The rain Gods had been a bit too generous on the 2nd day of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) causing havoc and utter confusion. Practically all sessions were rescheduled and shifted to other
locations. After many visits to the information desk I finally reached the mughal tent, anticipating the session War Politics and the Novel, where Nigerian novelist and poet Helon Habila was to talk about his recent novel Oil on Water.
Much to my dismay Habila was missing from the session. With huge expectations, I set out to find Habila, once the session got over. None of the volunteers at the press terrace could track him as they were not even sure if he used his ticket to get to the festival or checked in to his hotel. This particular incident was quite shocking when seen in the light of the whole hue and cry that went on when Elizabeth Gilbert pulled out of the festival and here was Habila, who simply didn’t turn up at the festival.
The litfest was scheduled to have three authors of Nigerian origin – Helon Habila, Ibukun Olantji and Kwasi Kwarteng – coming in as speakers with seven sessions in their county spanning over three days to discuss the present and future of contemporary African literature. Uptill now, Ibukun was the only one who actively attended sessions and discussed his book Battle of the Wordsmiths in depth and read out poetry excerpts from the same.
Much like Habila, Kwasi Kwarteng, a British parliamentarian and author of War and Gold too was not been seen at the festival till this day and interestingly both of them were to have a session together on the 3rd day of the festival.
In the process of finding Habila, I bumped into another Nigerian author Onyeka Nwelue, who spoke at the 2nd edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival as well. Onyeka, who is currently in the middle of a world tour, is an award winning author of The Absyssinian Boy, a book that received good reviews from renowned Indian authors including Shobha De. Priding himself as the only Nigerian author who writes about India, Onyeka speaks good Hindi and looks up to William Dalrymple for inspiration, whom he considers more Indian than most Indians. During our chat at the small cafe in front of mughal tent Onyeka was visited by many Indian writers. A young man of only 26, he was quite fun to hang out with as he discussed Indian and Nigerian literature with me over pizza and beer.
With no expectation of finding Habila, I started pretty late on the third day of the festival. Having reached only in the afternoon I went into the first session that caught my eye at the front lawns. The session was called Wanderlust and the Art of Travel Writing moderated by William Darlymple in conversation with Charles Glass, Samanth Subramaniam, Sam Miller and Christina Lamb.
Much to my surprise I ran into Helon Habila in the audience standing right at the back looking quite lost and frazzled. His sense of confusion was accentuated when the first question that he asked me was what this session was about and who these people were as he recognised only Darlymple amongst other panelists. Habila’s surprise and joy knew no bounds when I addressed him by his name and mentioned to him how I had been following his works in his novel Waiting for an Angel and Measuring Time and his recent attempt at crime and political writing in Oil on Water.
When asked as to why he had missed his first session, Habila cited how his flight from Washington (where he is a professor of creative writing at the George Mason University) had been delayed and he reached Jaipur only at around 6 pm the previous evening. Still looking very jet lagged and tired but still dressed very sharply in a black suit, Habila was curious to know whether Indian readers knew anything at all about Nigerian writers and their works and was very impressed with the initiative that Africa Rising was undertaking to bridge the information gap between Indians and Africans.
He seemed very excited about his upcoming readings in India and also told me how it hurt him to cancel in on a reading session in Goa earlier this year. When asked which Nigerian authors he would recommend to Indian readers he joked by pointing at himself and saying ‘me’. Before I could catch hold of him again and ask few more questions, Habila disappeared but before leaving he invited me to attend his session later that day with Kwasi Kwarteng and hoped to catch up after the session as well. A rather warm and fun guy he indulged in my request for a selfie with him with child like enthusiasm.
As far as the Nigerian authors were concerned, having met Ibukun in Delhi earlier I wasn’t surprised to see him again but having met Onyeka and eventually running into Habila made my visit to the Jaipur Literature Festival worth remembering. The three day event left me craving for more!