This year’s JLF (Jaipur Literature Festival) was the first time when I was in attendance on all the five days. Safe to say this JLF, my third time, was the most crowded ever. The event does attract an insane amount of humanity – some, if not most, there “just for fun” as they admit themselves. I think one of the reasons that it appears the entire world comes at Diggi Palace for JLF is that winters in Jaipur are always sort of mild and pleasant, and it was warmer than the last time when overcast skies – which made the historian Tom Holland compare the winter of Jaipur to the British summer – greeted the eager faces of the attendees. Nobody would turn up if the Jaipur Litfest was in, say, June or July, I assure you. The locals themselves wouldn’t.
One of the other reasons that, if seen from a thousand feet above, JLF would seem like an open wound crawling with maggots, is that it is free – the fact which is capitalised by the said “just for fun” crowd. They are the people who take numerous selfies with the invited speakers they have never heard of – pretending to be “big fans” – and which they would forget as soon as the selfies are uploaded on Facebook and Instagram.
These gripes aside, these five days were simply incredible for me. As I lie in my bed, scribbling down my thoughts, I think of the third JLF as an exhausting but elating experience. It was kick-started by a fellow-Doonite Ruskin Bond discussing his life as a budding writer with the audience. I managed to hurl a question at him as to what he thought of the so-called “development” of the Doon Valley over the years which came at an irreversible cost: the loss of its old-world charm and a lot of its green cover. His reply was simple and bitter: that it was inevitable. Environmental exploitation is usually a consequence of “development.” But environmental factors can be considered along with development and both do not have to be mutually exclusive.
The highlight of the event for me came when I met Stephen Fry on the second day after his session called “Selfie” (selfie being a metaphor for memoir, Fry is strictly anti-selfie these days) was over. I was in a long queue of people waiting with their books to get them signed by Fry and after standing for almost half an hour, my turn came. God, he was right in front of me. I was too excited to say anything and blurted out a question that I had failed to ask during the session: “Which fictional character would you like to play?” His answer was immediate: Beowulf.
I attended a number of sessions this time around. In the previous editions, I had wandered aimlessly for most of the time, sometimes following authors in the hope of cornering them for a tête-à-tête. Not surprisingly, both my favourite sessions in Jaipur Literature Festival 2016 included the brilliant Congress MP Shashi Tharoor as one of the participants. One was “The Need to Listen” which took place on the third day of the event and the second was “On Empire” on the final day when Swapan Dasgupta and Shashi Tharoor, old college-mates, indulged in give-and-take to the delight and amusement of the audience. One other notable session was “This Unquiet Land” with Barkha Dutt as the guest and Shobha De as the host. The topic of discussion was Barkha’s new book that goes by the same name as the session and the event was peppered with barbs directed towards Barkha by the host and the audience alike which were deflected by Barkha with casual ease. You can watch these, along with all the other sessions, on YouTube where they should be available by now.
God, but I miss Jaipur Litfest already.