An interview with Manu Joseph from Jaipur Literature Festival, 2011, for Tehelka
An interview with Manu Joseph from Jaipur Literature Festival, 2011, for Tehelka
An interview with Manu Joseph on literature and journalism from Jaipur Literature Festival, 2011, for Tehelka
An interview with Junot Diaz at the Jaipur Literature Festival, 2011 for Tehelka
Recorded for Tehelka at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2011
Recorded for Tehelka at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2011
“We are having to step down in a fight against freedom of expression..we have been pushed against the wall,” said Sanjoy Roy, producer of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) before he broke down on stage. For a couple of seconds an unexpected hush fell over the sprawling, bustling lawns packed to capacity until the audience stood up en masse and applauded respectfully unable still to comprehend what went on behind the scenes of what Tina Brown, editor of The Daily Beast and Newsweek, called the “world’s greatest literary show”.
Radical Muslim organisations that had earlier lobbied to keep Salman Rushdie away from the festival (held from the 20th to the 24th of January 2012) were back to protest against a live video interview of the author that was scheduled to go up on the final day of the festival. After an entire day of efforts by the organisers negotiations fell through. A handful of self-proclaimed representatives of Indian Muslims claimed their people had infiltrated the entire venue and hundreds of others were marching on it, threatening violent protest. They would not allow Rushdie to speak, even virtually. It is widely believed that these groups were backed by the ruling political party in Rajasthan and at the centre in a bid to appease India’s largest minority ahead of polls in its most populated state- Uttar Pradesh.
There is no other way to explain this furor over the writer’s visit, who as a person of Indian origin does not need a visa to enter and has been in the country several times since his book Satanic Verses was banned in 1988. In fact in 2007, he was a part of this very festival, in this very city. Interestingly the last assembly elections in UP were also held in 2007 but no one seemed to care back then. While this change could also in part be ascribed to the regular changes in political climate, one major reason behind it is that five years ago it would have been impossible to imagine that a literature festival could be used by India’s oldest, most prominent political party to secure a vote bank.
Five years ago JLF was merely a modest offshoot of a larger cultural heritage festival organized in Jaipur. In 2008 it broke away with writers William Dalrymple and Namita Gokhale as its directors and event manager Sanjoy Roy as its producer- starting its journey to become the largest festival in the Asia Pacific. Last year approximately 60,000 people attended the festival and evidently the crowds were larger this year. Consequently, its budget has gone up five-fold in the last five years- from roughly Rs 1 Crore in 2008 to Rs 5 Crores in 2012. The organisers who finally broke even in 2010 were back in the red in 2011 because they failed to envisage this rate of growth.
The growth is not limited to numbers and figures. JLF has hosted some of the biggest international academics, writers and journalists of our times- several Booker, Pulitzer and Nobel winners and an equally stellar selection of writers from the Indian regional languages. While Gokhale and Dalrymple’s enviable network and access to writers is crucial in procuring this line-up, Dalrymple believes that the charms of the historical city of Jaipur and its balmy winter help. Simply put, this festival has clearly hit the zeitgeist. Presumably, the unique opportunity it offers to interact with such a vast and diverse array of readers from a country that is not only phenomenally growing in publishing but also an increasingly important political and economic player on the world stage, is a curiosity in itself. From the beginning, JLF has mirrored the growth story of India- the prodigiousness and the pitfalls, but with time it is becoming a microcosm of India in more ways than that.
The avowed egalitarian, democratic principles of the festival- no payment to authors to attend, no reserved seating or green rooms for celebrities and free entry for all worked beautifully in the initial years. In the enforced intimacy and quaint majesty of the venue, Diggi Palace, anybody could strike up a conversation with Orhan Pamuk, J. M. Coetzee or Wole Soyinka, share a table with Julia Roberts, Oprah Winfrey or Gulzar or watch sessions from front row seats while politicians and film stars struggled to find a place to stand. Last year a security guard tried to stop a rickshaw driver from coming in. When Roy intervened the man told him “I heard there are stories here. I sleep on the street across. I will never be able to send my son to school or buy him a book. I thought if I came here and he heard a story, it would change his life.” “That he crossed the gates of the haveli makes us a successful festival,” says Roy, clearly moved by the incident.
But when you open the gates to everyone, you must let the chaff in with the grain. Veteran attendees often get nostalgic about the olden days when you could lie on a charpoy under a tree until you were covered in falling flowers, overhearing poets reciting their verses in a tent close by and listen to sufi singers perform in the evening without getting your bottom pinched. Slowly, with a swell in the crowds, segregation has begun to make backdoor in-roads. The dining areas are now separate, authors have their own lounge and those who can afford it, spend their leisure at the chic bar on the premises. The organisers have intentionally limited the sponsorship they accept from the state to avoid undue influence. But the state is never easy to keep out. The increased security concerns this year saw an unprecedented number of cops and checks on the venue and when things got hectic and chaotic the bias of the security apparatus against those who look like the rickshaw driver Roy once welcomed, became increasingly obvious.
In the end, JLF, for all its idealistic pursuits is as vulnerable to prejudices as the idea of India is to the mindsets of its people. During multiple overlapping sessions when Dalit writers from Punjab or scholars of oral literary tradition from Rajasthan are pitted against Indian English writers like Vikram Seth, Chetan Bhagat or Kiran Desai, a larger segment is likely to choose the latter. And much like anywhere else in India, nothing quite pulls the crowds like Bollywood celebrities.
Limiting state sponsorship comes with its own set of problems- the need to fall back on private patronage. The increasing heft of privatization and globalization in new India is reflected in JLF’s need to bring in corporate funding. Last year the festival drew flak for taking money from allegedly tainted corporations like Rio Tinto and Shell. This year the organisers admitted to being a little more careful in accepting aid but were reluctant to get drawn too far out into the colour of money debate. Gokhale feels that since none of the sponsors are allowed to dictate the content of the festival there is hardly any cause for worry. “The best we can do is take money from them and use it for a good cause,” says Dalrymple amused at having got Merrill Lynch to sponsor a debate on Che Guevara.
But the critics are not necessarily convinced. A lot of them wonder if the dignity of a platform that strives to articulate the human condition is not compromised by the crassness of branding and marketing that accompanies sponsorship. It is a valid concern but the good and evil of corporatization is a reality that cannot and should no longer be filtered. It necessitates engagement- with it and despite it. The autocracies of corporations and the dissent of liberal voices have existed in isolation from each other for far too long. Bringing them into the same space cannot absolve corporations if we don’t allow it, but it can begin a process of dialogue that is long overdue.
The coming together of many different Indian realities has been a conscious objective of the festival’s programming. This year the festival included sessions on philosophical debate in ancient India, fashion and self-image, Anna Hazare’s fast against corruption, Indian military history, violent mystics, protest literature, the poetic vision of the Guru Granth Sahib, the chutneyfication of English, the future of writing in Hindi, the dreams and despair of the Indian megapolis, representing slum dwellers, Indian gay writing, literature on gardening, the importance of myth in complex social and political attitudes, India’s Buddhist heritage, tiger conservation, political cinema, the art of screenplay writing, survival strategies in the time of the twitterati and the evolving realities of India. But the physical space of the festival does not always accommodate the clashing realities of this country as easily as its programming.
Like the economist Joan Robinson said of India, for a lot of what you can rightly say about JLF, the opposite is also true. The endless parties, both on and off-venue, the schmoozing, the gossip, the socialites and the fashionistas are not easy to reconcile with the amplified intellectual output of the sessions. Those who are awe-struck by the editor of New Yorker, David Remnick, do not look upon fans of Amish Tripathi kindly. Schoolchildren from the upper-class boarding school of Mayo and the local municipal schools don’t blend easily, nor do retired middle class couples with tiffin boxes and Delhi’s overly stylised, high-end fashion designers. But they are all a part of the contemporary Indian narrative brought together by a celebration of words.
In the first session of the first day Michael Ondaatje invoked the words of John Berger- “Never again will a single story be told as if it is the only one.” The festival epitomizes this maxim, at times consciously, at others unwittingly. But like India, JLF is greater than the sum of its parts. Part of its idea will always remain elusive, miraculous even. After the success of JLF, a large number of literature festivals have come up but none of them have been able to establish an identity as distinct as that of JLF.
Even the darkly funny chaos that ensues from interactions between disparate lives confined in an unlikely space is material for a few precious stories to dine out on- an audience member asking Hanif Kureishi if his circumcision hurt, a festival volunteer confusing Arvind Krishna Mehrotra with Roddy Doyle, a cow mooing to interrupt Remnick’s pregnant pause during a session on American presidential politics and a little girl asking Shekhar Kapur who he is after taking his autograph.
An inexplicable festivity brought on by colours, conversations, anticipation, wine, lights, words, ideas and music pervades the venue for five days. Perhaps it was this energy that partly inspired Hari Kunzru, Amitava Kumar, Jeet Thayil and Ruchir Joshi to read from the Satanic Verses as protest against the forced absence of Rushdie. The thrill of the audience at the authors’ impromptus act of defiance was palpably electric. Through social media news of the rebellion spread fast and the organisers began to feel the heat from the authorities within hours. All four authors were advised to leave without establishing whether the ban on the import of the book precluded reading from it. Their participation was sacrificed so that over 250 other writers could still have their say.
The festival was confirming to the democratic principle of the greatest good for the greatest number, even when it debatably should not have. If JLF has grown large enough for politicians to think it can influence electoral politics, maybe the collective clout of its affirmed liberal attendees could have been used to challenge the worsening state of censorship of art and literature by state and non-state actors. Maybe concepts that were debated on the panel on censorship organized by JLF could have been put to test and practice by the festival. Maybe the organisers should have defied both authorities and radical groups and allowed the reading of Satanic Verses and Rushdie’s videoconference. But while it is easy to imagine a different end, it is hard not to empathise with the practical quandary of the organisers in the face of threats of violence.
“We are very, very sad..we feel hurt, disgraced,” said Roy before he made a teary exit from the stage. Six complaints have been filed in various police stations against the organisers and the authors who read from the banned text by members of the country’s largest political parties- the Congress and the BJP. If JLF is indeed becoming a microcosm of India, as it appears to be, the writing on the wall is not heartening. As Roy made his helpless speech thousands of liberal minds stood there disappointed, defeated in their own bastion by a handful of irrational bigots.
But what comes across as an overt defeat was also a covert victory. While the coercion of Rushdie is regrettable, it has revitalized the debate on censorship in an unprecedented way. Rushdie could not have been more at JLF were he actually present there. The resentment at his absence represented more than the adulation for the writer- it became a symbol of the fight for the ideal of the freedom of expression enshrined in the constitution. An ad-hoc panel came on in place of the cancelled video conference with Rushdie and built an evocative, compelling case against this kind of censorship, even inviting the radical leaders at the venue for an open debate.
Extremists may have come in the way of a session by Rushdie but elsewhere in the festival two Kashmiris spoke fearlessly about their illegal detention in Tihar jail, an exiled Sri Lankan writer accused India of being complicit in the genocide of Tamilians in 2009 and reporters and activists debated the clash of democratic aspirations with Maoist ideology.
Fatima Bhutto and Ayesha Jalal made sharp observations on Indo-Pak relations and the military and political class of Pakistan. The myths and realities of the Arab Spring, the disappointment of Obama, the future of Myanmar and the hardships of the Palestinian struggle were also up for discussion. Meanwhile, Richard Dawkins repeatedly denied the existence of God and denounced the trap of religion. Even as the unruly hardliners were creating a ruckus near the reception of the venue, Tom Stoppard was speaking to his enraptured audience about the creative process and his dogged inclination towards literary-ness. As long as the promise of knowledge encased in his words prevails, JLF will sustain. So will India.
Originally Appears in The Dawn Herald.
As a kid in kindergarten I thought festivals were a uniquely Indian phenomenon. Christmas in the west is part of what they call the holiday season. Diwali for us marks the festival season. It is this difference in turn of phrase that misled me. My love for literature grew from such early reverence for words. But with the passage of time, my ideas about what is ‘Indian’ predictably became more complicated. I think of this in context of India’s largest literary event that has entrenched itself in my annual calendar like the festivals I grew up with- the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF).
The word festival evokes deities, community and gaiety. JLF incorporates aspects of all three, literally or otherwise. But like with traditional festivals, to discover its true meaning one must go back to its origins.
The festival came together organically over time as did its core team- directors Namita Gokhale and William Dalrymple, and producer Sanjoy Roy. In 2002 Namita Gokhale had organized an event supported by the ICCR with Indian writers from home and the diaspora- At Home In The World, at Neemrana, Rajasthan. In some ways this was a rough prototype of JLF. But despite its terrific success there were neither funds nor support from the state to make this an annual feature.
Meanwhile William Dalrymple, who would run into Indian authors at lit-meets abroad, had been feeling for a while that they needed a regular platform in their own country. In 2004 when he was invited to read at the cultural festival of the Jaipur Virasat Foundation he saw an opportunity. “It was an impromptus reading at a backroom in the Jaipur University. 10 odd people attended, half of them were Japanese tourists who seemed to have got lost,” he recounts. But undeterred, he convinced the foundation to include a literary segment in the annual fest. Gokhale came on board for the work she had done with At Home In The World. For the first couple of years it was a very modest part of a large cultural festival scattered all over the city. Their first international author was Hari Kunzru who Dalrymple lured in to see Jaipur when he was on a stop-over in India, en route to New Zealand to see his girlfriend. In 2007 the participation of Salman Rushdie got them a larger audience. There was now a sense that this podium was ready to come into its own.
In 2008, due to various logistical reasons, it broke away from its parent festival and became the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival. It was at this stage that Sanjoy Roy joined directors Dalrymple and Gokhale as its producer. They started small- 65 authors, roughly 7000 people in attendance and with no guaranteed monetary resources- an uncertain future. But H.S. Narula whose company, DSC sponsored the first edition was already certain about the extent of success this venture was to achieve. In 2009 he bought the naming rights for the next three years with a right to first refusal for seven more years for Rs. 20 lakhs, a sum that would seem to be a pittance now.
As predicted by Narula, the festival continued to grow. But it was the rate of growth that was startling. Every year, the number of people in attendance nearly doubled, bringing the approximate numbers to a staggering 60,000 last year- making it the largest festival in the Asia Pacific. While this number might not be much in the context of India’s population, no other literary festival in the world has expanded at this rate. Owing to the burgeoning crowds and increase in the number of authors participating from 65 to the roughly 260 expected this year, the budget of the festival has gone up from Rs 1 crore in 2008 to Rs 5 crores. With amplified media coverage the brand value of the festival keeps going up, attracting more sponsors but the ratio of sponsorship to the rise in budget is still not wholly satisfactory. In 2010 the festival finally broke even, only to go back into the red in 2011 because the organisers simply could not predict the numbers that would show up.
This year the size of the venue is being considerably increased and music events in the evening are being ticketed at a modest price in an attempt to discourage riff-raff and allay safety concerns. Last year it was found that fake delegate passes (a number them bearing Roy’s name) were available locally. All passes handed out on registration this year are being bar-coded. The organisers are also for the first time buying elements of the infrastructure that they had so far been renting out, making a greater investment in the future of the festival. But the future is unchartered territory. “There is no existing business model for the festival but if it has to sustain it must become a financially successful enterprise,” says Roy.
Dalrymple, Roy and Gokhale think that the growth might plateau in a couple of years. But they all agree that changes in management are in order. Gokhale sees institutionalization as a viable option. But the consolidation of the festival as a separate identity might also throw up difficulties of establishing ownership and dealing with red tape. And red tape is a familiar dread for the organisers. Arranging for visas and getting political clearance to invite speakers from countries on various ‘watchlists’ is a formidable task.
Wary of state interference the organisers get up to 90% of their sponsorship from private bodies. But with unexpected hype comes unexpected scrutiny. Last year the festival was criticized for associating with a number of allegedly tainted corporates, drawing maximum flak for accepting sponsorship from Shell and Rio Tinto. This year, all three members of the core group admit to have mutually decided to pay closer attention to where the money comes from. But they are also clear that their collective conscience and instinct will have the final say on where these lines are drawn. Gokhale explains that since none of the sponsors are allowed to dictate the content of the festival there is hardly any cause for worry. Dalrymple does not want to get drawn too far into the colour of money debate either. “The best we can do is take money from them and use it for a good cause,” he says chuckling over having got Merrill Lynch to sponsor a debate on Che Guevara.
It is this clarity of purpose and strength of spirit that has made JLF what it is. But deconstructing its mind-boggling success is a complex proposition. Unlike most other festivals, both its directors are practicing writers enviably networked with writers all over the world. Wherever they travel they are in Gokhale’s words always looking “through the Jaipur lens.” Dalrymple keeps a look out for international authors who perform well on stage during the numerous book festivals and tours he attends. He has managed to rope in some of the greatest names in literature, academia and journalism, including a number of Nobel, Booker and Pulitzer winners, as well as introduce international stars who are lesser-known in India to a new readership. He tries to deviate from the usual emphasis on the Anglo-American voice and include English writers from other countries. There is an attempt to balance women and men, fiction and non-fiction and mix up the sessions to facilitate conversations across countries and communities- avoid “White on white,” as Dalrymple puts it.
Conversation or “samvad” is at the heart of our efforts,” says Gokhale. She is passionate about her charge of bringing in an equal number of writers from Indian regional languages- the underrepresented and unsung chroniclers of the plural realities of India.
JLF has a strong infusion of wide-ranging local and global political debate- from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan to Dalit issues. But in the midst of it all there is likely to be a small session on the most unexpected quirky topic like the adventures of Florence Nightingale and Flaubert in Egypt in the 1850s. Unlike most other festivals the focus in Jaipur is not simply on new releases. The breadth of subjects can be baffling. An amused Gokhale remembers how in 2010 there were simultaneous sessions on Dalit writing, Sanskrit and the life of the Queen of Burma.
The wealth of the authors who attend is enviable. Dalrymple claims that most of those he asks accept even though unlike festivals like Hay, none of the authors at Jaipur are paid to attend. He credits the charms of Rajasthan in January. The romance of the historical city is enhanced by the venue, Diggi Palace. Its manicured lawns, 200-year-old haveli, arched pillars, frescoes, water fountains, fairy lights and peacocks are irresistibly charming. But Gokhale misses the parrots that would dart in and out of the venues during sessions. They don’t come anymore- it is too crowded.
The crowds are mostly attributed to the fact that all sessions are free for everybody. They have considered charging admission fees but dismissed the idea because it would interfere with the basic values of the festival. JLF aspires to be a festival where anyone can come and be treated equally. Its democratic and egalitarian values are sacrosanct for Gokhale, Dalrymple and Roy. There are no green rooms for authors and no reserved seating for VIP’s- Nobel laureates, ministers or sponsors. Last year a rickshaw driver was stopped at the gates by a security guard. When Roy intervened he said, “I heard there are stories here. I sleep on the street across. I will never be able to send my son to school or buy him a book. I thought if I came here and he heard a story, it would change his life.” “That he crossed the gates of the haveli makes us a successful festival,” says Roy, clearly moved by the incident.
JLF has often been dismissed as a “white” or elitist shindig. But one look at the demographic of attendees proves otherwise. There are retired couples with sandwiches, hordes of school children sometimes all the way from Assam and ordinary readers from all over India in the same space as film stars, socialites, journalists and dignitaries. There are also musicians. The evening music sessions are perhaps the most underrated part of this extravaganza that the organisers often liken to the great Indian wedding. The careful selection of performers has led to it being named one of the five best music festivals in India by The Guardian.
Another welcome outcome of JLF is the facilitation of business. Trade has never been one of its aims but last year the official bookshop sold 40 lakhs worth of books. In addition the publicity generated by the festival continues to encourage sales long after it is over. Every year more and more publishers and agents from across the globe attend JLF and literary hopefuls roam the grounds with manuscripts and ideas hoping to catch their attention.
The success of JLF has spawned literature festivals all over the sub-continent but none of them have been able to create a distinct identity so far. There is a growing sense of cynicism about the trend and it remains to be seen if it has a future at all. But if the buzz for its upcoming 5th edition is anything to go by, JLF has little to worry about for now.
The festival is greater than the sum of its parts. The sense of electric energy in the precincts of Diggi for those five days is as unmistakable as it is inexplicable. Gokhale uses the Hindi word “rom-harsh” to describe it but any attempt to entirely encapsulate it in words is futile. Ironic for a literature fest. But then JLF is about toasting ironies and reveling in chaos. It is different things to different people. It is a fete. It is about faith. It is about our country, that made books before the birth of many civilizations. It is about this country’s appetite for reinvention. And in all of this, it is a true Indian festival.
Originally Appears in The Hindu