The 6th annual Jaipur Literature Festival got off to a cracking start today, and I left this evening feeling very inspired, as I always do when I go to literary events of this scale. Some have suggested that the Jaipur Festival has become more of a celebrity event than a literary one, but I disagree. I was last here in 2011, and I remember feeling much more excited about the programme then than I did this year, but today I was very pleasantly surprised.
A uniting theme of this year’s festival is the Buddha in literature, and the morning started off with some devotional chanting by Buddhist monks. After this, we all had to stand for the Indian national anthem. Which took me back to Bream Bay College circa 1999, but here there was no assistant principal standing over us threatening that we weren’t allowed to leave until we sang nicely. Everyone sang nicely of their own volition, those who knew the words, anyway. The following opening remarks from the organisers seemed to drag on a bit, cutting quite substantially into the time allotted for the keynote, but organiser Sanjoy Roy made some important comments, and as the festival has been dogged in controversy since last year’s debacle with Rushdie and the readings from The Satanic Verses, such comments were probably wise: “We can’t let India be hijacked by one group. […] For the record I want to say we’re all against terrorism of the mind.”
The literary events started with iconic Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi’s keynote, “O, to live again!” At 88 years old, Mahasweta Devi is a much smaller and frailer figure than her fierce writing would suggest, but it was clear from her words that she still has a fiery spirit. She described her rebellious youth, how her family didn’t know what to do with her as they thought she was vulgar, not understanding her body’s attraction. Her tone was cheerful, but I felt melancholic, listening to this brilliant, brave woman clearly nearing the end of her years: “At my age, the desire to live again is a mischievous dream […] Better I don’t, considering the trouble I have caused already by living longer than expected […] Considering the situation from which I came, it is surprising that I turned out like this.”
The next session, “Flight of the Falcon”, saw Jamil Ahmad (The Wandering Falcon), MA Farooqi (Between Clay and Dust), and Ameena Saiyid (OUP Pakistan) in conversation. Mohammed Hanif (Our Lady of Alice Bhatti) was meant to be there, but wasn’t. No explanation was given, but it’s not unusual for Pakistani authors not to show up at the last minute, from what I saw in 2011, too. Visa issues? Jamil Ahmad was fascinating, like his novel, and defended the traditional tribal way of life against Saiyid’s attempts to draw him into any criticism of them. She was particularly keen to get him to critique the concept of “honour”, that pervasive and elusive thing with so much force across much of South Asia. Ahmad’s take on the concept demysticised and de-exoticised it, making it seem something that we can perhaps all recognise: “every person has a small island within himself where he will not let others trespass.” That is honour.
At this point, my pen ran out of ink, so I couldn’t take any more notes. I stupidly didn’t take a spare. Astonishingly, at a writer’s festival of many tens of thousands of participants and dozens of stalls, there was nowhere for me to buy a fresh pen. The organisers obviously weren’t expecting anyone to actually be doing any writing at this writer’s festival, at least not the old-fashioned way. I praise the organisers for the much increased security arrangements this year. Next year, a simple stationary stall would be a good idea, too.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama was scheduled immediately after lunch, at 2.15, so I was smart and took my seat at about 1 o’clock. I actually got a seat! I think the whole of Jaipur and half of Delhi was on the front lawns of Diggi Palace for this session, so I’m sure standing wasn’t comfortable. I have to confess I was a little sceptical about the decision to bring a religious leader to a literature festival. A better choice than Oprah Winfrey, certainly, but I thought perhaps it would be a gimmick. I was a bit wrong. Anyway, he is an author, his latest book being Beyond Religion. When Pico Iyer, the moderator and biographer of His Holiness, asked whether the title meant that somehow he thought there were some things more important than religion, His Holiness laughed that this was his publisher’s title, and that he was surprised by it himself! The atmosphere was amazing–people were actually quiet as he spoke, and anyone who knows India knows that quietness is something rarely experienced. His Holiness was as funny, gentle and sweet in person (if we can call an area filled with thousands of people “in person”) as he is said to be. I am not a religious person in any sense, but I did find him inspirational and very sane. His major message for India, it seemed, was to fight corruption. He has a way of softening the critical blows through laughter. He joked that Indians are very religious-minded people, who will pray wholeheartedly and regularly to their Gods, but after the prayers, too many will do corrupt work, thus making it seem as though the only point of the prayer was to ask for help in corrupt activities. He said that religiosity and corruption cannot mix. Sound advice.
Mercifully the crowds dispersed again after this session. Next was one of the highlights of the day, for me: Nadeem Aslam, an amazingly intelligent, sensitive and brilliant man. I read his wonderful Maps for Lost Lovers quite a few years ago now, and it is a truly memorable book, about the Pakistani immigrant experience in the UK. Aslam has three other novels, one only just released, and now they are at the top of my list of Things to Read Once the PhD is Over. Aslam is Pakistani by birth, having moved to the UK at the age of fourteen, when his father had to leave Pakistan in a hurry as a political exile. Not from a wealthy background, having only been educated in Urdu and Punjabi, his knowledge of English was very slim when he arrived in Yorkshire. Extraordinary, then, that he has become one of the UK’s best contemporary writers, often praised for his beautiful language. Two of his novels, including his latest, The Blind Man’s Garden, are set partly in Afghanistan. When the moderator asked why that was, Aslam answered that he wanted to explore some of the vast gulfs in understanding between the west and the Islamic world that have emerged particularly acutely in the past ten years. He then said something funny and disturbing at the same time, and which I just tried: type “Pakistan is…” into a search engine and the auto-suggestions are: Pakistan is… evil; in Asia; better than India. (My results might differ slightly from his: as I said, my pen ran out, I am writing from memory, and the search engine I just used is India-based, his might have been British. But the gist is the same). Do the same for the US and you get: America is… not the world; doomed; not the greatest; evil (and, certainly a result of my computer’s memory: “better than Australia.” !!?)
It was clear that Aslam was slightly uncomfortable on stage, until he had warmed up, anyway. He seemed shy and diffident, but at the same time very assured in the content of what he was saying. He admitted to being socially awkward, finding it difficult to mix with people casually. In researching his latest book, he spent some time with blind people, but found that he couldn’t interact with them as he wanted to because he was overly sensitive to how they must be feeling; he didn’t want to ask them any questions that he thought might prompt painful memories for them. So he took a different approach to trying to understand what it must be like to be blind: he taped his eyes shut for a week, three times, to experience blindness. Now that’s dedication to one’s craft.
I was planning on attending the session announcing the finalists for the Man International Prize, but Nadeem Aslam was on another panel on “The Novel of the Future”, and after hearing him in his own session I was so enthralled that I followed him there. The panel also consisted of Howard Jacobson, Linda Grant, Zoe Heller and Lawrence Norfolk, in conversation with Anita Anand. It was agreed by all speakers that suggestions that the novel is a tired form are rubbish, but that there is a crisis in readership at the moment, particularly in the UK and the US. Jacobson recounted statistics he’d heard that around 75% of teenagers in the UK wouldn’t admit to reading, ever, even if they did, because reading isn’t considered sexy. He contrasted this with his own youth, where boys would place books in their blazer pockets in the hope that girls would notice and think they were worth their time. He said this didn’t necessarily translate into success with girls, but that it was their only hope! I laughed very hard at this, because it spoke right to me. When I met my own partner at the tender age of seventeen, one of the first things that interested me was that not only could he read, but he had read novels, and did, regularly. And not just because he had to for school. Apart from my dad, I had never knowingly met a male who read. At least not in Whangarei, country New Zealand. A bit of “the youth of today” was thrown around by the panel, part of which I’m sure is true and part should be taken with a pinch of salt. Granted, I’m not nearly as old as Howard Jacobson, but I don’t think teenagers should necessarily be used as the litmus test of how healthy a society’s reading habits are. Hey, my brother, who infamously chanted “never read a novel, never read a novel” with glee when he won a family game of Scrabble as a teenager, is now quite an avid reader. There is hope for all, perhaps.