On my list of writing goals for this year I had finally written down that I had to attend the Jaipur Literary festival, after three years of promising myself that I would. Today I got to have a great day attending sessions with Mark Tully, Amit Chaudhari, Will Self, Jeet Thayil, Paul Theroux and Chandrahas Choudhury. Javed Akhtar was on the same plane from Mumbai and I saw him walk past me at one point at the luggage carousel. Both time he was followed by a trail of autograph seekers, gushing fans and starstruck fawners.
Highlights of my day:
VS Naipul being wheeled on-stage after a conversation about how his seminal work ‘ A House for Mr. Biswas’ powerfully influenced a generation of writers who after reading this work felt they were ‘given permission’ to write across boundaries. He was so touched by the tribute these writers paid him that he could barely get the words of thanks out and his wife had to wipe away the tears on his cheeks.
- Tamil writer CS Lakshmi in a panel discussing the commercialisation of literature that ended up digressing into the discussion about recently persecuted Tamil novelist Perumal Murugan said that the issue about his book being banned and his life being threatened was related to a political agenda. He wrote about intercaste marriage and the suggestion of such a thing to the upper caste in his local community goes against their own vested commercial interests and political agenda. Another panellist said that the contested book was published in 2010 but it wasn’t until the political figure Amit Shah came to Tamil Nadu during his political campaign and told them that they should be up in arms about the book that people reacted to such a degree that Perumal Murugan decided to stop writing and begged his publishers not to print or reprint any of his books.
- Nayantara Sahgal gave the anecdote that during a panel discussion at another talk some time ago, she was sitting next to a Shiv Sena member when discussing banning books was bad. To which the Shiv Sena member stood up and said, ‘I want to be clear, …we would never ban books. Why should we ban books when we can burn them?!’
- The litfest panel agreed that in a democracy that was built on the principles of being a secular country – a principle built under an atheist prime minister at the time – there is still a sad absence of support from the State/government to step in to protect our freedom of expression and a great need for a more conscious society that understands the meaning and value of freedom of expression and self-expression.
Getting to hear Will Self on-stage introduce his book ‘Umbrella’ and then talk with Jeet Thayil about his other work, his writing life and writing journalism. He’s full of quotable quotes like, ‘Journalism is a craft but fiction is an art. Journalists know their audience, they know their subject but fiction requires the discipline of attention. So you can be stoned while writing journalism but I’ve only ever written fiction sober.’ Keep in mind that Will Self openly talked about being a heroin user and even wrote articles about it. He gave it up 15 years ago. He is a man who says what’s on his mind and in his heart, is succinctly opinionated and is a talented fiction writer to boot. His conversation was amusing, his style entertaining and I’m now looking forward to his next talk tomorrow entitled ‘Double Lives: Writers as Critics.’
Some more lines straight out of Will Self’s mouth:
– On Charlie Hebdo – “Good satire should afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Good satire is about moral reform. If it doesn’t have this agenda it’s just writing that is rude and looks to offend others. You don’t achieve moral reform by offending people. With the right to freedom of expression comes responsibilities – we must understand this.”
– On his obsession with sanity – “There’s a belief I have that if a hundred people were cured in a London psychiatric institution today, a hundred sane people would simultaneously go crazy in another part of the world. There is a finite amount of sanity and insanity in the world. Before, writing was about good and evil. Now it’s about whether one is sane or insane.” He talked about how in his late teens and twenties he was in and out of psychiatric facilities as an outpatient and a lot of his fiction captures the stories gleaned from that time in his life.
I managed to attend five sessions during the day before exhaustion set in from walking around the venue, lost and disoriented in the maze that is Diggi Palace, for most of the time as I negotiated throngs of tweeting, instagramming, facebooking hordes, uploading group pics onto their pages. There was easily a 70-30 split in favour of youth including school-uniformed children in the audience. The rest was easily a more professional, mature crowd of academics, retired professionals, writers of every kind, press people and their families and friends.
I can’t wait to see what Day 2 brings!