Purple Prose from the Pink City
My most memorable moment of the Jaipur Literature Festival last year was of a Japanese visitor approaching Pico Iyer for an autograph.
In case you’ve read The Lady and the Monk, you’ll know about Pico Iyer’s year in Kyoto and perhaps, like me, you’ve wondered what happened to the wonderful woman he has a relationship with while he’s there. In the course of our interview for Sunday Mid-day he told me, “Oh yes, I was silly! But then I came to my senses. I went back and married her.” More than 20 years later, they continue to be blissfully, blissfully happy together though (or perhaps because) both can barely speak each other’s languages.
Pico Iyer was delighted to sign this lady’s autograph book, and I’ll never forget her gratification at the way he welcomed her and said how much he loved Japan and admired the Japanese people. He was equally gentle and warm with everyone who approached him. I very much enjoyed the hour we spent chatting, and you can read some of what we talked about here. Another author who made a mark at Jaipur was Chetan Bhagat. He was at the festival with his wife and twin toddlers (and their ayah). He was mobbed by the press and by hordes of young and awestruck readers. But he was not nearly – now how shall I put this? – as well mannered as Pico Iyer.
One of my regrets from last year is that one evening my friend the novelist Namita Devidayal sang on stage - and I was elsewhere, having dinner with friends.
I really enjoyed the festival last year and am absolutely delighted to be going again next week - and am artless enough to say I'm not going to miss anything for anything.
Here’s are some excerpts from the gushing piece I wrote for Intelligent Pune about the Jaipur Literature Festival 2009:
The first person I connected with at the Diggi Palace in Jaipur was Bruce Palling.
Bruce is Australian but lives and works in England, and has been a journalist for more than 40 years during which time he lived in India for 2 stretches. He’s a well-known travel writer – he was once travel editor of Tatler magazine – and his book India, a literary companion is a collection culled from the recorded observations – bewitched, bemused, amused, dismayed – of travellers, traders, missionaries and artists over the past 2500 years. He was here to enjoy and write about the Jaipur Literature Festival, and while chatting he told me how, just the previous week, he had seen Colin Thubron being addressed scornfully by a visa officer at the Indian High Commission in London.
Thubron, whose novels and travel books have stopped just short of the Man Booker Prize but earned him the sobriquet of “gentleman traveller”, was apparently trying to assert himself as a delegate for the Jaipur festival but the documents he was presenting, rather than earning him a visa, seemed only fit to draw derision.
Bruce, with all his experience of India pulled him gently aside and counselled in a whisper, “Colin. Just go back home and come again tomorrow with an application for a tourist visa.”
Then Bruce told me he’d once seen William Dalrymple drinking out of a bottle of water the Indian way, tilting his head back, pouring the water into his mouth and glugging it down seamlessly without spilling a single drop or choking even once. “What a show off!” we concluded disdainfully – indulging the scruffy and embittered nature that writers traditionally profess towards other writers more prominent than themselves.
The festival, held this year in the last week of January, is an annual event that provides a kind of sumptuous buffet, with literary stars wandering around, speaking about their work and reading aloud from it, and being accosted by the press and autograph seekers. This year these included Vikram Seth, Pico Iyer, Tarun Tejpal, Ashis Nandy, Chetan Bhagat, Hari Kunzru, Patrick French, Prasoon Joshi, Vikas Swarup – need I go on?
The programme was so packed with high-quality activities that at any given point in time, you had to choose from 3, and quite often you’d like to be in all 3 places at once. Arthur Flowers, a professor of English at New York State University, instead of just talking about his book Mojo Rising which documents “not just a life, but also an entire belief system” recited from it in a stunning performance. But at the very same time, Brigid Keenan, Colin Thubron (who, of course, was only here because of Bruce’s intervention), William Dalrymple and Vikram Seth read passages from their work in a session titled “Jerusalem, Delhi, Damascus, City readings.”
Later on the same day, well-known Rajasthani writers such as Hariram Meena also read excerpts from their books while some of us sat there thinking wistfully, “How beautifully they write! If only I could read Hindi as well as I understand it! Why can’t I buy a digital audio of this story!”
A group of young publishers from the UK spoke about contemporary trends in publishing and how young writers could best attend the opportunities available to them.
Prasoon Joshi, Nandita Das and Vikram Swarup chatted with film maker Nasreen Munni Kabir in a session titled Scripting Bollywood which might have been better described as “All About Me”.
On the second day of the festival, a minor sensation had been reported – apparently Vikram Seth had been seen sipping wine while speaking at the podium! Long articles appeared, sternly decrying this singular act of depravity, corruption of youth and so on. It was the scruffy and embittered syndrome all over again and it’s unfortunate – though perhaps not surprising – that instead of focussing on the unique grandeur and artistic beauty of the event, much of the media indulged themselves by highlighting and sensationalising trivial aspects of it.
The Diggi Palace is an old Rajasthani haveli converted into a hotel, and the owners graciously lend the property to the festival every year. Besides the large and beautiful front lawn, two splendid tents had been set up with comfortable chairs and charpoys. In between was a space where you could sit at tables and be served with tea while conducting meetings or interviews. Several stalls lining the venue offered folk art and trinkets, and books you could get signed by their authors on the spot. The main hall was embellished with Rajasthani murals, woodwork and chandeliers.
One morning, Pico Iyer and Tarun Tejpal sat there chatting with Patrick French about his biography of V.S. Naipaul, and he described some aspects of Naipaul’s life and the interesting interactions they had had in the course of producing the book. I’ve always been a fan of Pico Iyer and approached him at the end for an interview. But he was keen to attend the next session. This featured Amitabh Bachhan – not because his father was a poet, but because a book in his honour, Bachhanalia, was being released on the lawns.
Pico didn’t want to miss a chance to see the great man in person, and agreed to have a chat after the session. Amitabh had naturally drawn a huge crowd and we stood on the sidelines, watching the superstar do his finest impersonation of a pompous dimwit. But he also brandished a flash or two of native wit – when a crowd gathered on an overhanging terrace came too close to the edge and an announcer requested them to move back, Amitabh translated, “Peeche hat jao nahi to aap mere godh me giroge!”
(Don't miss the attitude in his posture in this photograph).
Pico Iyer turned out to be calm and wise in a relaxed sort of way – turning a peaceful and charming attention to all who approached him.
On the final night, a Writer’s Ball at the Jaipur City Palace was a fitting finale. The grand, centuries-old property (the current Maharaja continues to live in private apartments here) provided a setting that can best be described by the type of gushing, superlative adjectives that I prefer to avoid. While some indulged themselves with food and drink, others fawned over their favourite writers, and the qawwali offerings of the Nizami brothers also found a rapt, ecstatic audience.
The best was yet to come, and wandering around to soak in atmosphere, I spotted Chetan Bhagat asking Vikram Seth for an autograph. As India’s young rock-star novelist tried to convince the cranky genius (who sat there fretting with wrinkled brow) to write something meaningful on a scrap of paper for his sister (or someone), I raced over to suggest that he might consider adapting the kind of line Asimov is reputed to have taken in such situations: “I’ll never forget our marvellous night on the beach.”
Every view of the inimitable Vikram Seth I’d had so far had revealed him irritable and self-absorbed, grimacing in a longsuffering manner and with general body language indicating the absolute limit of his tolerance. Now, to my great gratification, he guffawed aloud.
This festival is an annual feature and entrance is free of charge. The organizers even set up bursaries which provide subsidised accommodation to students. If you’re a lover of literature, definitely check it out on-line, and try to make it next year.