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Colour, cacophony but no controversy: JLF 2014 takes off!

Last updated on: January 17, 2014 19:54 IST

Colour, cacophony but no controversy: JLF 2014 takes off!

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Sanchari Bhattacharya in Jaipur

Jaipur Literature Festival, the self-proclaimed ‘greatest literary show on earth’, is back. Sanchari Bhattacharya reports from Jaipur

The ninth edition of the show -- with two Nobel Prize winners, four writers short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and two Pulitzer Prize winners -- is bigger than even before.

The festival boasts of a spectacular line-up of 248 speakers -- famous, not-so-famous, anonymous and celebrities -- and a larger number of venues, all of them draped in blindingly pink tents.

Much to the relief of the organisers and to the disappointment of the media brigade, the festival this year has not run into any major controversies.

Yet.

Last year, festival organiser Sanjoy Roy had to move the high court after a FIR was filed against him and sociologist Ashis Nandy over the latter’s controversial remarks during a panel discussion.

Nandy was eventually forced to skip the rest of the festival and leave the city after local organisations staged protests at the venue and opportunistic politicians further stoked the issue.

The festival had witnessed a worse ordeal in 2012, when the “will he, won’t he” speculations over Salman Rushdie’s participation culminated in the Satanic Verses author being told by Indian security agencies, in no uncertain times, to stay away.

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Image: Author Justin Cartwright poses for pictures at the Jaipur Literature Festival
Photographs: Chandra Mohan Aloria

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Sanchari Bhattacharya

Maybe that is why festival producer Sanjoy Roy declared at the inauguration, “We will not be bullied. We will draw a line in the sand”.

The very first event of the day -- the keynote address by Professor Amartya Sen – started off with a glitch, albeit an entertaining one.

The Nobel Prize winner was called on to the dais to deliver the keynote speech after a rather lengthy and dry discourse by Rajasthan Governor Margaret Alva (‘Is she under the impression that she is the keynote speaker,’ some audience members were heard wondering).

But as Sen walked up to the microphone to start his address, the speakers at the venue broke into a loud and folksy song, accompanied by an equally unintelligible video that played out on the giant screen next to the stage.

While the audience members looked on in confusion, the cacophony played on, and a bemused Sen waited patiently for his turn to speak.

When he finally got a chance to speak, the economist’s speech had little to do with the beauty of literature and more to do with the banality of India’s “so-called entry into the elite club of nations”.

Sen narrated a fictitious encounter with a goddess with whom he had shared India’s manifold problems – the woeful state of healthcare, nearly half the population defecating in the open, millions of children remaining undernourished and the re-criminalisation of gay sex.

The Supreme Court’s verdict on Section 377 was, said Sen, “the reversal of the reversal of a reversal”.

But the economist also outlined the silver linings of India’s present -- states like Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Himachal Pradesh performing well in the fields of healthcare and education, the evacuation of over one million people from coastal areas before Cycline Phailin, the successful prevention of famines since independence and the increase in reportage of cases of rape.

Sen also hailed the emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party though he was quick to add a disclaimer, ‘They still have a lot to learn”.

After hearing him complain about the shortcomings of India, said Sen, “The goddess told me, the time has come for you to go to the Jaipur Literature Festival”.

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Image: Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen speaks at the Jaipur Literature Festival
Photographs: Chandra Mohan Aloria

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Sanchari Bhattacharya

Jonathan Franzen, considered to be the greatest American novelist of our times, is one of the biggest attractions of the festival.

He is the only author to have featured on the cover of Time magazine in over a decade.

Franzen is neither a fan of self-promotions nor of the social media. The organisers have pulled off something akin to a coup by getting the taciturn author to turn up at the festival.

The author of bestsellers like The Corrections and Freedom, had, back in 2001, famously gotten into a fracas with talk show mogul Oprah Winfrey inadvertently when he had made uncharitable comments about his books being included in her book club.

So when moderator Chandrahas Choudhury quipped at today’s JLF session, “If you can’t remember my name, you can call me Oprah,” the author shot back, ‘That’s mean”.

And unlike most authors at the festival, who relish reading out their own work to an alarming degree, Franzen agreed to read a couple of paragraphs from his book with extreme reluctance, and only after some amount of coaxing by the moderator.

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Image: Authors Jonathan Franzen with Chandrahas Choudhury interact with the audience at the Jaipur Literature Festival
Photographs: Team JLF

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Sanchari Bhattacharya

Not surprisingly, over 80 per cent of the audience at a discussion featuring feminist icon Gloria Steinam comprised women.

On an unusually chilly day, Steinem got one of the warmest greetings ever in the festival; the audience members cheered, clapped and whistled as she took to the stage.

Eloquent, gracious and unassuming, Steinem covered a range of topics including pornography, women’s reproductive rights, religion, prostitution and the Delhi gangrape.

When moderator and social activist Ruchira Gupta asked her why men seemed to embrace pornography, she retorted in good humour, “Now how much time do I have to answer that,”?

The venue exploded with applause when, while speaking about the Delhi gangrape, Steinem said, “We can’t control a crime by restricting the victim. We need to address the victimizer. We need to make the streets safe for women, not the streets safe from women”.

“Religion is politics in the sky. Jesus Christ had blonde hair and blue eyes even though he was born in the Middle East,” she said while commenting on religion.

The feminist legend also talked about her visit to India when she was only 22.

(On why she chose to travel to India, where she ended up living for two years, Steinem said, among other reasons, “I was engaged and I didn’t really want to get married”.)

She talked about her “permanent” relationship with India and how it had changed her.

“If I hadn’t come here, I would have thought change only happens at the top,” she said.

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Image: Author Gloria Steinem with journalist and activist Ruchira Gupta
Photographs: Team JLF

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Sanchari Bhattacharya

Other highlights of the day included an impromptu press conference by Irrfan Khan, where the actor fielded a volley of questions on topics as myriad as politics, the fast food culture, films, the Oscars Awards and the Aam Aadmi Party.

Khan played safe on the last topic, saying, “I don’t want to comment on that but maybe the people are looking for change”.

When a journalist asked him whether he plans to join politics anytime soon, he said, ‘How can I do both – acting and politics – at the same time? I can’t do something half-heartedly.”

JLF organisers must have heaved a sigh of relief as the curtain fell on the peaceful first day of the otherwise controversy-happy festival.

Those attending the festival on Saturday can look forward to sessions by Pulitzer Prize winner and semi-reclusive author Jhumpa Lahiri and journalist-turned-author Katherine Boo.


Image: Actor Irrfan Khan at the Jaipur Literature Festival
Photographs: Chandra Mohan Aloria

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