Jai Ho!

23rd Jan 2013
4.15 am I am shivering at the Bengaluru International Airport Bus Stand waiting for Subhanjan to pick up a piece of audio equipment that will make shooting our interviews a lot easier. It takes a good hour before he walks back 2 kms from the Air India Sats buildings after paying off customs duty and completing formalities. We are on the way.
9.15 am Jaipur is 7°C outside when we collect our gear from the conveyor and make our way to the taxi stand. A pleasant half hour ride down the highway we reach our hotel and check in. A walk round the corner gets us to Diggi Palace, the venue of the Jaipur Lit fest. The mayhem is on. Decorators, policemen, volunteers, soundmen, carpenters, samosa-sellers and chai-wallas create flocking patterns and chaos in a time and space juxtaposed between the haveli and “here and now”.

Inside The Amer Fort Palace

We are here to interview authors one-on-one. Learn about their books, their views. Since December last when we launched, we have interviewed a hundred and twenty authors. It has been a most enlightening experience. A whole new world. An opening up of sorts. From poetry to non-fiction, from Kannada to Oriya, from history to children’s literature, from post-colonial to structuralism.
And Jaipur promises to be a feast. The list of authors gracing the festival is extensive, impressive, and heavy-weight. These are the Alis and Tysons of the literary ring.
11 am We talk to Prantik about our entry passes. His boss Imtiaz is in hospital undergoing a CT scan because he’s completely stressed out by the fest demands. We hope (and pray) it’s nothing serious. Their company, Ketchum Sampark, is in charge of taking care of the media (that’s us, by the way). We collect our passes and promise to be back soon for scouting for suitable corners to shoot in.

From The Courtyard, Diggi Palace

Our requirements are pretty simple, and pretty much unavailable. We need a quiet corner, far from the festival speakers so that our shooting microphones don’t pick up the noise. Simple, but its like asking for ice-cream in a blast furnace. The entire Diggi Palace is already maxed out in terms of decibels- and God alone knows how much louder it would get the following day when the festivities rolled.

Doorway detail, Amer Palace

1 pm After a quick lunch we make our way towards Amer Fort. We absolutely must absorb a little Jaipur, and this is the only window we have. Both Subhanjan and I haven’t slept at all in the last 36 hours or so, and when the elephants roll by, Subhanjan is actually fast asleep in the car. We pass Jal Mahal, and the driver announces it loud enough for him to wake up just before we reach the fort.

Intricate Designs at the Fort

We spend two hours or more at the fort. It is just as amazing and astounding as we expected it to be. On the way back we pick up batteries for our audio gear, and hit the hotel to check out our new system. The Beachtek DXA-SLR works beautifully, but the batteries are no good.
5 pm So we make our way back to Diggi Palace hoping someone can guide us to a market that specializes in camera gear. We talk to a photographer
and his directions are good- we find the stuff we are looking for. The location that seems perfect for our needs is just below the Media/Press handling room. We ask permission to shoot there- and lo and behold- we are granted our wish! It just seems too good to be true.
7 pm We flip through files, check our lists, arrange our gear, and prepare for the big meltdown the following morning. Someone told me about “nervous energy” being a good thing before you go on stage. I’m always nervous before my camera rolls for the first interview. Most people call me paranoid. But then, you never know…
24th Jan 2013
8 am We reach Diggi Palace through several security checks and laser scans of our entry passes. The fest is about to begin. As we try to enter the courtyard assigned to us for our shoot, we are firmly refused entry. There’s just no way we can enter that lobby because the place we were allocated earlier was the designated Authors Lounge. Some one forgot to tell us! “Stay off”, we are told.
So we ask for help, and somewhere, some hearts do seem to melt. We manage to re-scout for locations, and settle for a position right across the author lounge. It’s as quiet as we can manage, and strategically well located – we would be able to talk to authors as they sauntered in and out of the lounge.

Stay Off! That’s the Author Lounge entrance.

10 am The fest is on. I set up my gear and lights. I plug in my electrical extension, and the fuse blows. I’m cursing my luck because I don’t even know if we can find the electrician who handles this part of the palace. Subhanjan does locate him- I wonder how. Gajinder, the electrician, takes a while to locate the blown fuse, and replaces it. We are at last ready to roll! Lights! Camera! Sound! Author!!
Ashok Ferry from Sri Lanka is gracious enough to be the first to go in front of the camera. Author after author, the camera keeps rolling, the stories keep coming. Part of my nervousness is now gone, having been replaced by the joy of talking to the authors. But it isn’t easy, of course. I try to be as alert as possible, cued in to everything they say. To talk about politics in Egypt, or oppression of the Dalits, or Jewishness, or alternate identities, and to jump from one end of the spectrum to the other in a matter of minutes (or seconds) is exhausting.
But the heady concoction turns to daily dose. (Read ‘tolerance levels increase’). And in the mean time the Festival rolls on with its usual share of controversies and roster of celebrities. The Ashis Nandy incident, His Holiness The Dalai Lama, Javed Akhtar and Shabana Azmi, Shobha De, Sharmila Tagore, it’s all happening here.
We focus on authors and poets of course, and are very happy to talk to authors who write in Santhali, Maithili, Marathi, Oriya. Indian Language literature is vibrant, diverse, and often deals with core issues of the subcontinent. Some are rooted in tradition, some at the edges of experiment. Politics, social conditions, economic deprivation, caste oppression, all find voice in Indian Language writing. Markand Sathe, for example, was quite clear that great literature comes from beyond what we perceive to be simply “literature”- it comes from a knowledge of these diverse areas that affect society and lives.

Volunteer takes a break. In the Lobby.

The difficulty with Indian language literature is that much of it does not get translated directly to another Indian Language. So English still is the de facto bridge language. A Bengali novel is more likely to be translated into English first, rather than say Malayalam. This, in a sense, is still a barrier. And having grown up with great Bengali literature, I have strong reasons to suspect that the pasture on the Malayalam side (or for that matter Marathi or Oriya) is equally green and verdant.
Moving away from fiction and Indian literature, there were a gazillion new ideas in what we heard. Michel Sandel’s “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets” asserts that it is a fallacy to believe that market values can address justice. Richard Sorabji’s “Gandhi and the Stoics” aims to show that Gandhi’s philosophy was influenced by the stoics- or at least there was a convergence of ideas.
Then there were the history/historical fiction books. William Dalrymple talked about his “Return of the King”. “The Last Nizam” by John Zubrzycki tells the somewhat sad and strange story of the last Nizam of Hyderabad.

Mirror with design

And in fiction too the stories were just as varied. Vikas Swarup’s (Q&A = Slumdog Millionaire) new novel is “The Accidental Apprentice”, a story
about an ordinary girl required to pass extraordinary tests. Shauna Singh Baldwin’s “The Selector of Souls” is a ‘person, a machine, and a person again’. Anosh Irani’s “The Cripple and his Talismans” is about a man who discovers one day that his hand is missing, and he sets out to find it. (Yep, the interviews will be up soon at AuthorTV).

Local music adds colour.

And then there’s the stuff that can’t be slotted easily. Madeline Miller’s “The Song of Achilles” is a retelling of history-myth (the Trojan War) but in the cocoon of literary fiction. It is the story of Achilles told by his lover and friend Patroclus. Patroclus dies young, but the story continues to be told by him after his death. “Dozakhnama”, translated by Arunava Sinha, is about Ghalib and Manto conversing from their graves- two people caught in times of tumultuous and irreversible change. Neelesh Misra’s “Yaad Sheher” are stories written for reading on radio- a program that is extremely popular in the western parts of the country. Even some parts of Pakistan I believe.
So is there anything in common between them? Do great authors at least have similar habits? Do they write in the same way? Absolutely not. Some take ten years to write a novel. Some say they think for two years before putting pen to paper, and then it’s over in fifteen days. Some write without eating much for days, subsisting mainly on tea. Others are known to write for one hour a day every day.
But most authors agree that writing is a lonely profession. Also, almost all the authors said “Don’t write about yourself. That’s going to be an extremely boring read.”

One of the many courtyards inside the Amer Fort Palace.


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