On the fourth day of the Jaipur Literature Festival 2015, absolutely everyone in Jaipur showed up. I refuse to believe, after a day spent getting trampled upon, stuck in human jams, elbowed and shoved, that there was a single person in Jaipur who didn’t attend the festival today. The organisers need to take appropriate measures fast to accommodate the growing size of the JLF audience.
Moaning and grumbling aside, it was a day filled with many engaging sessions. At 10 AM at Rajnigandha Front Lawns, Nassim Nicholas Taleb was in conversation with Simon Singh about the former’s book ‘The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable‘. The book, which received rave reviews, is described as an investigation of opacity, luck, uncertainty, probability, human error, risk and decision making in a world we don’t understand. Aside from discussing his fascinating theories as laid out in the book, Taleb discussed the relationship between economics and politics, the current state of the Indian economy, academia worldwide etc. He said that academia has started producing bureaucrats who are too afraid of taking risks. Yours Truly and the two Sidekicks are sworn members of the academic community, all of us pursuing a masters degree with every intention of proceeding to independent research, but we can understand where he is coming from.
The next session we fought our way into was “Writing the Family” with Akhil Sharma, Maria Chaudhuri, Mira Jacobs, Marcel Theroux, Sandip Roy and Parul Sehgal at the lovely Mahindra Humanities Durbar Hall. Sehgal kicked off the session by noting the ancient connection between the novel form and the institution of the family. She argued that without family, we wouldn’t have almost all our great classics- Dickens, Anna Karenina, The Corrections etc. All five authors agreed completely and discussed the pertinence of the family dynamics to their own work. Theroux’s ‘Strange Bodies’, Roy’s ‘Don’t Let Him Know’, Jacob’s ‘The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing‘, Chaudhuri’s ‘Beloved Strangers’ and Sharma’s ‘Family Life‘ all deal with various facets of the family- the secrets, disappointments, frustrations, challenges, power relations. When asked if they felt if the novel was a dying form, the panel rose up to collectively defend its robustness but agreed that they did feel a little behind the times sometimes. Theroux, with his gentle sense of humor, compared it to playing the harpsichord while Jacobs said that she sometimes felt a little like she was clutching wagon wheels during an industrial revolution! Roy similarly provided a testament to the novel’s undying importance by saying that he wrote so as not to forget, an extremely poignant moment at which Yours Truly might have teared up a little bit because she is a sap.
Next up was the British Airways Baithak at 12:30 for “The Father of History” with Tom Holland, introduced by his friend and colleague Bettany Hughes. I realise that I sound quite stalkerish at this point but let me point out that my Sidekicks were there too, so at least its a shared perversion. Holland, with his trademark boyish (and infectious) enthusiasm, explained that the title of the talk refers to Herodotus as such because he is the first recorded historian of the western civilisation. Herodotus wrote ‘The Histories‘, a long, digressive account of Greece in 440 BC and the centrepiece of his work is the Persian invasion of Greek city states. Holland spoke with immense, almost palpable love for Herodotus and called him not only the father of history, but also of nonfiction because he exhibited curiosity about almost all aspects of life. Another admirable fact about Herodotus, he told us, is his desire to understand other cultures, mores, customs and thought, which made him a man far ahead of his time. Holland also regaled the audience with the outrageous things that Herodotus believed- fox-sized ants that unearthed gold dust, flying snakes, Indian men’s sperm being black. The session was so lively and interesting that I immediately went looking for the book and I highly recommend that the gentle reader do the same. And yes, dinosaurs were mentioned again.
2:15 saw me making my solitary way to Rajnigandha Front Lawns for V S Naipaul’s session with his long time friend, Farrukh Dhondy. Sidekick 1 wisely abandoned me when she saw the mind-boggling size of the crowd and Sidekick 2 went to a session on maps, one of the many things she inexplicably finds fascinating (Another is cats. She bought a hand crafted cat at the Festival because it was stamped with tiny elephants and now it sits in our hotel room, looking at us in a disconcertingly superior manner.) Anyway, about the strength of the audience at the Naipaul session- being jostled within an inch of my life by people who are loudly wondering who Naipaul is makes me forget my democratic, anti-elitist principles. The talk itself was a wonderful session with Dhondy asking Naipaul very interesting questions about his Trinidadian identity, his ancestral heritage and the entirety of his literary output. Naipaul is getting on in years and to see him agree to an interview he doesn’t necessarily see the value of is commendable. Dhondy was an excellent choice because not only is he a warm and generous friend, he is also intimately familiar with Naipaul’s body of work and made some excellent observations. They spoke about Naipaul’s authorial creed of always trying fresh creative methods and experimenting with form, the critical reception of his books on India and his fellow Trinidadian authors.
The last stop of the day was Mahindra Humanities Durbar Hall for Sarah Water’s talk with Avantika Sujan. While Waters spoke intelligently about her work- the gender issues, her creative decisions, her growth as a writer, research methodology for historical fiction, authorial influences etc, Sujan asked unbelievably tedious and repetitive questions. She was so bad an interviewer that she is now tied with Indrajit Hazra in my mental ratings chart. Sidenote-I recommend Water’s Gothic novel Affinity to absolutely everyone who likes the genre. It is quite impossibly lovely.
That marks the end of this turbulent day. I will now go and mentally prepare myself for tomorrow since Chetan Bhagat and Sonam Kapoor are scheduled to arrive. If you don’t hear from me, you will know that the stampede at JLF finally claimed its first victim.