Pseudo Mag writers write about their time at the Jaipur literature festival.
“JLF is like NH7 for nerds.”
The biggest takeway, for me, wasn’t the brief meeting with her though. It was a meeting with Molly Crabapple, illustrator and journalist who is best known for her reportage work with Vice, and whose memoir Drawing Blood came out in December 2015.
My college, Flame University was giving its Literary and Cultural Studies a subsidy to attend the fest, but only if we could get a hold of some of the authors and interview them. On the second day, after a panel on longform journalism, I caught a hold of Molly, only to be told she has to run off for another interview with a journalist from a magazine – but no matter, I could tag along. You’re with us, she said looking at my participant badge, knowing I wouldn’t have access to the press terrace with the two of them – you’re with us, just act like you belong here, sneak up, everything will be fine. And that moment, small as it was, was the high point of my JLF experience – journalism and almost-subterfuge tips from someone whose work you admire so much, leading up to an interview about said work; could anything be better? The interview itself was more a testament to my fangirlery than her hard work but no matter, not all of us can be kickass journalists. Helping out the other journalist with her audio-video equipment was quite cool, too; it just showed the power of the philosophy behind citizen journalism, that you don’t need to have fancy passes or be affiliated with a big organization in order to get to people and places and stories that you really care about. JLF was about so, so much more – the discussions and panels that wouldn’t get this much attention anywhere else, the signed copies and photos, the fact that people were treating writers, artists and journalists like rockstars purely because of their intellectual calibre. It is, in Shantanu’s words, the NH7 for nerds. Some would definitely look at this like a bad thing – but it’s not common that you can spend a week somewhere else, away from your other priorities which you deal with only because you must, with people who care about the same things as you do, seeing some life heroes up close.
“So there I was, in the same (open aired) room as Stephen Fry”
I cannot overstate, no matter how hard I try, what Stephen Fry means to me. Everyone has people that they hold up, perhaps unfairly, as ideals, as the mould they wish to grow into. For years, now, that mould, for me, has been Stephen Fry. Imagine, for a moment, hearing the man you look up to as a hero spending an hour talking to you about the man he looks up to as a hero. That was the hour I spent, squashed uncomfortably between a hairy, middle-aged man and a less-hairy, adolescent girl, leaning against a rickety wooden contraption that pretended to hold the tent up, and it was, without question, an hour that I will treasure forever.
I had heard Stephen Fry give his famous Oscar Wilde speech dozens of times. Like I said, I’m a fan. But there had always been a screen between me and him. And behind a screen, it’s always easy to hold people up. People are more beautiful behind a screen. More eloquent. Because they’re so far away, because all of the background noises are washed out, and it feels like the whole world is focused on them.
But in Jaipur, there was no screen. (Well, there was, but it was to the left of him–my right–and I paid it absolutely no attention because why the hell would you look at Stephen Fry on a screen when he’s not ten feet away from that screen in all of his red-sweater-brown-jacket-wearing-floppy-haired magnificence).
So there I was, in the same (open aired) room as Stephen Fry, listening to him give a speech I’d heard so many times before, and it was a singular moment.
There are very few speakers I’ve had the pleasure of listening to who can talk like Stephen Fry. He had us laughing, crying, and standing with slack-jawed amazement. He cracked a joke about a limp phallus and we laughed. He traced out the bitter sadness of Wilde’s last days and I saw people wiping their eyes. And then, that last anecdote. That beautiful, extraordinary anecdote.
“[Oscar Wilde’s tomb] had to be restored, because the polished dome of its surface had corroded through kissing…[couldn’t] we just be allowed, once, to wake him up, just for five minutes, just to tell him that?”
The sound that the audience of several hundred made was a sound I’ve never heard so many people make at the same time. It was a sound of utter vulnerability.
I didn’t get to shake his hand. I didn’t get to speak to him. I didn’t get to tell him all of the millions of things I’ve spent years wishing I could tell him. I didn’t get to thank him for everything he’s meant to me. But I got to share one glorious, heartbreaking moment of vulnerability with him, and no matter what happens, I will take that with me wherever I go.
– Valmik Kumar
“But then they started talking”
The best thing about a literature festival, is not just the fact that you get to lose your chill over writers and artists you’ve loved for years, but also the fact that you end up discovering these other phenomenal writers you had never heard of before, writers whom you may never have discovered had you not casually gone to an event that seemed kind of interesting.
I went to an event called “From Jamaica to Zion” for no real reason except that my friend had been gushing over Marlon James the day before, and he was going to be talking at the event. So, I tagged along with her to a venue called Baithak, which was a closed warm haven with comfy seats in the cold weather of Jaipur in January. I settled in, without many expectations, with my little notebook in hand. The moderator Tishani Doshi was on stage, and in came two big, tall Jamaican writers, one was, as mentioned, Marlon James, the other was Kei Miller. I’d never heard of Kei Miller before, and Marlon James’ beautiful dreadlocks caught my attention first, so I didn’t pay Kei much attention in the beginning.
But then they started talking.
And Kei Miller had me perk up my ears and listen to every word he said, and delight in the way he talks. They talked about writing big literature from a small place, about cultural identity, about a Creolised voice in writing and a lot of other things. All of it was pretty mind blowing, and both of them were amazing and funny and wonderful.
The highlight for me was when Kei Miller read from his book of poetry called ‘The Cartographer Tries To Map His Way to Zion’. The collection is basically a dialogue between a cartographer trying to map and give order to an unfamiliar land and a rasta man who questions his attempts. The piece he read out involved the mapmaker asking the rasta man directions in plain English, and the rasta man responding in patois and giving extremely complex directions. I can’t do the poem justice by simply describing it here like this, but it was the most simple, most beautiful, and also funny poem I’d heard in a long time. There’s something that writing like that can give a 19 year old Indian girl who loves reading and is trying to figure things out that the white male pantheon who write what are deemed “classics” just cannot sometimes.
I got another chance to hear him read from this collection at another event on the shadow of the slave trade a few days later. This poem was equally wonderful, and it was a great disappointment to find the book unavailable at the festival bookstore. I’m hoping to get my hands on it soon though, and I can’t wait to lose myself in it.
– Tanvi Joshi
“I haven’t reached a conclusion but it has given me some food for thought”
This year was my first year at JLF and there was a myriad of extremely prominent writers like Molly Crabapple, Margret Atwood, Stephen Fry, Kei Miller and so many more. One of the most impressionable moments for me was in Marlon James’s talk on the first day on his book ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’.
He mentioned an event, unrelated to his book that stayed with me. He narrated an incident where one of his students was upset with the stereotype of portraying major villains to have a kind of mental illness. The student said that all the antagonists in famous works of fiction, literary and otherwise are invariably portrayed with some sort of illness which in turn leads to many people having incorrect or incomplete beliefs regarding mental illness and people who battle them. The author then admitted that he had never thought of that himself and as much as he loved Criminal Minds or Silence of the Lambs, this observation was not something to be taken lightly and it was definitely something to be considered. Being a psychology student and obsessed with these very same shows and movies, this definitely struck a chord and prompted me to really think. I haven’t reached a conclusion for this but it has given me some food for thought and this in itself shows how stimulating, vibrant and refreshing the entire festival was.
– Huma Bhola
“I sat through what was perhaps the most infuriating panel so that I could get good seats for Fry’s talk”
The lit fest was exactly as I’d expected it to be, in some ways and my favourite session this year was one of these ways. Stephen Fry spoke about one of my favourite writers and his favourite human being, Oscar Wilde. It seems to me that there is nobody else in the world who could speak about Wilde like Fry does. I sat through what was perhaps the most infuriating panel so that I could get good seats for Fry’s talk. Fortunately, that paid off and I got to watch him speak from the front row. Only the previous day, I had gotten my copy of Importance on Being Earnest signed by him to gift to a friend,and finding out that it was the first Wilde both he and I had read was the most joyful revelation. Fry and Wilde’s lives bear uncanny resemblances and the former’s love for the latter is overwhelming even though one gets the impression that he has given the same talk several times. How did it matter? Fry spoke about Wilde with palpable reverence and contagious love. I especially remember this one bit towards the end where his emotions were the most tangible. He said he wished that he could resurrect the Wilde who had lived his final years in absolute despair and embarrassment over his homosexuality and what it had entailed for him, if only for five minutes, and show him how much the world adores and respects him now (He was talking about Wilde’s headstone which has to be renovated recently because the words on it had been hidden under kisses that adoring visitors had left on it). It was almost heartwrenching and to be honest, I was a little thrown at his sincerity. Fry had three sessions at the festival, all brilliant, but none quite so much as this one. It was decades ago that Fry fell in love with Wilde and that his devotion has only grown with the years is apparent and even reassuring.
Speaking of love though, it turns out it was Fry’s first wedding anniversary on the day of this talk. He was in Jaipur with his husband, which meant that his presence itself was violating one of the more regressive ordinances of the Indian Government and this was an especially delicious thought for me, and it only added to the whole thing. It was a wonderful hour of a wonderful five days. This is an obvious choice for a favourite talk, I know, but there is not much getting around the fact that it made me the happiest.
I feel like I should mention Kei Miller and Yoko Tawada though. Two completely diverse and equally beautiful poets who took me by surprise because I’d never read either of them before. I have since grown deeply infatuated with their words, which means I still read their poetry once in a while. I have a feeling they will continue to make me happy for a long time.
– Sani Dhakephalkar
“I don’t know what to make of it.”
We attended every possible session that promised to make entertainment out of philosophizing, and weren’t disappointed one bit. Considering we are all undergrad students trying to make sense out of our future, prone to wrongly judging anyone we think is being pretentious and “inauthentic”, none of the people we listened to or met were anything less than utterly genuine humans, full of experience, wisdom and glowing with kindness. We were lucky.
It was glorious just listening to writers, philosophers, artists, historians from all over the world talk about what they had seen, studied, thought, read, travelled. Having been given the chance to listen to so many intelligent minds felt like a true privilege. We were smitten. We won’t remember what was said by whom after a couple of weeks, but we felt so utterly inspired and invigorated to read more, to study more about the things we loved, and most of all to write more.
One of our co-participants at the fest told us about the time he met Junot Diaz, the acclaimed Dominican American writer. “I was star-struck”, he said, “I didn’t know what to say! So I just blabbered something about being 22 and wanting to be a writer and asked him, ‘What are your thoughts on this?’” To which, he said, Diaz responded by plunging into a fervent and elaborate explanation of how everyone wants to become a writer these days, and there’s a large amount of saturation, and basically told him to quit, and basically said everything that a young aspiring writer does not want to hear from his favourite writer. I didn’t know what to make of this anecdote and still don’t. I’ll give it ten years.
We were also in an author-signing frenzy as we ran and bought books, stood in long queues just to say hi to the person we adored and get her sign. Meeting someone whose work you like for the first time can be an extremely vulnerable experience. Because it’s not just their work you love, it’s their brain. There’s a feeling that if this person thinks I’m good, I am must be really good. Writers that want to become writers can never know what good they are until they actually get some sort of recognition. Because there’s always a question of ‘how long can you go without it?’.
I wanted to get the sign of Fred D’Aguiar on my book. Well, his book, but you get what I mean. For those who don’t know, Fred D’Aguiar is a big name in po-co. For those who don’t know, po-co is short for post -colonial. For those who need honesty to get by, I didn’t know of him until I heard him speak at JLF either. On the panel, he had seemed like a truly endearing man with a kind smile, he reminded me of my grandfather, though D’Aguiar is much younger. I was first in line at his author-signing. He came in, said hello, smiled with his twinkling eyes, sat down, asked me if I was a student as he took my book to sign it. “Yes”, I said meekly, “I’m a philosophy major.” He must have said something like “oh philosophy, huh? That’s great!” but my mind was foolishly busy thinking of a way to stop Kei Miller (another big name in po-co) from leaving and talk to him about his book. “Thank you for buying my book.” said D’Aguiar as he signed it. “Oh, uh, you’re welcome”, I said, not knowing how to respond to such staggering politeness, “I look forward to reading it.” “Thank you so much” I said as he gave the signed book back to me. “Thank you!”
And I ran after Kei Miller.
I came back to the room, flinging all my signed copies at my friends’ faces. Molly Crabapple, William Dalrymple, Kei Miller, Margaret fucking Atwood, Fred D’Aguiar, Irving Finkel, when my friend went “what has this guy written above his sign?” I snatched the book from her and read. “To Kimaya, the philosopher,” it went, “with best wishes, Fred D’Aguiar.”
I was jumping for the next couple of hours. We are not used to someone being just so nice to us. I didn’t know what to make of it then, and still don’t. But not all things are made to be made something out of them, I guess. They are just there to make us feel that momentary gush of joy and sadness and confusion, leaving us thrilled at having witnessed them. I still haven’t read Fred D’Aguiar. But I’m finishing Crabapple right now, and I will start with him tomorrow.
– Kimaya Kulkarni
Photography – Tanvi Salunkhe
Illustrations: Stephen Fry- Krushna Dande, Home Cafe- Kimaya Kulkarni