India Uncut

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Monday, January 22, 2007

Poetry and Rushdie at the Jaipur Literature Festival

The Jaipur Literature Festival got over yesterday, and I can't help thinking what joy would have come if it had been like other Indian festivals. People could have been making bonfires of books. They could have burst firecrackers near authors. They could have fasted till sunset while reading. Perhaps they could all have thrown colours on each other in a literary kind of way, and then felt each other up with a poetic air. Maybe they could have formed a procession, carried some books to immerse in the sea, and molested everyone in the way. That's what Indian festivals can sometimes turn into, but I'm glad to report that this one was somewhat more dignified.

My primary reason for coming here was not to hobnob with the literati, who seem to hold bloggers in some kind of amiable contempt, but to hang out with friends, which I duly did. Jai, Chandrahas, Space Bar and Nilanjana were great company, and the last named gave us some great litty gossip about, ahem, and, um, you know. (No, Ahem and Um You Know did not sleep with each other, but fought over a word. Writers!)

I was also hoping to catch a couple of good sessions on writing, and I wasn't disappointed. There was an enthralling session on the first day on the poetry of Dom Moraes, Nissim Ezekiel and Arun Kolatkar, with Jeet Thayil, Keki Daruwala and Jane Bhandari discussing their work and reading from it. I don't understand poetry, but I did read it avidly in my college days, and it was nice to be reminded of things I used to like but had forgotten. ("My backward place is where I am." Such beauty.) Poetry and pretentiousity often go together, but much of this session was magical.

The second day featured a memorable session in which Suketu Mehta chatted with William Dalrymple. Mehta unleashed wisecracks with a practised ease, and spoke at length about Vidhu Vinod Chopra and his many wives, showing us photographs he had secretly taken at Chopra's place in a fascinating slideshow. Well, ok, he didn't -- I made that up. As Parveen Babi once said, "The fun lies not in the world, but in the imagination. Amitabh is Satan."

On the third day, there was a double dose of Salman Rushdie, who was magnificent. First, in a press conference that will no doubt be reported in much detail, he lambasted Outlook and the Hindustan Times for their shoddy reportage of his visit, and for getting facts wrong. Then he spoke about books, and writing, and the state of the world, and so on. He responded to the usual banal questions with good humour, and such wit flowed that I'm sure even the tabloid reporters there forgot about the non-appearance of Mrs Rushdie.

He was even better in the evening, when he chatted with Barkha Dutt and said shortly after it started:

"Chhagan Bhujbal is an asshole."

Reporters: "Sir, can we quote you on that?"

Rushdie: "Yes!"

And then he went on to tell us about about Bhujbal's pride in being racist and fascist, and how he had a green telephone that looked like a frog and croaked when a call came, and how Bhujbal would then become a man talking to a frog. "How can you hate a man who is talking to a little, green frog?"

At one stage Barkha Dutt, who seems to come at everything through the prism of her politics and her preconceptions, told him that all his novels were political in nature. Rushdie denied this: "You feel that way because you're a political person." He then went on to speak about how novels should preserve the space of the personal, and insulate it from the politics all around. I have always felt that only bad art can have an overt political agenda -- expressed by Milan Kundera quite superbly, so go read him -- and that while a novel can have politics as part of its backdrop or context, its central concern should be, as my good friend Jai would say after a ponderousness alert, the human condition.

Rushdie also took apart the media. I don't remember his exact words -- one hopes they are reported in full by the reporters present -- but Barkha at one stage asked him how he would feel if the media stopped writing about him completely. Thus amused Rushdie. "Why don't you try it?" he said. The audience roared.

Sadly, Rushdie's brilliant session ended in a reading, as he read out a bit from Shalimar the Clown, and I was reminded again of why I do not like his novels: His wordplay is often excessive and gratuitous, and gets in the way of the narrative. Indeed, I never cease to be surprised that a man with such a remarkable mind can engage in adoloscent linguistic gymnastics. Still, that is a matter of personal taste, and maybe there's something wrong with me.

I leave Jaipur later today, and arrive back in Mumbai on Tuesday afternoon. Blogging shall probably be light, as I will be travelling. Be good!

Update (January 23): Jai reproduces some quotes from Rushdie about God, Neo-Gothic architecture, ham sandwiches and much else. And here's an interview of Rushdie by Barkha Dutt from just before this event -- not the one that I've written about.

Update 2 (January 23): More from Jai.

Update 3 (January 23): Nilanjana writes about the Diggi Palace. And reproduces some of Rushdie's conversation with Barkha Dutt.
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