter the prevalent trends.

But do these interactions translate into encouraging young people to read The 1980s to about 2005 saw a serious decline in reading habits. But this is slowly changing, books are making a come back with the introduction of digital media, such as the Kindle and iPad, says Mehra of Sage. Most mainstream publishers agreed that even if reading habits arent inculcated in the long term, a large number of people are introduced to books in a completely new way.

There is a sense of awe about just how big the Jaipur Literature festival has grown. Penguins Chopra believes that its the best thing to happen to Indian literature and writers, given the enormous publicity. The event is comparable with some of the best in the world and draws the crme-de-la-crme of the literary world to its doorstep each year.

The sixth edition of the Jaipur Literature festival saw Orhan Pamuk and Vikram Seth return, with first-timers such as JM Coetzee, Junot Diaz, Chimamanda Adichie and Mohsin Hamid. A glance at yesteryears, and the list of the literary celebrities who have graced the hallowed halls, including Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Orhan Pamuk, Wole Soyinka, Kiran Desai, Tina Brown, Alexander McCall Smith, Ian McEwan and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, illustrates why the LitFest is now the biggest in Asia and the largest free literary festival in the world. That it is a free event makes the festival truly egalitarian, imparting people the courage to attend, believes VK Karthika, publisher and chief editor, Harpercollins India.

Not only this, the Jaipur Literature Festival has established yet another trend. It is now home to the South Asia literature award, the first of its kind as it focuses not on the authors origins, but is a subject matter award. Any and all literature that focuses on the subcontinent is eligible. The celebratory nature of the festival was all the more heightened because our book won the first DSC award, remarked Karthika of Harpercollins. As HM Naqvi, the first recipient of the award, says, Its time South Asia had a prize of its own. And so it does, in the Jaipur Literature Festival.

The DSC Jaipur Literature Festival has come a long way from its modest beginnings as a part of the Jaipur Virasat festival six years ago. It has grown to be known as the greatest literary show on earth, courtesy Tina Brown of The Daily Beast; an interesting term for a stage that hosts the heavyweights of the literary world each year. But on balance, whatever its detractors may say about the festival becoming a grand tamasha, a festival that brings over 200 prize-winning authors together for five days, allowing exposure to and the exchange of ideas with some of the greatest literary minds has already done its job.

FEs pick

21 January

Orhan Pamuk in conversation with Chandrahas Choudhary Junot Diaz, Pulitzer-winning winning writer and creative writing professor, in conversation with Sonia Faleiro Liaquat Ahamed, Pulitzer-prize winning author of Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World, thoughts on the collapse of the banking system

22 January

Reporting the Occupation: David Finkel, Jon Lee Anderson & Rory Stewart moderated by Antony Loewenstein

Gata Rahe Mera Dil: Gulzar, Javed Akhtar & Prasoon Joshi

Salman Ahmad (of Junoon) followed by Pakistani author and musician, Ali Sethi's performance

23 January

Readings from Coetzee: JM Coetzee introduced by Patrick French

Memoirs: Kai Bird, Martin Amis, Namita Devidayal and William Fiennes in conversation with Jerry Pinto

In concert: Susheela Raman and Sam Mills featuring Aref Durvesh, Chuggee Khan and Nathoo

24 January

Sex & the City author Candace Bushnell

A Painters Life: SH Raza in conversation with Ashok Vajpeyi

In concert: Transglobal Underground, renowned fusion music band

25 January

The Reluctant Fundamentalist: Mohsin Hamid in conversation with Shoma Chaudhury

A Suitable Book: Vikram Seth in conversation with Somnath Batabyal In concert: Shye Ben Tzur