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Literary Show-down

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Is the Jaipur Literature Festival, once the mecca for both authors and serious readers seeking meaningful intellectual interactions, losing its purpose and meaning? It used to be a confluence of literary talents where attendees bought into the democratic system that prevails at the festival. In fact, at a session held in one of the previous years, J.M. Coetzee performed a book reading for an audience of about 3,000 people, and not a single cell phone rang the entire time. But today, the scenario is characterised by complete chaos; phones, notebooks, iPads are intrusively in the faces of the celebrities who chose to come to Jaipur hoping to interact with their fans. The festival, largely, resembles a sea of teeming human beings seeking to gawk at celebrity authors. Quite presumably, they read about these authors in the media and then head to the festival with the sole purpose of clicking photographs and asking insane questions. At one of the sessions of a celebrated fiction writer, one of the audience members actually had the temerity to suggest that now that the author was successful he should stop writing love stories and focus on serious issues since he was now a brand. Needless to say, the author was flummoxed.

Despite the organisers' best efforts to put on a good show, many sessions did not yield anything tangible. Often participants repeated themselves. Amy Chua, for instance, had three sessions in one day — the third being with Abhijit Banerjee, the co-author of Poor Economics since she is a professor of law. During her solo sessions, Chua essentially reiterated everything she had said ever since she set foot in the festival and in her interviews to the press. However, in her defense, what could she have done? Nobody wanted to talk about her first book,  World On Fire, which was also a best-seller and it was evident that no one had actually read her latest book on parenting, Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother, because all questions directed towards her stemmed from the excerpt that The Wall Street Journal had published as opposed to what her book was about. Thus, by the end of it all she was defensive, peeved and justifiably so.

Avenues Of Change
It is apparent now that the JLF has overstayed its welcome at the Diggi Palace. The event has grown exponentially over the years and currently reached a footfall that ranges in thousands. Diggi Palace can only accommodate people in hundreds. Consequently, crowd management has become a mammoth task. Every session is overcrowded to the extent that the media is virtually confined to the Press Terrace where the authors eventually land up for interactions. Many serious readers are stuck outside the tents (where sessions are held) and the lack of big video screens deprives them of the opportunity to participate in the interaction that takes place post discussions. Some authors are so put off by the maddening crowd that they retreat to their respective guesthouses and often have to be sincerely cajoled into coming back to the venue. Some just do not. This is a great loss to readers and fans who come to talk to their favourite writers. Gone are those days when one could stroll out to the front lawns and have a cup of coffee with Fatima Bhutto or William Dalrymple. Nowadays the better part of one's time at the festival is spent in trying to grab seats and tweeting about breathing the same air as a famous author. Somewhere the festival is also clueless about where to host which session. Time and again, Gulzar's and Prasoon Joshi's sessions attract thousands of people. But the organisers still insist on placing them in small areas and then cancelling the discussion and ultimately shifting the session to a larger venue; which often leads to near stampede situations.

O For Over The Top
Then there was Oprah and the great hype that surrounded her. People who can barely spell her name, let alone have any knowledge about her achievements and controversies, thronged the venue when her session was in progress. There were school children, college students, a section of the local population as well as foreign tourists and the usual literary glitterati that lined up from six in the morning to catch a glimpse of Oprah Winfrey. This scenario defied Suhel Seth's logic that Oprah is only an elitist symbol. The session in itself was really tame and nothing like the shows she is famous for conducting. The questions came from a moderator who was overwhelmed by the persona of her guest. So they were about issues such as how she got Barack Obama elected as the president. Honestly? Does the American public have no mind of its own and follows what Oprah dictates blindly? Don't get me wrong, I have followed Oprah's shows from the age of 15 and admire a lot of things about her. But if I had her on my couch, as my guest, I would have delved deep into her life and vision and tried to peel the layers off the hype and halo. But the session at the festival seemed like a well-orchestrated show wherein the guest waxed eloquent about how she had brought about changes in everything that she had touched: American politics, Indian widows or the education system in Africa. So much for investigative journalism, posterity and literary idealism. And so much for the Oprah Discourse — as a colleague of mine put it: it is all about being able to tell your peer group that you were there even if what you heard or gauged were some fuzzy photos of the esteemed lady in Indian attire.

An analysis of JLF will be incomplete if it does not touch upon the Salman Rushdie issue. The lesser mortals at the festival were not privy to what actually led to the cancellation for his trip. One's frank submission is that it was the greed for 15 minutes of fame that led certain authors to read the passages from The Satanic Verses, putting the organisers in a sticky situation. Finally, here is what needs to be done to rescue the festival from mass hysteria: charge an entry fee, move to a bigger venue and emphasise on inviting a quality audience rather than random crowds.