Jaipur Literature Festival comes of age, time to get over ‘darlings of social media’

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Jaipur Literature Festival 2018 (Photo courtesy: PTI)

By Saket Suman

Jaipur– Hollywood heartthrob Angelina Jolie had once expressed her disagreement over the age-old saying: “What doesnt kill you makes you stronger”, and had then quipped that “our experiences, good and bad, make us who we are. By overcoming difficulties, we gain strength and maturity”. The same stands true for the just- concluded Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF). An 11-year-old cultural gathering, the festival has now come of age and its impact is fast seeping into India’s cultural ethos.

If there is one thing that has been a constant companion of this annual gathering of writers and bibliophiles, it is its unpredictability. No matter how many editions of this festival one has attended, it is near to impossible to anticipate what waits the visitors. JLF never ceases to surprise and this “wow factor” is perhaps what keeps the interest of even the oldest of its visitors alive in the literary extravaganza.

But the journey has not been easy and, therefore, the consequential responsibility that lies on the shoulders of its organisers — Sanjoy Roy, Namita Gokhale and William Dalrymple — is equally noteworthy.

In a saga of difficult times when attacks on free speech are constant and the space for reasonable debate is fast shrinking, JLF stands out as an oasis of bliss amid a dreary desert where the public discourse has gone horribly wrong. Over the years, it has stood as a champion of free speech and has featured authors with death threats and bounties on their heads. With placards bearing false identities at airports, hotel bookings made under different names for “controversial” speakers often featuring in surprise sessions, the festival has stood true to its core values — and has even risked numerous arrest warrants and FIRs against its organisers.

Jaipur Literature Festival 2018 (Photo courtesy: PTI)

On their part, the organisers have nver demurred and this will be forever recorded in the pages of India’s recent cultural history.

This 11th edition of JLF was no different as it featured sessions on wide-ranging topics and themes over the course of five days. Whether it was the creative genius of Amy Tan or the journalistic experience of Charlie English, all came to the fore during the event.

The festival, as Dalrymple described it, set up a “mini university” for thousands of its visitors and it can be aptly said that every one of them learnt something new. This year the orgganisers had booked 4,000-plus hotel nights to host over 500-plus speakers and over 178 musicians who participated in 205 sessions and 19 concerts of infectious music played morning and night. And still, managing to have the festival free for all visitors, solely funded by corporate sponsorships, is also commendable.

On the flip side, it cannot be denied that the festival has turned repetitive in some ways. Behind all glitz and euphoria associated with the event, the primary reason JLF is so successfull is its brilliant content, brought together by Gokhale and Dalrymple. And therefore when the “social media’s absolute darlings” – the likes of Shashi Tharoor, Amish Tripathi and Ashwin Sanghi – wax eloquently on what they do at dozens of similar events, it is but yesterday once more for most visitors – mundane, humdrum and a repetition of what they hear so often. This disappointment was heard clearly not only inside the premises of Diggi Palace but also on Twitter and other social media platforms this year.

Tharoor is undoubtedly a brilliant orator but what is his brilliance worth to the festival when he is going to sound the same bugle that he does at every single event? Sanghi’s new book will surely be a bestseller again but what else but disappointment can his session offer when he is going to chart the same anecdotes and analogies — “99 per cent luck and 1 per cent bloody good luck” and the likes — once again? And as if to suggest that hundreds of interviews and reviews of Tripathi’s last book wern’t enough, the festival hosted a session with him again – and for what purpose? The launch of a new cover of his last book! It would be just fine had Tripathi shared anything new, but none-at-all, whatsoever. A quick search on YouTube will reflect this monotonous saga more appropriately, for those with doubts.

It cannot be denied that celebrity speakers are huge crowd pullers and this may be the festival’s own way of first attracting new visitors by showing such celebrities and then keeping them engrossed in other sessions that take place simultaneously, but there is no greater disappointment than the moments when one sees his expectations shatter before his eyes. The so-called bestselling Indian writers at this year’s edition did just that.

The festival may also reconsider some of its regular moderators who, mildly put, deviate from the given theme, even to the disgust of noted speakers at many occasions.

JLF should also understand that with success comes equal responsibility and even as one salutes their commitment to free speech, it may seem a little too absurd for a writer to plainly boast that “the mystery of my novel is a result of whisky pegs” – with the presence of hundreds of young school children with their impressionable and vulnerable minds. But if one is going to prevent a writer from talking of liquor on stage, you may well one day demand that they do not write anything as such in their novels too.

There is no “Right-Wrong” answer to this, both assertions have their own merits and finding a balance between the two, in a way that both the writer and the visitor have their liberties as well as pride of place, is an area that organisers may wish to dwell in as they begin preparing for the next edition.

Jeet Thayil showed the way when he was asked to read a passage from his book, based on suicide. “I am not sure I should do this, there are many school kids here,” he said before giving out a spontaneous disclaimer on the act. The point is simply that most books cater to a certain demographic audience based on age. We have children’s novels, adult novels and so on but a festival like this breaks all such barriers, where a 7-year-old is seen sitting opposite his teenage sister, and just around the corner may be an elderly man, somewhere in his eighties.

These aside, JLF’s impact on India’s cultural ethos is clearly visible; culture and literature are fast seeping into both the habits and practises of the new India – and this annual gathering certainly has had a great role to play in bringing these aspects into the mainstream public discourse. (IANS)

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