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.