31 January 2010

Jaipur Literature Festival 2010

Disneyland for the reader
I could use a lot of superlatives here. Instead, let me just say I had a very interesting time. Jaipur is beautiful and exotic even if you don’t have anything as interesting as this to do, and this time the organizers of the festival hosted us hangers-on in a brand-new haveli-type place with wonderful atmosphere. The festival grounds are also done up like a mela. There’s bustle, food and fashion as well as books and writers walking around, talking about their work and putting on entertainment of various types. And there’s a strong feeling that people are here to really enjoy themselves – not just to be seen or to tick off a Must Do they have on their list.

One evening, the new Pakistani novelist Ali Sethi sang some verses of Faiz Ahmed Faiz.
He sang so well that I couldn’t resist trotting off next day to buy a copy of his book The Wish Maker to get it signed by this very talented young man – or posing for this photo with Shrabani Basu and her sister Shoma.
I interviewed Shrabani for Sunday Mid-day before the festival, and you can read here what she said about her new book Victoria & Abdul, the very interesting story of Queen Victoria and a young Indian cook named Abdul.
At Jaipur, I also spent time with one of my favourite writers, Alexander McCall Smith. His books make you feel warm and comfortable, give you a sense of the world the way it should be, and have both wit and optimism flow through them. Meeting him is a very similar experience.
When I told him that my friend Gladys, who is 85, had said I should say “thank you” to him, he offered that we could phone and he would have a chat with her.
I saw him being just as kind and friendly to others too, listening with interest and asking names. I had interviewed him before the festival and you can read what he said here.
I met Hanif Kureishi too, quite by chance – I was heading back to the hotel when the travel desk stopped my cab and another 2 men got in. The one next to me started chatting and when I eventually asked his name, was embarrassed not to have recognized him. Hanif Kureishi is known to be usually grim-faced and silent so having the chat was quite special. Here’s my article about the encounter. The page also carries what I wrote about My Friend the Fanatic by Sadanand Dhume, who also happened to be at the festival.
Hanif reminded me a lot of his books. I’ve found that with other writers too - definitely Sadanand Dhume. Perhaps because the ones I'm thinking of have autobiographical themes. But it confused me when Louis de Bernieres, whose books cover a range of themes and styles and tend to be complex and darkly humorous, turned out to be an ordinary sort of person with no airs of any kind and who speaks in simple sentences.
I apparently discovered him before anyone else because we hung out for more than 2 hours and even went and had lunch together. The meal queues at the festival tend to go on and on so we had plenty of time to chat and talked about our families, various customs and more. This photo shows him writing something for Mark Tully.
Funniest of all was Roddy Doyle who told me that he became a writer, like most others I suppose, as a logical follow up of having been a voracious reader and the more he read, the more he thought that was what he wanted to do too.
“I hope I die in mid-sentence,” he said in a session, “That would be the perfect way to go … leaving mystery behind!”
He also made everyone laugh by telling them this story. “My son Jack was at school and one of his friends came up to him and said, Jack, there’s a picture of your dad in the history book. Jack was a bit surprised because I’m still alive so I shouldn’t be in the history book so the kid took out the book and showed him a picture of Gandhi. So apparently a bald man with glasses died in India and another bald man with glasses was born in Ireland. And this is my spiritual home – I’ve been waiting a long, long time to get here!” In the next session other participants started calling him Ben Kingsley and everyone laughed.
One of the things I did not like about the festival was that there were too many times I wanted to attend more than one session that was happening at the same time. I missed one rather good one with Hanif Kureishi because I was attending one on Sindhi literature which I couldn’t tear myself away from. It wasn’t very well run, and the one Pakistani Sindhi writer wasn’t given enough time to speak and cut short, while the presenter took her own time telling personal stories which I thought was rather unfair.
Of course the Sindhi language is dying in India and has even been dropped from the new Mile Sur Mera Tumhara but Shaukat Shoro did say it was alive and well in Pakistan despite the language riots in which the Sindhis have been attacked over the years.
On the last day was a Writer’s Ball, this time with the very impressive Amber Fort in the background. I’m really not good at living it up at parties but here’s a picture of Shrabani and me again.
And more little titbits about the festival here.

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