The Indian Litfest Bug

It can get you via email, bring you up close to writers you wouldn’t drink or piss with, and even send you into a fever of writing a book on litfests

VS Naipaul (centre) with Vikram Seth (left) and Amitav Ghosh at the first International Festival of Indian Literature in Neemrana, held in February 2002. MANISH SWARUP / AP PHOTO
01 February, 2012

I LOST MY LITERARY-FESTIVAL VIRGINITY almost a decade ago when, at the poor Indian taxpayers’ expense, I was summoned to the International Festival of Indian Literature at Neemrana in Rajasthan. It was the first Kumbh Mela of literary gatherings, the mother-of-all literary fests, which inaugurated the venerable tradition of tantrum-throwing before the eyes of the national media, and pioneered—and this is no mean achievement—the bringing together of writers who wouldn’t be caught drinking, or even pissing, together.

I may sound critical, but don’t be mistaken—I was thrilled to have been invited. I had written only one academic book at the time; it had been reviewed in Outlook magazine, but even I couldn’t understand what the review was saying. The invitation to the festival made me think I could now become one of those people who roams the circuit—and, this being in the days before Facebook, claim a famous writer as my friend.

The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in Delhi wanted to celebrate the Nobel Prize that had been awarded to VS Naipaul. I was still jetlagged from my flight from New York when we were taken by bus to Vigyan Bhawan for a reception: I shook hands with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who wore industrial-size hearing aids and thick socks that climbed up toward his dhoti. Perhaps the prime minister was jetlagged, too, because I saw that he had fallen asleep before I had let go of his hand.

In the bus, I was seated in front of Amitav Ghosh and Vikram Seth. Unashamedly, I eavesdropped on their conversation about the merits of Arundhati Roy’s activism. Roy had just published an essay in which she had said that “writer-activist”, the term used to describe her, always made her flinch. She wanted to know why the novel she had written had earned her the title of a “writer”, while the nonfiction only garnered the phrase “activist”. The subject of discussion in the seat behind me was a recent court injunction against Roy. Seth was incensed by it. He kept saying to Ghosh, “I’m not a political person, but this…” Was this the beginning of a serious argument about literature and politics? If it was, it was the last such conversation I heard for the rest of the festival.

The diplomat who headed the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, our official host at Neemrana, was a nice sort but treated us like schoolchildren. A rash of Indian bureaucrats are now authors. It doesn’t bode well, in my opinion. Our host wasn’t a closeted writer, thank God, and was merely satisfied to regard the whole lot of us as delinquents. The writer Ruchir Joshi—maybe this was a critical postmodern antic on his part—was happy to oblige. But the most petulant schoolchild at the festival was VS Naipaul. He accused the American ambassador’s wife of a severe lack of intelligence and requested that she leave the table where dinner was being served. On the last day, Naipaul erupted once again. When Nayantara Sahgal bemoaned the sins of colonialism, he interrupted her, shouting, “My life is short. I can’t listen to banalities. Banalities irritate me.”

Banalities irritate me, too, but if you are so averse to them, you ought to stay away from literary festivals. And besides, not all banalities are created equal. The first year that I went to the Jaipur Literature Festival, I was given the honour of engaging in a public conversation with my early hero, Hanif Kureishi. Hanif is a writer of clean sentences; he has a dry wit, and isn’t afraid to be perverse or provocative. He also speaks just the way he writes, his utterances coming out clothed in elegant perfection, their hair gelled. He was in fine form that morning but quite unprepared for what, best as I can recall, was the very first question from the audience: “Mr Kureishi, are you circumcised?”

That was good, very good, in fact, and amused everyone. Much better than questions like, “Sir, how many books have you read?” that had been posed to me the previous day after my own panel. I’m calling such statements banalities but I quite appreciate their directness and honesty. It’s important to know where these questions are coming from. The man with the pressing inquiry about Hanif’s foreskin really wanted to ask about Muslim identity; his own grandson, the questioner explained, had recently been circumcised. Why should young children undergo this trauma? Of course, we might want to ask why anyone would consider writers a source of great wisdom on such worldly matters: what exactly makes someone who does nothing but spend a lot of time alone in front of their computer uniquely qualified to answer questions about violent conflicts, or stubborn social customs, or world historical changes?

Still, every time I’ve been to Jaipur, schoolchildren come up to me and ask me for my autograph—and not because they recognise me. They haven’t read my books, they don’t know who I am, they are uncertain even about my name. Yet, I’m glad they find the abstract idea of a writer engaging. So, when I sign my name, I always write in their notebooks, “Read every day. Write every day.” Maybe next time, I’ll keep some cheap paperbacks in my bag and hand them out for the kids to take home and read.

In fact, a little literary activism of that sort might alleviate a nagging anxiety that strikes me at every such gathering. There are so many terrific writers and so little time to hear them all, and my dominant emotion at festivals is a feeling of distracted haste; it’s as if I have a plane to catch. You’ve just landed late on Pamuk Airlines, but then Junot Jet is about to depart in a few minutes, and you are going to really have to hurry and hop a few crowded concourses to catch Air Coetzee. I usually surrender and just slip into the café to have a tea and waste time: this aloneness is closer to the experience of reading a book.

Last year at Jaipur, however, I wasn’t granted much time to waste according to my wishes, as I was part of a jury for a prize. I reread three of the books on the shortlist and, sitting in my hotel room, agonised about my choices. There was wine when we met. One of the judges passed on the wine, saying that her stomach was cramping. At which point one of our colleagues became concerned and, pushing his wine glass aside, asked, “Is it that time of the month?”

I needed to get out. Finally I had the chance when my friend Akhil Sharma took me to the market in the car he had been provided by the American Embassy. His wife had told him of a jewellery store that was located in a small haveli amidst a warren of narrow, twisting streets. The haveli had been built by a Rajasthani nobleman who was a financial adviser in the Mughal court. I had to buy jewellery for my wife. I couldn’t decide between two pieces—a pair of gold-emerald earrings, and a beautiful Kundan necklace—and Akhil advised that I should buy both. Addressing me in a gentle tone, he said one should not ever have regrets in matters of love. Akhil was smiling serenely, and I did as he said, and he, clearly more secure in his love, didn’t buy anything.

Just last month, I was in India, visiting my parents, but I went to Goa just to sneak in a little more than a day at the literary festival there. Now, only a few weeks later, I’m anxiously waiting for a visa to return to India. I’ve been invited to Jaipur. You might think I have a literary festival problem. Every time an announcement wafts into my inbox, the craving begins. But rather than checking into rehab, I’ve decided to make this matter a subject of artistic investment. This is now my research. For the past year or two I have been writing a novel, and the narrator, in a section I was working on yesterday, is attending a literary festival in India:

After the panel had done its work, I went looking for a toilet. This place used to be a palace, but there isn’t a decent bathroom to take a leak. I wandered into a courtyard where men sitting on their haunches around a fire were cooking food in huge vats. The literary festival, it is now confirmed, is like a Hindu wedding. Under a cement peacock, over a dark doorway, I found a welcoming pink curtain stirring in the breeze. This is the room I was looking for. Except that the person standing over the urinal, his hands and eyes focused on a hidden point below, was Niall Ferguson. What was Niall Ferguson doing in India? This is what had happened while I had been gone from the country: India had changed behind my back. There were now huge literary festivals held here, and colonialism had become a respectable word again.