The spirit of Africa infused into Jaipur as the literature festival of 2015 took shape with echoes of a continent were shared be they in mythology, the politics of oil or Africa herself, through its writings emanating out of or writing on.
This year the authors Kwasi Kwarteng the British Member of Parliament, author of Ghosts of Empire, and War and Gold. Helon Habila the Nigerian associate professor of creative writing in the USA, author of three novels the latest is Oil on Water. Ibukun Olatunji the Nigerian origin author of The Battle of the Wordsmiths the first book in The Wild Kingdoms series a mythical fantasy adventure which traces its origins in the Orishan culture of Yorubaland, West Africa.
“Reading Africa, Writing Africa” was the title of the session that Kwasi Kwarteng led the conversation with Helon Habila, Damon Galgut, Mark Gevisserand Hisham Matar as they discussed contemporary African literature beyond war, famine and poverty. Kwasi also started the conversation on the session of ‘A History of the World in Twelve Maps’ by Jerry Broton and how maps share our world view and recreate the world.
Helon Habila, Homi K Bhabha, Kamila Shamsie, Kevin Powers, Adam Johnson chaired by Raghu Karnad discussed “War, Politics and the Novel,” as they shared their experience of writing on themes where the story is set within the context of conflict and its effects on people, property, nations and geographies as they leave their mark on the psyche of the writers. Helon was also part of a poetry hour session where various styles were expressed as the poetic imagination struck a chord.
Ibukun Olatunji shared the magic of story, of words as spells, of poetry that transports, an alchemy with the audience as he delivers the mythical beginning, the origin of The Wild Kingdoms series and shares a scene where the boy battles the king, where words are conjured as they take shape and are thrown out and the local Indian and International audience hear the spirit of the Orisha. A culture that stems from West Africa and through story, music and practice has travelled to Cuba, Central and South America like Brazil. Ibukun also played his part in a poetry session introduced by Ashok Vajpeyi with poets such as the impactful Fady Joudahand Lionel Fogarty giving an Aboriginal voice to the poetry.
The Jaipur Literature Festival left its invited writers and audience with ideas, stories and debate and
carried the spirit of Africa to India and beyond.
‘India felt like home’
I fell in love with India well before I had the opportunity to visit the Jaipur Literature Festival 2015. Fragmented aspects of Indian culture and history have been an important part of my childhood and growing up days. I recall being mesmersied by The Mahabharata. The characters were unlike any I had ever seen before and yet somehow their choices and situation resonnated with me. I can recall trying to understand how I would act if I had lost a kingdom, or been sent into exile.
Later, one of the broadcasters in the UK showed The Sword of Tipu Sultan. As a teenager I read a book called Lives of the Indian Princes in my local library. It had details such as the size of the various kingdoms, the official gun salutes for the maharajas and lots of pictures of palaces, forts and cities. For a young boy growing up in a less than exotic part of the United Kingdom, it was simply an unimaginable world. Jaipur and the story of Jai Singh II was a part of the book and left a permanent impression on my mind. Maybe one day I will see this Pink City. But such dreams can be easily forgotten, replaced by the necessity of making a living, day to day existence and other things.
However, dreams have a powerful way of never quite leaving and, if we attendent, providing a sense of something familair when they do happen. I grew up with an English family and had the good fortune to be re-united with my Nigerian birth family when I was 19.
Going to Nigeria for the first time I had a true sense of wonder at all the things that were new to me – sounds, smells, colours, language and the incredible heat. Yet despite this I also felt that I was in a home of sorts, that I had come back to a place where a part of me had always been. It did not feel so alien or exotic. It was just Nigeria, the place my family lived and while I was with them it was my home as well. I recently told my friend and publisher Anuj Agarwal that this was the feeling I had about India. There was some connection that made it feel like a home. For me that was the best kind of realisation of a dream I can think of. The only question I have now is how soon can I return?
‘I will always remember JLF’
Jaipur was my first time in India – my first time in Asia, actually. Yet, the moment I landed at Delhi airport there was a shock of the familiar. It was as if I had been there before, perhaps it reminded me of the airport in Lagos – it certainly wasn’t like the usual cold, hyper security conscious airports one usually transits through or arrives at in western countries. Charles de Gaulle, Heathrow, Dulles, where every move you make you feel as if an invisible camera is following you, because it is. I am sure there were cameras at Delhi airport, otherwise it would be unsafe, but still, they didn’t make me feel as if I was the object of their scrutiny.
The trip to Jaipur was a bit disappointing, because my flight was delayed almost three hours and I missed my first panel event alongside Kamila Shamsi, Homi Bhaba and Damon Galgut. When I phoned the officials in panic about the delay the lady laughed and said, “Don’t worry, as long as you are fine. We will see you when you get here.”
But perhaps my greatest shock of recognition was in Jaipur itself. It reminded me of the northern part of Nigeria where I was born, the nim trees, the profusion of bikers on the road, the insane traffic, but most of all, the people. There were people on rooftops, on the sidewalks, on doorsteps, in the road – this could be Lagos. I had been here before, I thought, not in flesh, but in Bollywood movies which I grew up watching, in books by Arundhati Roy, and Kiran Desai, and Anita Desai, and Narayan, and many others long since forgotten.
But the biggest pleasant shock was at the festival itself. I was used to festivals in Europe and America where, if you were lucky, about 20 or so people would sit glumly and listen to you read. At Jaipur, my first panel event was attended by over 500 people. And surprisingly they all seemed to be paying attention. Afterwards a man came to me and asked me to sign my books. He had read all my novels. I thought he was only being nice, but it turned out he actually had followed my career starting with my first novel. “Why?” I asked him. “Well, when reading your books I feel as if you are writing about my own culture. Your take on family could be Indian, really,” he said. Jaipur is one festival I will always remember, it was like coming home.
‘JLF saw spirit of openness’
Now in its 10th year, the Jaipur Literary Festival has established itself as one of the world’s leading literature festivals. This year was my second visit to this vibrant and exuberant affair. I am always struck by the warmth and sincerity of the way in which I have been received as a writer. The energy and enthusiasm of the audiences is palpable, and there is an atmosphere of debate, of questioning and of inquiry, which is reminiscent of an excellent university.
I mention the university atmosphere fully conscious that the Jaipur Literary Festival is remarkable for the youth of its participants. In many literary festivals, particularly in England, authors are used to speaking to a certain type of audience, largely consisting of older people, often in retirement. By contrast, the exuberance of Jaipur closely reflects the character of India itself. There is undoubtedly a spirit of openness and optimism surrounding the festival which I have often felt is indicative of India’s current mood.
The festival’s sessions themselves covered an enormous range of subjects, along with expert writers and knowledgeable scholars across many fields. I personally saw experts in the Latin and Greek classics mingling with Sanskrit scholars, economists and modern historians. Some of the latest cutting edge authors were present. It was perhaps rather fitting that President Obama flew into Delhi on the last day of the festival, his historic visit being the first time a US President had visited India a second time during his term of office. This highly publicised visit was an indication of the seriousness with which India’s development is viewed across the world.
But if India is fully to realise its potential it cannot only be an economic powerhouse. India has a historic duty to cultivate its great literary and cultural heritage. It was very heartening to see sessions on Sanskrit texts and mythology in the festival itself. India, as home to many of the world’s great historic civilisations, can make a unique contribution to international affairs in the future. In this context, Jaipur is hugely significant in its ability to draw authors from all round the world to one place, in order to celebrate the life of the imagination.