Okay. So I shake out my cold nervous fingers to get some heart back into them, a spiritual response to the gargantuan task of chronicling the phenomenon that was the Jaipur Literature Festival, 2016.
JLF, the world's largest free literary festival, is quickly becoming a must-do for us. We went for the first time in 2014, and left fascinated. 2015 saw yours truly participating in, and winning, one of their contests, and consequently becoming the recipient of free accommodation for the duration of the festival, but due to unforeseen circs, in the form of upset innards of the significant other, the year failed to see our jubilant selves at ye olde Diggi grounds. Though the final month of the year more than made up for the disappointing start, when we did the litfest circuit with IIMBUE at IIM Bangalore (though technically not a litfest, but a not-so-distant cousin) and the Times Lit Fest in Mumbai.
The shenanigans at these two are now the stuff of legend, and I am living in the hope that the day shall dawn when, in between writings of great import, of the suitability and non, of girls and boys, by dint of a charitable soul and a curious mind, a two-line or even less expansive missive will be scribbled and sent on wings of ether, to my inbox. Mr Seth, I live in the hope :)
2016 dawned bright and fair. Truly, it felt like the year of change. It was time to lay in stone this new family tradition, of the annual pilgrimage to dear ol' Diggi.
This time too, I tried taking part in the creative writing contests, 'tried' being key here as I found myself having exceeded the word count on the story, and having created a beast of no mean exoticity in the poem. Of course, one cannot discount the possibility of both of these being simply underwhelming, but intact entries they were not.
Under the tyranny of not having got anything for free, one fine day we saw our bank balance visibly shrink as hard-earned cash dissolved into plane tickets and hotel bookings. But you know, we are what you call - hedonists, out and proud.
So, we arrived in Jaipur on the third day of the fest, determined to stick around till Diggi shut its gates on us on day 5. The air was nippy with promise. Color shone everywhere. The sounds of silence had given way to erudite speech, with tent upon tent of people - curious, energetic, insatiable - people.
It was a magical three days. We have come a long way in the last two years, and the span of things that interests us now is much wider, the knowledge we already hold much deeper. Made the experience even more pleasurable. I am going to try and capture some key highlights here, and to make it palatable, let me do it via my favorite social media tool of the moment - the tweet.
Now I am quite a social media savant, wearing different accounts like a modern day Edward De Bono. At JLF this time, I decided to live tweet my observations, partly to have a lasting memory of the many ideas being thrown at me, and partly to engage with others similarly inclined. Turns out I ended up belting out more than a 100 tweets over the three days, and even won a prize for one or the other - a signed copy of one of William Dalrymple's books. Some consolation :)
So am going to pick out some of the more evocative tweets, and try and transport you to those sessions, those ideas.
"The next time you see a hijra on the road, and she isn't Laxmi, show her the same respect" - Jerry Pinto, at the end of the session with Laxmi, the famous hijra.
India is indeed at some strange crossroad today, on the one hand, an unconventional person like Laxmi beams into every middle class living room as part of the BiggBoss family and on the other, women are still raped for - simply existing. I saw the crowds interact with Laxmi that day, and she was like opium for the masses. They cheered her on, applauding all her provocative sound bytes, and paying her the biggest compliment of all - that of attention. There is no doubt that India is changing, changing out of its straitjackets into garments that allow movement, but the real test of its newly minted mindset will be when no family will feel compelled to throw their gender-bending child onto the streets.
In the meantime, my review of Laxmi's book - here.
"The public doesn't want to pay for media, leaves them to the mercy of advertisers, outside funding." - Shoma Choudhury during the debate on 'Trial by media'.
Now, Shoma C is a wonder woman. Rarely have I seen somebody with such well-thought out views about such contentious topics, The panel was one of journos, from Madhu Trehan to Avirook Sen. Trial by media, that insidious outcome of a damaging set of inputs, the inputs including the usual suspects, corporate interests, favoritism culture, governmental threat but the biggest of all, without which none of this would have been sustainable - the two-headed monster of public voyeurism and public apathy. The public craves sensation as if it were a drug, and in chasing that immediate gratification of having the fastest information, it does not stop to think if it is accurate information. Living in some sort of narcotic-induced haze, neither does it care for accuracy, nor does it want to pay for it. It is indeed tragic that today public sentiment can force media outlets to take unconsidered stances that have such disastrous effects on people's lives.
"The Arab spring has told the world that we are not happy and we are unwilling anymore to live in chains." - Mona Eltahawy, the revolutionary.
Yes, we had a flaming red-haired revolutionary on the panel for the debate 'Beyond the Arab Spring'. It spoke about whether the revolts having taken place in 2011 in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere had failed or whether they were simply seeds sown, waiting to reap fruit over time. It was an excellent panel, comprising academics with deep knowledge about the Middle East, immigrants impacted by the dictatorship regimes and revolutionaries ready to die for their cause. You know, there is such a marked difference in the way an academic speaks versus how a revolutionary speaks. While the academic infuses her speech with refinement, a flattening out of every statement in terms of intonation, even-sounding, the revolutionary speaks with a crescendo building up towards the end of every sentence, that feeds into her next, herself getting more and more impassioned with every argument, culminating into an explosion. In this case, it was an explosion of applause that greeted the end of every one of Mona E's fiery speeches. What an experience.
"He is not serious enough to have a sense of humor." - Oscar Wilde, channelized by Stephen Fry. It was mostly entertaining to listen to him, but at times, awe-inspiring as well. And what inspired awe in me was the same old chestnut that I have been struggling with for so long - a life spent in pursuit of what you really love to do - to be or not to be. Mr Fry is a case in point, as was Mr Wilde, one with a happier story than the other. Stephen Fry's reverence for Oscar Wilde is not unknown, but I had not known how deep a connect the former feels for the latter. It is amazing and gratifying to see people live on, immortalized in another's life, inspiring generations separated from one's own.
So these were some of the sessions I loved the most. There were a host of others that were equally thought-provoking, with panels ranging from lawyers to politicos, to doctors, and social workers. From talking about the possibility of a 'Partition museum' at the borders, to a new way of looking at geriatric care, from Shashi Tharoor's intellectual quips to his equally shameless BJP-bashing at the slightest chance, from Irving Finkel's witty enthusiasm to Desraj Kali's languorous irreverence, it was a feast for the mind, heart and soul.
And how can I end without touching upon the grand debate? The debate to end all debates, that took place at the end, as a fitting climax to the five days of stimulation. Well, that's what it was supposed to be, but it turned out to be a war zone with these usually sane individuals turning into rabble rousers. And as you know, it is mighty easy to rouse the rabble these days.
"Have never seen such a politicized atmosphere in India as in the India of today. Every debate is a debate of political affiliations." - Me.
So the debate was about Freedom of Speech and more importantly whether it should be absolute or not. It had entities such an Anupam Kher and Suhel Seth on the Nay, and Madhu Trehan, Salil Tripathi and Kapil Mishra on the Aye.
It was a crazy debate, surreal, with each speaker playing to get the maximum cheers, claps and whistles, trotting out flogged-to-death arguments that a high school student could have thought of. Some bits were illuminating like Madhu Trehan's examples from her early journalistic days and her information on why article 19 was laden with qualifiers (was due to Nehru's personal insecurities as per her, have to read up on this), as were some of Salil Tripathi's comebacks acerbic enough to raise a laugh. But mostly they all of them missed the essence, choosing to debate more about Freedom of Speech and less about its Absolute-ism.
It was fun though, good to see some good ol' punch-in-the-face tactics sometimes.
And so the event wound up, and one thing that stayed with me as the organizers and festival directors said their good-byes, was Namita Gokhale invoking that rarely called upon entity, Saraswati, to bless everyone.