There are women in Chile who still search the Atacama desert for the remains of their loved ones who ‘disappeared’ during the Pinochet regime forty years earlier (The Atacama desert is roughly 100,000 square kilometers in size). I found myself immobilized by the power of that image, as described by author Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, of the women combing through a desert, inch by inch. Guardiola-Rivera, a London-based academic, was presenting his latest book, Story of a Death Foretold, about America’s planned undermining — and eventual assassination in 1973 — of Chilean leader Salvador Allende.
As we sat in the British Airways Baithak Hall, one of the four venues of the Jaipur Literature Festival 2014, Pakistani author Nadeem Aslam took my pad and pen and passed a hurriedly scribbled note across me to William Dalrymple, one of the festival’s founders. Neither man made any effort to hide the missive, which read: “This one session alone was worth coming for.” I could not but agree.
Jaipur, however, is a festival. Not everything is so intense or somber. There is levity too, and merriment. One day Nadeem and I noticed a Mini Cooper on display, painted with author photos all around, and we simply could not resist snapping portraits of ourselves next to it. Over the next few days I found other friends who were also participating or attending: Authors, journalists, and of course, readers. If finding friends who live elsewhere is one great pleasure of a festival, then making new friends is the great reward.
The Jaipur festival is bewilderingly large, packed and noisy. The labyrinthine layout of the venue, Diggi Palace, was no help to someone with my poor sense of direction. There is no great harm in getting lost, except when one is on a panel, as there is always something fun to chance upon: Just stand in a saturated bliss with a clay pot of milky tea by the Front Lawn and catch snippets of chatter about who was ‘great’ or who was ‘awful.’ Or head for the bookstore, large for a temporary one, for that most cherished of comforts for the Jaipur crowd: Book browsing.
The event this year was as impressive in big-name billings as any other year, ranging from old stalwarts like Amartya Sen delivering new messages of reform, to Fox-famed Reza Aslan effortlessly stealing the show. At the DSC awards, Gloria Steinem gave one of the briefest and most generous guest speeches I have heard anywhere. The award, incidentally, was won by Cyrus Mistry, who has such a sweetly hapless quality about him — dropping eye-glasses and written notes on stage — that one simply cannot begrudge him.
One day I ran across Jonathan Franzen, in the courtyard that served as the Speaker’s Lounge. He is from St Louis, where I did my Master’s. So I could not resist bringing up The Twenty-Seventh City, his first novel about a fictional St. Louis. In a mid-90s American novel, he made the chief of police an Indian woman. Since his most recent work also features an Indian woman as a major character, I asked if he harbored any special fascination for India. He said that this was his first time to India, and added, “I believe in writing about places before one visits them.”
The festival always ends with a closing debate, which I was privileged to take part in this time. The topic: ‘Democracy Is The Worst Form of Government, Except all the Rest.’ The same Baithak Hall where I had listened to Guardiola-Rivera few days before was now packed in full defiance of all fire safety rules: Every seat and every inch of passageway and doorway was taken up by an eager-faced audience, notable for its youth. On stage the heavy-weights were BJP’s Murli Manohar Joshi, diplomat Pavan Varma and Aam Aadmi Party’s Shazia Ilmi, while fellow authors Peter Godwin, Indrajit Hazra and I tried to hold the flanks along with Lily Wangchhuk of Bhutan.
A young boy, surely no older than twelve, stood up to ask the venerable Mr. Joshi, “What is the reason for democracy?” The elderly politician’s response was as gracious as it was lengthy. There was no interest to cut short the little interlocutor or treat his simple — but fundamental — question lightly. Mr. Joshi ended by telling the boy, “It is for you. It is so that you can question me.” Deft handling by a seasoned politician, and when the audience was polled, virtually every hand went up in favor of democracy.
The moderator, one of Jaipur’s organizers Sanjoy Roy, rallied the crowd to loud cheers for freedom of speech. It’s easy to be jaded about festivals, or the many ‘gimmicks’ that mark them. But Roy has actually been arrested for remarks by visiting panelists. Multiple cases against the festival by retrograde quarters has done nothing to dampen his or other founders Namita Gokhale and William Dalrymple’s commitment to go on staging the feisty talks that this festival is famous for. Those who will criticize can never be dissuaded, but in a region where free speech is regularly under attack, every gathering of free-thinking people, braving it all to celebrate that freedom, matters above all.