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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.
Wiry and bespectacled, Cyrus Mistry is tongue-tied and awkward before the audience. He apologises fumblingly.
“You,” journalist and writer Bachi Karkaria pointed a finger admonishingly, “are Nadeem Aslam?” The tall, thin, fair man in a well-cut black overcoat with a faux-fur collar looks squeamish. “You ditched us all for the Bombay Literary Festival; it’s unbelievable!” says the fiery Bachi with sparkling eyes brimming with mischief, standing up to about Nadeem’s waist. He brings on his boyish charm, folds his hands and mumbles some apologies, saying how he got held up in Pakistan. “If you ditch us again...” continues Karkaria, as Aslam bends down to hug her. Nadeem Aslam is a charmer; it is tough not to like his soft, earnest, sing-song, soothing voice. In a session about favourite books and authors, along with Cyrus Mistry and Danish author Carsten Jensen, Aslam says he just recently re-read Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. He narrates the part in the book where the lead character Rahel’s American husband cannot understand that she goes through these moments, and then goes on to quote from the book verbatim: ‘What he didn’t understand was that in some places like the country that Rahel came from various kinds of despair competed for primacy and that personal despair could never be desperate enough...and personal turmoil dropped by at the wayside shrine of the vast, violent, circling, driving, ridiculous, insane, unfeasible public turmoil of a nation. The big god howled like a hot wind and demanded obeisance and the small god came away cauterised....’ “Think about it, who in this room doesn’t need these words?” Nadeem asks. Sitting next to him, Cyrus Mistry, wiry and bespectacled, is as tongue-tied and awkward in front of a hallful of audience as Nadeem is eloquent. He apologises profusely for not being a good speaker, fumbles with some notes he has brought with him, and talks about a play he wrote when he was 12 that launched him as a writer. Mistry, of course, goes on to win the $50,000 DSC Prize, where Nadeem’s book The Blind Man’s Garden happened to be also in the running.
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.
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.
Someone who is new to India is Jorn Lier Horst, the Norwegian crime fiction writer who was once a policeman—senior investigative officer at Vestfold police district in Norway. “Come on, we have to run, we are late for the session, we’ll chat later,” says Kishwar Desai as she drags Horst to the venue, a broad well-built man ‘with a large coarse face’, as he described his detective William Wisting in Closed For Winter. Horst is a bit bemused by the crowds around him. When did you decide to become a crime fiction writer and stop being a policeman? “On 2nd September 2002, late at night,” he replies. He had just finished reading a crime novel, he wouldn’t say which, threw it down from his bed because it was awful. He told his wife lying next to him that he can write better. “She asked me, ‘why don’t you?’ So I got up from the bed, went to my computer and started writing.” His first book, Key Witness, was a true story of a case he was working on, which became a rage in Norway. Only two of his books have been translated into English so far, but more are on the way. So, like Kurt Wallander and Harry Hole, we may soon be going with Wisting on his cases.
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.