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JLF matters

January 28, 2016 14:45 IST

Outside Diggi Palace's walls, things may be getting darker. Speech may be under threat; writers may be getting murdered for their writing. But, inside, it is possible to feel hope that ideas, nevertheless, may have their own power, says Mihir S Sharma.

In India, few good things can survive a decade of explosive growth. Restaurants lose focus, columnists begin to repeat themselves, companies stop innovating. But, to one's continual surprise, the Jaipur Literature Festival seems to be an exception to this otherwise firm rule.

Early every January, people murmur to each other that this will be the year that Diggi Palace is finally swamped; and, every year, the JLF's organisers and their army of bright-eyed young volunteers somehow manage to fit ever more readers, writers, selfie-takers and chai-drinkers within the antique haveli's colourful, frescoed walls.

Every fall, people read the programme and say -- well, the next JLF doesn't look quite as exciting, does it? Nothing stands out, right? And, every winter, they return from the festival saying that, as it turns out, the panels and programming worked even better than before.

India is now a country of literature festivals. Last year, I was in Chandigarh over a weekend that actually featured two competing festivals, each busy poaching the other's stars to come to their parties.

You even have specialised festivals: Delhi's Comic Con now fills a stadium, and during the Crime Writers Festival earlier this month, Oxford Bookstore in Connaught Place was decorated with corpses and blood, and girls bustled around dressed as cops.

The excitement that surrounds these is real, and not contrived, as is always the case with occasions celebrating particular genres that have dedicated fans. But, even amidst this multiplicity, Jaipur somehow manages to be the one you really want to go to -- for no reason other than its own energy.

When JLF began, it was very much an elite affair; India's English book-reading public is tiny, and this was an opportunity for them to chat with writers from abroad whom they knew of, but would never otherwise have met -- as well as to the writers from small-town and rural India whom they might meet, but might never otherwise have heard of.

Some time in the early 2010s -- perhaps the morning that Oprah Winfrey arrived and shut down a couple of Jaipur's main roads -- it became something quite different. Today, it's less a festival of individual writers than it is of ideas; of particular books than it is of the possibility of reading.

Yes, people who read only occasionally come -- but not to "be seen" any more. Instead, they come because they hope that listening to authors and being in the sort of environment that JLF provides will make up for the very fact that they don't read all that much.

I have little patience for those who disdain this hope -- particularly since the most "literary" of people are more than happy to read essays in The New York Review of Books in the expectation that this is a close substitute to actually reading the book. (As a friend of mine suggested recently, the NYRB should, just once, come out with a gag issue in which it completely mis-states the plot and purpose of each book it's reviewing, and then sit back and watch.)

Outside Diggi Palace's walls, things may be getting darker. Speech may be under threat; writers may be getting murdered for their writing. But, inside, it is possible to feel hope that ideas, nevertheless, may have their own power.

The most exhilarating of sessions at Jaipur this year was hearing Stephen Fry talk about Oscar Wilde -- a simple yet deeply personal exposition of Wilde's life and trials, in both senses of that word.

It was exhilarating not just because Mr Fry is a superb performer, or because Wilde is one of the greatest characters in literary history. It was exhilarating because Mr Fry did not hold back just because he was in India -- he was completely himself in describing growing up, discovering his sexuality, dealing with bullies and a restrictive outside world, and in comparing his own experiences with those of Wilde, a century earlier.

And, above all, it was exhilarating because the audience -- overwhelmingly Indian, overwhelmingly small-town, most of which had never heard of Mr Fry and not even perhaps of Oscar Wilde -- spontaneously gave the speech a very rare standing ovation.

Outside Diggi Palace's walls, Section 377 is back in force, and those professing alternative sexualities are less free than they were a few scant years ago. But, inside, it was possible to believe that minds could change.

If, of course, you let those ideas be heard. Audiences at places like JLF come to educate themselves, to remind themselves that there's a free world of books out there, and to feel better thereby.

Occasionally, however, we're reminded of the thuggish outside world, which runs by rules very different from the warm thoughtfulness that granted Mr Fry his ovation.

In the hour before the closing debate on free speech, featuring newly-minted government awardee Anupam Kher -- our leading independent intellectual -- a sea of people began unexpectedly streaming through the gates even as the ordinary festival-goers were leaving.

Hard-faced men crowded into Diggi Palace's front lawns. When Anupam Kher got up to speak, they cheered and clapped. When a political opponent spoke, they drowned him out with cries of "Modi! Modi! Modi!" (It didn't sound fascist at all).

Ideas matter, and places like JLF matter. They can work to change us for the better. But they might not be allowed to.

Mihir S Sharma
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