It’s the coldest day of the year in Jaipur. Schools have been closed for five days but there are many children standing in a queue that cuts across the entire Front Lawns of Diggi Palace, breathing out little puffs of white vapour, clutching copies of Interpreter of Maladies or The Lowland to get them signed by Jhumpa Lahiri. She can’t keep pace with the number of hands thrusting books at her, so her minders collect them and Jhumpa signs them in assembly-line mode. She has just had a session on The Global Novel with the Ethiopian writer Maaza Mengiste, Jonanthan Franzen, Jim Crace and Chinese-British writer Xioaola Guo. Franzen starts to talk about how, for someone like him, born in 1959 in Midwest America, there was only the American Novel, and how in his lifetime so much American culture has been exported. He suddenly stops mid-sentence, pauses to look down at his foot, looks up again at moderator Chandrahas Chaudhury and resumes speaking: “There’s no real point to that statement but you cornered me with a question. Maybe you can come back later for some deep thoughts on the history of the novel and how television relates to all of this.”
Franzen is a big man with a slow, gentle demeanour and a deep, American Midwest drawl, who rarely makes eye contact and speaks mostly looking down at his knees with his hands hunched together. He reminds you of Stephen King with more kempt hair. He lingers thoughtfully on what he is trying to say, as well as what you’ve asked him. He talks about short stories and how it’s a most difficult art form. “Reading a short story is like confronting death. You know it’s going to end soon and my eyes start to moisten.” His standout moment of last year was when Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for literature and he wonders why her stories are not made into films. He says books are far tougher to make into films; he can count the number of great book-based films on the fingers of one hand. The conversation then veers towards social media. Suddenly, Franzen’s solid frame crumbles. He gets very animated. “I can’t understand editors who are telling reporters to tweet, tweet, tweet, get likes, likes, likes, send your pictures, upload your videos,” he imitates these editors in a high-strung squeaky voice, shaking all over. Soon, he calms down. “The notion that Twitter is some egalitarian force is flawed. Yes, it’s very popular, but even there a few people have a lot of followers, just like the real world.” Franzen is a birder and what he is really looking forward to is to go to Bharatpur, Sariska and later Kaziranga in Assam to watch birds after his sessions are over. I tell him about a bit of news I recently read about how three Amur Falcons with satellite tags had flown over the Arabian Sea non-stop for three-and-a-half days on their way from Nagaland to South Africa. Franzen finally makes eye contact.
Dayanita Singh launches her book, The File Room. (Photograph by P. Lashkari)
But it’s not bonhomie and general camaraderie at all the sessions. “I think what he is saying is a) daft and b) unsustainable.” This is English writer Geoff Dyer (Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, among others) reacting to Carsten Jensen’s comment that critics are all academics who are far removed from the real world. Jensen is about to take Dyer on but moderator Homi Bhabha, director of humanities centre at Harvard, smartly takes the discussion on the relationship between critics and writers to another direction. “Yes, it’s quite a challenge to moderate a session where so many writers with strong opinions are on stage but it’s also very enjoyable,” says Bhabha, whose glasses are even heavier than Peter Sellers’s in Dr Strangelove. He is the moderator for several sessions at the JLF and manages to draw out the best from the panelists, like in the one with installation artist Subodh Gupta, photographer Dayanita Singh and sculptor K.S. Radhakrishnan on contemporary art. After the session is over, Dayanita asks me to come for her book launch if possible, as there is some surprise in store. Indeed there is. She stands like a conjurer next to a leather case about the size of a microwave oven but taller, and pulls out her ‘book’—an arrangement of wooden frames with various covers of The File Room slid into them which opens out accordion-like. She is trying to break the conventional way of doing a photography book, and photography itself. “I think just the photographs themselves are like mere words. You have to edit them, string them together, to make a poem, tell a short story or write a novel. I know my fellow photographers will be angry with me for saying this, as many of them will insist the photograph is the final art-form. But I think with everyone being a photographer today, clicking every moment, the artist has to tell stories through his or her pictures, by being a good editor,” she says.
Ready interpreter Jhumpa Lahiri autographs her books at the Jaipur Litfest. (Photograph by Vipin Kumar/HT)
In another place, at the Media Terrace, this is the essence of what the warm, wise and witty icon of the American women’s liberation movement of the ’60s and the ’70s, Gloria Steinem (79), is telling a small group of reporters—to keep reinventing and find new ways to keep the cause going. She was in India in her 20s and has been a frequent visitor. “Permanent,” comes her pat reply when asked what her relationship with India is. “You know, the other day, in front of my New York apartment I saw this taxi driver, who must have just come from India, waiting in his taxi and smoking a beedi like they do by clasping it between the fingers and inhaling through the hole the thumb forms, you know like this, my God, I was transported right back to here,” she says wistfully.
As we enter the imposing Rambagh Palace for the big Penguin Random House bash, a very familiar face with intense, piercing eyes crosses our path. It’s Dame Judy Dench. The hour is late and it’s inappropriate, but we jog after her on the quiet corridors and barge in to say hello. She is a bit startled and looks at us like we are an errant 007. But soon she is chatting. She is here to shoot for the sequel to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. “I know the literature festival is on but it’s a pity I will not be able to attend, as we are on a tight schedule. But Jaipur has been great and you feel like an absolute queen living in this hotel,” she says. We shake her hands and she wishes us luck.
Apropos Satish Padmanabhan’s article on the Jaipur Literary Festival (Muse for a Literary Lad, Feb 3), may I say that as a nation of 1.25 billion that hasn’t won a Nobel in literature since Tagore, we should hang our heads in shame and shut the gates of such festivals till the time an Indian wins a Nobel.
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