In its tenth year, Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) presented the visitors with several surprise panels, which weren't originally included in the printed programme. But the most memorable takeaway for the regulars was the privilege of being able to walk into the venue, Diggi Palace, without being crushed by the crowd visiting on the weekend. Who would have thought we could walk into the venue on the peak days of JLF, without being jostled along by a human wave?
Was it demonetisation? Were people who didn't pre-registered deterred by the entry fee charged to them? We don't know the real reason for this seemingly waning public interest. On the first couple of days though, a valiant effort was made to keep all business on the site cashless. You recharged your entry pass with cash at a counter, then used the barcode to pay for the chai, samosa and chaat you fancied.
Festival co-director William Dalrymple uttered the dreaded D-word on a panel, while thanking Cox & Kings, which stepped in at the nick of time, after Google and Ford, two of the principle sponsors had pulled out. "We won't be making any profits this year but we haven't gone bust either," he said, urging others to come forward to sponsor the festival and help to keep it free to the public.
Uncharacteristically, the tenor of the programming appeared low-key as well. The star authors weren't as ubiquitous as the other years and the footfall didn't seem as crazy.
A panel with Rishi Kapoor saw a packed Front Lawn. As security personnel locked the doors to prevent any more people from going in, a crowd gathered outside the venue and cheered along with those with a view of the superstar. There was rapturous applause as the superstar took his leave in style, singing one of his superhit melodies, 'Main shayar toh nahin', to the audience.
The luminaries from the ultra-Right, Dattatreya Hosbale and Manmohan Vaidya, whose presence at JLF was widely controversial, didn't say much that was worthy of headlines. Expert moderation and sharp questions from the audience had them both retreat behind abstruse replies in Hindi, the floridity of their idiom just about covering up the edge of anger creeping in their voices for being put in a tight spot. The only one who got the brownie points from the sanghis was Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje, who occupied the pride of place in the front row throughout the session, and was praised for her good work in public service.
On the last day, exiled Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen was featured on a surprise panel on free speech with journalist and writer Salil Tripathi. Her support for the Uniform Civil Code, bringing Muslims under a common ambit of personal laws in India, or her views on free speech weren't anything other than what we may have expected of her.
Suhel Seth, who is produced every year more as an entertainer than a speaker, didn't fail to deliver his part. He was slammed multiple times on a panel on mansplaining for, well, taking the title of the session too close to his heart. Dalrymple, too, got rapped on the knuckles by the feisty Bee Rowlatt, author of a book on Mary Wollstonecraft, for not mentioning the name of a single woman writer at the introduction of a session on travel literature.
Journalist Jyoti Malhotra deserved a prize for excellently moderating a session featuring Seth and Hindol Sengupta, both of whom had to be asked to mind their Ps and Qs. A good many sessions involved readings that went on for far too long, questions were asked by the moderators that lacked not only imagination but also betrayed a sign of dire fatigue. One moderator pressed on with comments about sex in fiction-writing that is unlikely interest a pubescent teenager. We can't blame the panelists for scratching their heads but still not coming up with any scintillating insights.
As always, the happenings off stage were far more fascinating.
One author was overheard complaining to another about the paltry sales of their book. "Can you believe this, I've sold only five copies?" the enraged person said. "Don't complain," the other snapped back. "I've sold only three."
If that doesn't make you hopeful about the future of reading and writing in India, there's always the Jaipur Literature Festival to look forward to the next year.
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