Having spent a few hours at my first Jaipur Literature Festival, I’m very sure of two things. One, having walked into a loo at the precise moment when Tina Brown was in it – hey, she shouldn’t have kept the doors parted and unlatched – my chances of landing a gig with The Daily Beast are, shall we say, limited. Two, if there’s a brown author from the subcontinent whose writing you like, you should make sure that there is no way on earth you ever hear them speak (unless it’s me, naturally; but don’t worry, my publisher will make sure no such occasion ever arises). Especially if they’re in conversation with a smart non-brown person.
At the Jaipur Literature Festival, many of the luminaries were foreign writers and journalists. The ones I saw were all fabulous and matching their lovesomeness was the baffling ineptitude of the South Asian moderators, particularly the Indians. I know moderating is not easy but honestly, if the Indian moderators could relax and/or evince just a little more curiosity about the panelists, rather than being entirely focussed on showcasing how cool they themselves are, the sessions would have been so much better. And for heaven’s sake, stop slouching in the chair. I’m not sure if it’s got something to do with the balance of melanin in our skin but one lick of fame and Indian literary figures seem to become poncy, silly or boring. The actor Rahul Bose, being a man of special skills, managed to be all three while chatting with director Stephen Frears but fortunately we have not yet reached that stage at which Bose is considered literary. Omair Ahmad, whose A Storyteller’s Tale I liked so much, proved to be one of those annoying people who loves the sound of his own voice and talks in incomprehensible sentences so that he can keep talking for as long as possible. Under the pretext of asking the charming Niall Ferguson a question, Ahmad would mummify his audience with his unending observations uttered in a weird almost-American accent. Ugh. I’m not sure this was better than having to see Basharat Peer moderate a session with Steve Coll, Lawrence Wright and Max Rodenbeck. Peer had about as much expression and insight as a piece of driftwood that has been fossilised for centuries and then dropped in a vat of chloroform. But I suppose he deserves brownie points for at least keeping his fumbling questions short. And almost 24 hours later, I still can’t get over the fact that Shazia Omar, who wrote Like A Diamond In The Sky and incidentally had a close shave on 9/11, sounds like a Valley girl. While introducing Lawrence Wright, she described how she got away from the World Trade Centre before it collapsed and then said of 9/11, “It was, like, a life-changing moment for me. Really, it was a really big moment.” No shit, Sherlock.
But never mind these people or the fact that this year the Jaipur Literature Festival was, as someone neatly put it, “like a college fest with famous and/or randy 40-somethings”. I had an amazing time bounding from tent to tent and listening to some absolutely awesome people. And now that I’ve got most of the rant off my chest, over the course of the week I’ll put up the notes I took at the sessions that I could attend.