Second Helping

Published: Jan 24, 2010 03:11:52 PM IST
Updated: Jan 29, 2010 05:47:22 AM IST

Some notes from Divya Subramaniam first.

 
My first hour in Jaipur Literary Festival 2010 passed in a daze. Partly because I could not believe that I was back among the people who I had fled from seven years back because I could not stand the pretentiousness for even one more day. But also because I was busy orienting myself and recovering from spotting celebrities every five minutes. Anyway it was colourful and warm in the sunlight and I scrutinised the much-rearranged schedule and finally wandered into the Baithak for a session on Language and Identity.

***

Is it Hindi or English that forms the main identity of India? That was the main question discussed. All the customary (valid) arguments were made, and all the standard (convincing) refutations were heard on both sides. But the most riveting aspect of the entire session surely was listening to Gulzar speak in his beautiful Urdu-heavy Hindi to the slightly surreal accompaniment of neighing horses. (The stables of Diggi Palace were a few feet away from the Baithak tent.)
Here are some of the points that were made.
-       Pavan Varma expressed the fear that we are becoming a nation of linguistic half–castes.  Because we are rapidly forgetting our heritage and language and yet still not really comfortable with English.
-       Gulzar was of the opinion that English was the language that introduced him to many texts by famous writers. And that there is really no language in India that can act as a pan-Indian language.
-       Varma - There has been no culture audit after Independence
-       There was a discussion on the appropriateness of Jawaharlal Nehru delivering the freedom speech in English. But Gulzar pointed out that that too is a result of the reality that there was no language that would not antagonise one or the other section of the country.

***

Soon after I found a cosy spot at the back, I realised that I had been lucky to find even standing room. Politician Vasundhara Raje as well as the queen of Bhutan Queen Wangchuck caused a diversion and a scramble when they walked in to no place to sit or even stand.

The Jaipur Literary Festival 2010 in a word: crowded! Found myself mobbed in by school girls in an afternoon session on Social Activism in the Arts in the Mughal Darbar. Was unable to ascertain if Shabana Azmi was the main attraction or Rahul Bose; but these kids were right there on the front row to make sure they didn’t miss a word. In general, the number of school kids attending the Lit Fest was pretty heartening.

The evening session on Can The Internet Save Books moderated by Barkha Dutt and consisting of a number of very promising panellists like Vikram Chandra, Gulzar and Tina Brown threatened to meander at first but was salvaged and turned out to be fun. Not least because of some pertinent points and questions raised by members of the audience.

***

And back to me.

The totally democratic vibe of this festival is what strikes you first. Barring the folks who are appearing on stage, there is no such thing as a reserved seat. Famous authors with many highly-regarded books behind them stand at the back of events they get into late, while bright-eyed school kids, smartly turned out in blazers and ties occupy the front rows. Literary prize winners queue up for lunch behind struggling wannabes. You're shaking hands with royalty one moment, and the next you're being sized up by a young hopeful who has a manuscript in his backpack. Glorious!

***

The print schedule is a sort of loose reference point, a vague indicator that you might just see ceratin people in certain panels. The organisers, much afflicted by the fog in Delhi and the resultant delayed and cancelled flights and trains, have been doing a magnificent job of pulling in authors to fill gaps, rearranging events to fit in whoever is around. There's a certain charm to not knowing exactly what event you're elbowing your way into.

***

Can The Internet Save Books, in the afternoon on the Front Lawns, started off on predictable lines. A bunch of assorted journos and bloggers retreated to the adjacent dining area to type out note and struggle with the free, but very weak and shaky, WiFi signal. Every little while, bits of the conversation from the stage filtered through, stuff about SMS speak and other ancient, tired topics and we raised our heads, muttered darkly to one another and went back to swearing about the internet connection. Suddenly, above the gentle buzz, someone on stage said, "But you can't take a Kindle to the loo!" Our table rose as one and yelled, "But you can!"  And then went back to our laptops. Smartest comment on the panel came from the audience: "I wish there were some young people on the panel." Barkha Dutt plaintively retorted "But we are young at heart!

***

Hungry and thirsty lit fans have a number of options. There's the Diggi Cafe, in the open space bounded by the three main venues --- the Durbar Hall, Mughal Tent and the Baithak --- where you can get tea and coffee and sandwiches. On the fourth side of this rectangle is Flow's, a charming cafe with some rather eccentric seating. The food and drink is more expensive, and you'll find more of the foreign contingent, the Indian publishing folks and the more successful authors hanging out there. For free, there's water, and every now and then, excellent muddy chai in khulllads. Mealtimes for the invited authors, paid delegates and --- yay! --- press, is buffet style on the front lawns. The food has been mainly Rajasthani, and plentiful, if a little too rich for people trying to count the calories.

***

The Diggi Cafe area is an interesting space to be in. Equidistant from three of the venues, one hears snatches of the conversations simultaneously. Mixed in with the buzzing around one, the impressions can be quite bizarre.

***

Bonjour India, the Festival of France, brought in some of the panellists, and some music acts. And, in a handsome gesture greeted with much applause by yours truly, who had been finding the Rajasthani meals on offer a little too heavy, the French embassy hosted dinner on Day Two. The meal was, one gathers, put together by Chef Vikram Udayagiri of Orangepeel in Bangalore. Unfortunately for your correspondent, one can report on about half of the meal. The rest had vanished before one got to a plate. But there was excellent fish, lamb and shitake mushrooms in red wine sauce, a slightly over-garlicky chicken, and the sweetest baby carrots on the salad counter. Rumour has it that the desserts were excellent.

***

Big hit on day two, even without knowing who the were or what they were going to play, was a French group called Djaima. A set of young writers, puzzling over how to pronounce it --- DJ Aima? D'jyma? Jaima? --- decided to use it as the word of the day. The game: use the word as a placeholder for just about anything: cuss words, body parts, whatever. With different inflections and accents, it led to some interesting conversations.

 

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  • Suniti Joshi

    Hi Peter,<br /> loved this piece and looking forward to more. I desperately wanted to be there. The heartache eased a little as I started to see the palace lawns and Darbar hall before me :)<br /> Thanks a ton .<br />

    on Jan 24, 2010
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