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Why there’s more to Jaipur than its forts

Big colourful cardboard gates at the entrance of Jaipur’s Diggi Palace, crowds of enthusiastic visitors, busy policemen and volunteers ably managing the crowd, all announced it to be the destination for which I had driven down for seven hours from Delhi the previous evening  – the Jaipur Literature Festival. As a booklover and journalist, being at the Jaipur literature festival had been my long cherished dream. Of course coming from Calcutta as I do – the place people still refer to as the cultural capital – I have for years been visiting the Kolkata Book Fair and also been to the book fair in Delhi since moving to the national capital, but newspaper articles and reviews from visiting friends had always given  the ‘most happening’ tag.

Inside me though, I was a wee bit sceptical. Oh of course, there were big authors attending, but at its core I was convinced that the festival would be just another of those meets where a blend of the true  intellectuals and wannabe intellectuals meet to air their opinions, to get noticed by the media, to create the required amount of controversies and which are attended by people mostly because it provides for a good food and hanging out option, or a necking and pecking place for the young and secondly because it is ‘cool’ to say that you were at the literary festival.

I was ready with my half sneer, as I bumped into a group of PYTs (Pretty Young Things for the uninitiated) in their colourful skinny pants, off-shoulder sweaters and arty bangles and mojris, their beaus with spiked hair, in attendance. ‘What did I tell you’, said my triumphant inner voice. The next two days were to leave me a convert.
 

FIRST IMPRESSION

Inside it was like a mela ground. Colourful, Rajasthani dupattas, and knick-knacks decorated the discussion venues. Shops selling Rajasthani skirts, jewellery and other handicrafts dotted the lawns along with book stalls. The venue itself, with its manicured lawns, open courtyards, and regal durbar halls was breathtaking.
 
The first thing that had my grudging approval was the crowd management. Having reached the venue at the crack of dawn (read 9.30 am), I attributed the absence of snaking queues to the fact  that not many must have turned up at this early hour. A good thing – I thought, for it made finding parking space easy for me. But inside, the sessions and discussions had already started and they were, and I had to pinch myself to believe, already packed with eager listeners.

Ah well, so they have a good batch of volunteers and cops ensuring smooth entry and parking. And I added  a mumbled praise at the punctuality with which the morning sessions had started – at the media you get used to adding at least a half-an-hour’s  time lag between the scheduled time of an event and the actual time it’ll start.  I shrugged and made my way to – yes, by now the much debated and discussed session ‘Republic of Ideas’ where author and sociologist Asish Nandi had the misfortune of making a wise crack that badly misfired – or was it intentional? A senior colleague feels that if it is furore over Salman Rushdie one year and Ashis Nandi the next, ‘there has to be a method to this madness’. ‘Controversy means publicity,’ he says. While there is no denying the logic of his words, I’ll steer clear of all debates regarding all casteist comments here.  What impressed me though, was the clockwork precision with which each session was started and wrapped up, with hardly even a minute’s delay anywhere. And yet, each speaker was given time to put across his or her views and there was even time for reactions from the audience.


MEETING OF MINDS


Which was the next thing that I liked and that contributed to my changed opinion about the festival. Whichever discussion I attended, was literally packed to the rafters and not with those jostling for just a glimpse of the celebrity speakers, of which there was an aundance. This audience knew the book or subject that was being debated, knew when to laugh and when not to applaud and when they raised their hands to put forth an opinion or question, it was mostly to something better than, ‘I am a huge fan of yours’.
 
Jaipur literature festival was a space where Sarmila Tagore sat chatting with Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar at an inner courtyard or walked about the grounds, and sometimes even sat among the audience to listen to some speaker, it was a place where Kair Bedi could be seen lounging at a bookstall and the crowd of young and not-so-young visitors knew how to give them the space to enjoy the festival in their own way.

For book signings they queued up as requested without any shove or push and when they found an author they admired, the willingness with which the authors entered into an animated discussion with them was proof of the fact that their readers knew what they were talking about.

It was this maturity of the visitors that had me floored. The only time the gathering got a little unruly was when Rahul Dravid made an appearance for one of the sessions. ‘But for those who really follow cricket in India, Dravid is a bigger player than many other so-called greats,’ said one in the crowd by way of explaination.


FESTIVAL OF IDEAS

By the lunch hour I was enjoying myself. I had heard the Indian Republic being discussed, attended a session that reviewed the works and ideas of Sufi poet Shah Abdul Latif, and heard author Navtej Sarna, joke about ‘butter chicken and all that’ in a discussion delightfully titled Punjabi By Nature that debated the influence of one’s Punjabi roots on one’s works.

There were sessions on the craft of writing a spy novel, that examined the use of new technology in the genre among other things, collaborative efforts in publishing, vernacular literature, romance, The Global Soul and the Search for Home, the tussle between Gandhi the lawyer and Gandhi the reformer, and so much more – it was delightful, different and varied. There was nothing that seemed beyond the arena of debate, in this space dedicated to ideas.

It was with reluctance, and extremely so that I drove out of Diggi Palace on Sunday. Monday morning blues had never seemed more real.

Poulomi Banerjee is assistant editor Millennium Post
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