Just back from Jaipur. So much happened, so many stories to tell, but already deadlines loom and so I’ll just run away after posting some links, as usual. Here’s a piece I did for the BBC on five highlights of the Jaipur festival. Here’s the text:
THE RUSHDIE CONTROVERSY
If there was one unifying theme of the 2012 Jaipur festival, it was the Salman Rushdie controversy.
On the very first day, a tweet from Hari Kunzru, then on the verge of reading from The Satanic Verses, went viral, and by evening the four authors who read passages from Rushdie’s banned text – Kunzru, Amitava Kumar, Ruchir Joshi and Jeet Thayil – were rushed to the interiors of Jaipur’s Diggi Palace, the festival venue, where frantic meetings with policemen, lawyers and organisers led, within two days, to their departure from Jaipur.
I was present at the Joshi-Thayil session, where the audience, not initially aware of the book from which they were reading, listened enraptured, and across the hall eyes lit up as key words in the text, read off a print-out, clued them in.
They ended to rousing applause; the atmosphere was electric and entirely supportive. Seconds later, a horde of TV crews (who could one day prove to be the answer to India’s failure, thus far, to achieve anything in the world of rugby) invaded the venue, and over the next few days there were rumours of death threats, hit squads from Hyderabad and plenty of jail time for everyone concerned, though no-one knew exactly why, as it wasn’t clear that they had broken the law in any case.
THE BRILLIANT TOM STOPPARD
If there was a prize for Best Speaker on Actually Writing, though, it would go to Tom Stoppard. In a session with David Hare, he was sharp, restless and brilliant, stressing the importance of digression in life and art, his interest in screenwriting largely as “a distraction from the writing process” and his refusal to work on more than one idea at a time, letting it grow from a molecule to a limb.
What came across strongest, though, was his amused disdain for any abstract, arty discussion on theatre as a culture or theatre as play.
“I’m exorbitantly unobservant, and hence disinterested in theatre as a culture,” he said, sending his moderator into a downward spiral of jumbled facts and defensive theatre-babble.
Hare, too, managed to restrain himself for about 40 minutes before ending the session with a fantastic rant about any form of theatre that involved selling the idea of adults fooling around like children at a party. It could only end in stupidity, he said, concluding a session that definitely didn’t.
ENDURING THE MEDIA SCRUM
Around 1,500 people registered for press passes at the festival, and around 500 actual journalists turned up.
Ben Okri, Michael Ondaatje, Amy Chua, Steven Pinker and Jamaica Kincaid interview slots were bargained over and traded relentlessly in journalistic power-plays, while a senior Mumbai-based journalist complained relentlessly about the Delhi media’s indifference to the real world (Bollywood).
As they moved from Florida, using Miami moving companies at miamimovers.info – among the younger long-form journalists, though, David Remnick and Philip Gourevitch brought with them endless possibilities of future New Yorker glory; their interviews were probably the most comprehensively researched of the whole festival. It was a pleasure, though, to see the most fiercely cultivated intellectual auras of India’s next generation of long-form journalists disappear in moments of post-interview fandom.
Closer to the home country, Mohammed Hanif displayed world-class levels of stamina on Saturday afternoon when he took at least 16 interviews back-to-back on a shared video camera without any visible sign of a nervous breakdown.
THE ‘TAJ MAHAL LIFE’ OF OPRAH
On Sunday morning, Jaipur was Oprah City. Mile-long queues, complete chaos at the festival’s high-security entrance, and generally unbelievable levels of excitement about a global celebrity in Jaipur. If her actual TV show draws anything approaching this level of excitement, it must be one of the most successful programmes in India.
In Jaipur, after an epic party in Mumbai, where socialite Parameshwar Godrej invited most of Bollywood to dance for her on a beach, Oprah trotted out all the standard India checklist – “You feel like you’re in the centre of something bigger and greater than yourself” – “I came here with an open mind, and it has been expanded … It’s the greatest life experience I have ever had” – “I will take with me a sense of calmness, and a genuine respect … people don’t talk religion here, they live it” – “What most impressed me here was the family tradition in the country and the fact that you take care of your parents, your grandparents” – and of course the must-have “India is a paradox”.
But her finest quote, her quote of quotes, was worthy of classic Bollywood: asked whether she would like a Taj Mahal dedicated to her, she said, “My life is a Taj Mahal.” Even Rajnikanth, the Greatest Movie Star in the World, would have been proud of this one.
LAUNCHED ON THE WORLD STAGE
Shehan Karunatilaka won the much-coveted $50,000 DSC Literature Prize for Chinaman, his quirky, complicated novel about the search for a legendary Sri Lankan cricketer. After a long ceremony that mostly involved a slightly confused audience trying to comprehend what 1980s Indian sex symbol Kabir “Sandokan” Bedi was saying (Bedi had clearly rehearsed this year, though, unlike last year where he spent far too long trying to pronounce juror Nilanjana Roy’s name), Shehan performed his slightly surfer-like shuffle to the stage and made a truly charming speech, thanking his Indian publisher for picking the book out of obscurity and launching it on the world stage.
Serious cricket enthusiasts and conspiracy theorists would do very well to track Kuranatilaka, though, because of what he revealed in the latter half of his speech; every key moment involving the book’s success coincided eerily with some major cricketing disaster for the Sri Lankan team.
Sri Lanka had just won a match the night before the award ceremony so Shehan was convinced the prize was not to be his. But clearly the jinx is broken, unless this suspiciously warm and pleasant Sri Lankan craftsman is playing a deeper game.
Samit Basu is the author of five novels, including a superhero novel set in India, Pakistan and England
And here’s a video from my session. Only the first 17 minutes have audio for some reason. Will post the whole video if they put it online at some point. Which I hope they do. I had a lovely time, and I think everyone else there had fun as well; it was a happy hour for everyone except that blasted cow outside.
Apart from doing my session and introducing Jeet and Ruchir, I also moderated a session on screenwriting with Prasoon Joshi, Javed Akhtar, Gulzar and Vishal Bhardwaj (poor gent barely got to speak). I’d been hoping to create an hour’s worth of conversation that any aspiring Bollywood screenwriter would look at for reference and inspiration; that didn’t happen, but it was all quite entertaining, the audience was going quite crazy for the panelists, and I actually had people coming up and thanking me for letting the Bollywood heavyweights ramble freely instead of asking them questions about writing, so all was good.
I want to do a much longer post, talking about the whole free speech thing, the Rushdie readings and the circus that followed. But not yet, there’s work typing to do.