Jaipur

Mar. 12th, 2010 12:40 pm
marjorieinchina: (Boffin)
[personal profile] marjorieinchina
So after I went to Shanghai I returned to Quzhou, taught for a couple more weeks, said some good-byes, and left for India.

This was a long trip, because as it turns out, Asia is really big, and two countries that are both in Asia can still be far away. I spent a super-awesome night in the Mumbai airport and eventually got to Jaipur, where I collected my luggage and got into a taxi and then sat in the backseat staring dumbly out at the autorickshaws and camels and signs in Hindi and women in saris until I was dropped at my hotel.

I spent a good part of that day resting until my dear friend Sam, who lives in India and whom I hadn't seen for three and a half years, showed up at the hotel and we COMMENCED ADVENTURES. First Sam took me along to lunch with her publishers, including a German who knew someone from Red Wing. (I could not adequately convey to him how crazy this was.) Then we went to a place called, I think, Albert Hall (Sam and I could not associate this with anyone except Prince Albert, but it was apparently named after a *different* English person from colonial times) and saw a bunch of cool statuary, plus some dumb-looking fake classical statuary. Then Sam's aunt arrived and we all went to a book launch party in a candlelit garden surrounded by people speaking at least three different languages. So, you know. Pretty run-of-the-mill stuff.

For the five days we were in Jaipur, we stayed in a beautiful little guesthouse, sort of midcentury colonial with a lot of historical fragments on the walls including an army commission signed by King George V.

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We had breakfast there in the mornings, eggs and toast and marmalade and pots of chai, and then went out to the street to hail an auto-rickshaw and haggle for an acceptable fare to Diggi Palace, where the Jaipur Literature Festival was being held.

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Part of the festival venue, in the morning when there weren't crowds of people there yet.


I didn't know this, but the Jaipur Lit Fest is a big deal. Here is one news story about it, and here is another. That's from the US: the more local press, including the Times of India, was all Jaipur Lit Fest, all the time. Sam and her aunt and I appeared on the front page of a Hindi-language paper in Jaipur, in a photograph where we were all craning our necks to stare up at Girish Karnad. Sadly, I failed to find a copy of this newspaper to buy.

I was probably predisposed to enjoy this event because 1) it was in English, 2) people were talking about books, 3) I was hanging out with Sam, and 4) it was my first time in India. So it all kind of ran together, the little terracotta cups of chai and the brightly colored tents and the literary megastars all over the place and the flawless weather and the conversations about mythology and class and Jane Austen. It was just a big gobsmackingly cool five-day-long swirl of events. I didn't take all that many photos, but I took a lot of notes.

The days were full up of literature: usually three panels in the morning and three in the afternoon. Mostly these were conversations between a moderator and one or more authors, with Q&A sessions at the end that ranged from interested to impassioned to diametrically opposed. The crowd was highly mixed--Indian (which itself is a mixed group), Pakistani, a lot of British visitors and expats, a couple of notable speakers originally from Africa, the queen mother of Bhutan...There weren't many Americans, so I still stuck out when I opened my mouth, but the diversity of the crowd was both a shock and a treat after a few months in China.

At lunch and dinner time there was an extravagant spread of local Rajasthani food. Sometimes we ate here and sometimes went outside the festival venue for food, although wherever we went there were people who were obviously also Lit Fest attendees. At night, there was music! Wonderful music. Rajasthani folk music with dancers. Susheela Raman, who was glorious. William Dalrymple reading from his latest book, with Bhoul singers accompanying. On the last night there was Italian food. We had, by this time, three delegate passes left to us by publishers who'd been exhibiting but had left the festival early. Delegates get their meals free (or pre-paid), so we used the three passes to get refills of middling red wine and rather horrid sparkling white wine and heaping plates of Italian food that we shared--me and Sam and her aunt and some cousins and two French guys who'd let us share their table. I pointed out later that, according to script, they really should have been the ones offering food and drink, but sobeit, we broke script. In related news, I'm happy to report I can still speak some French.

There were more speakers than I could possibly write about. I couldn't resist writing about a bunch of them anyway, although I'm aware that "listening to writers speak in India" is perhaps a bit distant from the "teaching in China" theme of the blog. Click through to read the long version of the entry, which consists of me being a huge nerd:

Wole Soyinka was there. He was astonishing. His poetry was of the sort that when I listened to it I couldn't repeat back a single line, but the effect of the reading was powerfully hypnotic. (When staging his plays, he apparently sometimes has actors who actually do go into a trance and need to be carried off the stage.) I really want to track down more of his poetry, but there's a risk that if I do, I might never accomplish anything again besides reading Wole Soyinka's poetry.

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Alexander McCall Smith, seen here speaking with William Dalrymple, is just an astonishingly pleasant person. His capacity to make himself laugh is really rather admirable, as is his ridiculously prolific writing. You can't see it in this picture, but there was a peacock sitting in a tree above the stage.

William Dalrymple, as one of the organizers of the festival, was everywhere. Until I went to Jaipur I would have recognized his name but couldn't have told you who he was. Then I went to at least half a dozen panels moderated by or including him and I came away from the festival feeling curiously familiar with William Dalrymple, particularly his sense of humor, which cropped up equally in discussions of detective fiction, imperial history, and human rights.

Niall Ferguson was one of the headliners of the festival, and the panel on his book The Ascent of Money was jammed to the rafters. I watched it on a screen, from the overflow seating outdoors. I can't decide whether the impression I got of Ferguson came down more on the "impressively clever" or "ridiculously arrogant" side of the scale. The guy's a big fan of his own opinions.

WE INTERRUPT THIS PARADE OF SCOTS TO BRING YOU: Ayaan Hirsi Ali!

Ali was a last-minute surprise addition to the roster, mostly (I think) because she lives under a fatwa and so it is understandably dangerous for her to travel internationally. I'm afraid I'll misrepresent Hirsi Ali's positions if I try to summarize them. Suffice to say that she is a former Muslim and a critic of Islam, a collaborator of the assassinated Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, and she inhabits a very sore and awkward spot in the public conversation of our time. The panel and the question-and-answer session stayed extremely civil without any obfuscation or stepping aside from touchy questions, a feat I would like I see pulled off more frequently. Hirsi Ali has a long and thoroughly footnoted Wikipedia page but I'd rather link to this profile by Johann Hari.

Weirdly, after all this seriousness, the scoop on Ayaan Hirsi Ali was that she and Niall Ferguson are dating. Sam figured this out before the Times of India did, so props to Sam, as she will get no other public credit for her deductions.

I saw Claire Tomalin speak twice, and she was conspicuously brilliant both times. Now that I'm back in China, I wish I had bought one of Tomalin's biographies to bring with me. I want to learn more about the "meritocratic" Austen family! I want more simply-stated but conspicuously intelligent insights like the one Tomalin offered about Elizabeth Bennett (namely, that what she's really good at is refusing people, and so the story of Pride and Prejudice provides a way for Elizabeth to refuse her way into a happy ending). Also, it turns out that Claire Tomalin and Michael Frayn are married. Who knew? (Besides those who read jacket-flap bios.) Michael Frayn was there too.

On the first night there was a reading of scenes from Girish Karnad's play Tughluq, about a 14th-century Muslim sultan. That was remarkable--not even a staged reading, simply Karnad and two very-distinguished-actors-whose-names-I-don't-remember, sitting on the stage, presenting the story of a 14th-century Muslim sultan as he had his stepmother and a holy man killed.

Vikram Chandra spoke about, among other things, current neurological research into readers' responses to texts. The moderator for that panel thought this was terrifying, but Chandra spoke very sensibly and persuasively about it as a way for him, as a writer, to get interested in literary studies again: "If I'm excited about the last 2 pages I've written, and I run over and show it to my wife, I don't want her to do a Marxist analysis, I want to hear what she was feeling as she was reading it."

There was a whole series of readings in Indian languages, which I didn't realize until i stumbled into one, thinking I would just go listen to some poetry. The fact that I was the only white person in that tent possibly should have tipped me off, but it did not, until the moderator started speaking in a language I'm going to assume was Hindi and I slipped out again.

Andrew O'Hagan gave a lecture on the morning of the last day, called "The Power of Literature," which was part autobiography and part a clarion call to books. I loved it completely. The passage I copied out of the festival program does not convey the humor of the talk, but gets at the heart of the matter:
Literature is not Lifestyle--it is Life. Literature is the longest and purest memory of who we are. We do not read to pass the time but to inhabit time.

Amit Chaudhuri gave a beautiful reading and spoke engagingly about how reading Eudora Welty and Susan Sontag taught him to write about place and ordinariness, which made me want to read his books. Then he asked cynical questions after Andrew O'Hagan's closing address, which made me not want to read his books.


The last session I went to was with Vikram Chandra and Alexander McCall Smith, discussing detective fiction. They were having such a nice time talking to each other I was quite sorry to leave, but Sam and I had to slip out to catch the car to the bus station, even though the bus was late. On the ride to Delhi I found I had no space left in my brain to allow for reading, so I looked out the window at India passing by instead and chewed over the previous five days' conversations. This is a process I am nowhere near completing.

Date: 2010-03-12 01:00 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ellenneithernor.livejournal.com
I am SO jealous about that book festival! It sounds amazing.

Date: 2010-03-12 06:14 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] route52.livejournal.com
This sounds utterly enchanting. If it's enchanting to read about it, it must have been positively exquisite to experience it. Jealous!

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