After last week’s attempt to try and postmortem the Jaipur Literature Festival through one-liner quotes from the talks I attended (and given my seemingly inexhaustible impulse to try and recount this experience satisfactorily), today I thought I would attempt to do it through pictures, hoping that if a picture is worth a thousand words I myself will have to supply comparatively fewer.
After a 7hr delay in Bombay airport consisting of sugary, machine-produced chai, a welcome reflexology foot massage and several, utterly futile attempts to connect to the Internet, we arrive in Jaipur, fall into bed and wake up to this newspaper half under the door. So far, the 250, 108 and 135 are all abstract numbers shrouded in charged anticipation.
Day 1 and Oprah's already making her presence felt. There's a signifying absence for Rushdie but still - 250 authors, 108 performers and 235 sessions!
As we arrive at the festival grounds (the beautiful Diggi Palace), we are greeted by security in khaki uniforms that bring the word ‘military’ much more readily to mind. They were to become our constant companions over the next 5 days, as the festival’s popularity also made it a focus of literay-political controversy or Ophrah-fuelled madness.
We were split off into gendered lines, herded through 2 metal detectors, swiped down by female security guards and had our bags checked, after finally being scanned in to the festival proper. I breathed a sigh of relief and un-sharpened my elbows. It didn’t look like any Israeli chutzpa would have worked here anyway…
My delegate pass, in the security-mad, crowd-filled festival ground - GOLD DUST. also known as my free lunch pass
The rather 'festive' festival entrance
The Front Lawns - the biggest of the four speaking venues at Diggi Palace
To herald the inaugural speeches - a bedecked bagpipe player...
...followed by his merry men
Sanjoy Roy - festival organizer - gives the opening speech, welcoming the first celeb of the day - Queen Mother of Bhutan
Queen Mum of Bhutan lights the ceremonial candle officially opening the festival, with Sanjoy Roy, William Dalrymple and Namita Gokhale, festival organizers
Speaking Location 2: The Mughal Tent, for the first official session - 'The Vision of the Gurus'. An intellectual and musical experience, since we were treated to a live, impromptu performance from Madan Gopal Singh (second from left)
David Remnick taking us through the Disappointment (or not) of Obama. An incredibly sharp and disarmingly diffident speaker, who took us through Obama's failed attempt to be post-racial, and our doomed expectations as to his saintliness. Apparently, no president has been inaugurated into quite the nightmare that Obama was, so, let's give the guy a break.
Third speaking location - Baithak Tent, with lounge chairs, low stools, and daybeds. (perfect for a hipstamatic shot)
Baithak Tent loungers.
'Writing Gender' session. Site of the most memorable sentence of the festival. Gay writer Hoshang Merchant's imperative to 'Dance naked! Do it now!'. He also told one member of the audience that they couldn't opine about gay issues unless they were gay. A controversial speaker to say the least.
'Writing the New Latin America' - a wonderful talk with the stunning Pola Oloixarac, who asserted that what she calls the 'playground of millions' - aka the Internet - also constitutes our 'greatest living novel'. If listeners weren't blinded by Oloixarac's good looks, or utterly charmed by her ready laughter, they might have missed her awesome erudition. She was dropping philosophers all over the place, quoting Heidegger verbatim (although who would have known if she was wrong...) and finally concluded that she was 'utterly in love with Nabokov'. When her interlocutor pointed out he was dead, she replied 'I find him absolutely charming, he's a charming cadaver.'
Our daily free lunch. Opportunity for hobnobbing with the literati / acquiring connoisseur-like acquaintance with buttery Indian biscuit bread or local missi rotis
A full Front Lawn, where sitting on the floor squished up next to the main speaker of the last session was no hardship whatsoever..."please Teju Cole, do squeeze down next to me..."
Durbar Hall: fourth speaking location and blessedly indoors so that the perennial crowding at least resulted in shared body heat
A vain attempt to try and photograph debut novelist Taiye Selasi and award-winning journalist Philip Gourevitch chatting before their session on 'The Weather In Africa'
Around halfway through Day 3, running from session to session to have my mind blown got a bit much, so like many others, I took some time out to chill on the grass
I think our security friends felt the same - and who could blame them after Oprah chaos and Rushdie-related near arrests?
Pint-sized Natacha Appanah had big opinions about being categorized as a 'Mauritian writer,' and refuses to bow to expectations that she should only be writing about island life and sandy beaches
Feisty Jamaica Kincaid, author of Annie John, would brook no stupid questions, and read from her iPad, afterwards reflecting that though she was always afraid of the sea while living on an island, now that she lives happily in a landlocked place all she does is write about water..
Natacha Appanah "I'm going to look so short next to you". Jamaica Kincaid "no don't worry, I'll crouch down"
festival participants ranged across all ages
Saturday night meant happy 25th Birthday to Penguin India, who threw a wonderful party just outside the gates of old Jaipur.
Celebrating 25 years of Penguin India - cloth-covered hanging balloons, fairy-lit tress, a jazz band and hanging Penguin classics
The Penguin Car. I took shameless amounts of pictures on, in, and by the side of this baby
Unwrapping goodie bag from Penguin party. Breathe sigh of relief that I didn't get round to buying these items myself at the Penguin merchandise shop, aka, the centre of temptation
Sunday dawned bright, clear and beautiful, a welcome relief after the first, chillier days of outdoor intellectual stimulation. It was also Oprah day, but, feeling quite superior and beyond such mass-hysteria, I decided I had no interest in hearing her (I am a hard-nosed, bespectacled book-lover after all, and am here to go all breathless and gaga-eyed over obscure writers, not international superstars) so I wouldn’t exert myself to try and get to the festival in time.
Feeling, once again, quite pleased with myself, I left in plenty of time to get to a midday meeting I had with Random House at the festival, only to be greeted by the sight of a line of people a kilometer long, all queuing to see the great lady. Now, apparently, was the time to be Israeli about things. Bypassing the line altogether, I jumped (or stepped daintily and invisibly) over a security barrier and joined another line, but this one at least closer to purple-faced and intimidating security personnel. This queue wasn’t so much a line as it was a scrum, and I was reminded of the bygone years when I used to try getting into clubs. Being prevented from entering the JLF because of Oprah was no less frustrating than being halted by a capricious bouncer.
Whilst holding off an amorphous crowd of desperate and indignant people (including one writer who waved his green speakers pass in the air to no effect and then started swearing loudly) can’t be fun, my sympathies for the soldiers/security guys ran low when we were all forcibly and physically pushed or shoved into a single-file line which then uncomfortably, shifted itself past the barrier. Feeling very radical and protester-like (and secretly enjoying the whole thing immensely), I gave myself up to the movement of the crowd (it was a little like how I imagine crowd-surfing must be) and succeeded in getting into the festival only to get a call from my Random House contact – minutes after I had got in they had closed the festival altogether, citing overcrowding. Ya think?
After all my protestations of disinterest, shortly after I ended up less than a meter away from Oprah, as her entourage, flanked by more security, cleared a path for her out of the festival. So, I got my celebrity moment after all (sort of), and once she had exited we could all breathe a sigh of relief and get back to business.
Day 4: Time to go off-piste, backstage, or behind-tent, to see a different side of the festival
For some, all the literature had done them in.
The Americans try and get people involved and win them over. Best answer to this question was: 'Salman Rushdie'
The Brits try equally hard, with slightly more success: British Council Reading Room - open air library with a cultural agenda
A god's-eye view of the festival
People taking advantage of the couches by the British Council Reading Room
After 5 days of Literature, Politics, Philosophy and unabashed idealism, everyone packed into buses and took themselves off for the welcome final party. After driving out of the centre of Jaipur, we arrived in a car park and were taken by horse and carriage to the party proper..
Historic Amber Fort: tourist destination and party spot for the literati
We were welcomed by elephants, dancing girls and bare chested men banging drums – no mean feat in the desert evening cool. I imagine that is why they were so enthusiastically drumming and shouting as we arrived. It’s one way to keep warm.
Sponsors Glenlivet provided quite the bar on one level, which eventually led into a dance-floor amidst water-gardens, whilst a buffet-dinner level hovered above all, affording me the opportunity to take this photo of (nearly) all of it.
Nevertheless, it was an iPhone camera, apps or no apps, and eventually a girl has to give up on being an observer and avail herself of the Glenlivet, crumbly Rajasthani butter (don't ask) and soak up the last few hours of literati-life...