I have always wanted to go a literary festival (it’s struck off my To-Do list now). Just the idea of literary and festival put together intrigues me and makes me curious if such an amalgamation is truly possible. Arguably, the Jaipur Literature Festival is one of the most popular and sought after fests that people throng to every year since it began in 2008. A trip to Jaipur from Mumbai can be heavy on your pocket, given the sheer distance between the two cities. But I’m traveling on low-budget this time, which can be both fun and challenging. The fun part comes from the amusement of having survived on low cash; the challenge, of course, is how to manage in a cash-strapped situation. But the company of a woman with entrepreneurial skills helps immensely. And so with our little baggages of clothes and confidence, we head to Jaipur to be one of the many audiences this year of the JLF.
We’re fashionably late in our arrival. Late not just in terms of our train running behind schedule but also in terms of the lit fest that started a day before. But we know there are plenty of things lined up for the next couple of days. Our priority first is to make sure a roof above our head and one that doesn’t burn a hole in our pockets. The Dharamshala came to our rescue. With the tariff being as low as Rs.180 per night, we figure we have enough to splurge on other extravagances. We celebrate by having a wonderfully sumptuous brunch—mooli paratha and some masala maggi to go with it. We frown at the dripping oil but that’s the price you pay for taste apparently.
We decide to head to the venue to briefly figure out what the jazz is all about and make our plans accordingly. There’s a session on depiction of women in Bollywood that I want to attend, due to begin in a few minutes. After much negotiation with auto drivers (we pretend we’re pros and know the route by heart…of course we don’t and the only thing we’ve figured from Google map is that Jaipur is circular in its topography), we reach Diggi Palace. As a huge crowd ushers inside, I am forced to wonder if all of them really are literary enthusiasts or is the large number a result of the fact the entry is free at JLF. Whatever the case may be, an audience makes an event successful, right?
We head to the Front Lawns for the session only to find it occupied. There’s barely enough space to stand. We listen for a few minutes until we decide to explore the venue further and come back if we hear something interesting. A discussion on Munni badnam and Fevicol isn’t too pleasing anyway. There’s colour everywhere. In the shamiyana, in the tents, in the turbans some ushers wear, in the stalls that sell indigenous items and handicrafts. We explore the “festival” part of the lit fest as we window-shop stalls (most of which are way beyond our budget even if we were unhappily employed). As I hover around, I absorb each face in the crowd. There are familiar faces—some I have seen before, some I’m trying hard to remember where and some I most definitely wish to avoid. I eavesdrop at conversations. I hear someone nudging a friend to buy her that exclusive junk jewellery at display. Rs. 1500, I make a mental note. Another complains her Ray Ban shades broke this morning and she’s really upset about it. That’s about Rs. 3,000, screams my oh-so-bourgeois brain. An old lady says she’s looking forward to getting her book autographed by Ms. Shobha De as she adjusts her Van Heusen bag. Is that from Khan Market, I wonder. I look at my own innocent bag (a gift from a friend who attended the Kabir Festival in Mumbai) and smile in amusement. I suck at math but I’m quick as a cat when it comes to such calculations. Well, I revel in my duplicity.
As the sun sets, the weather gets cold(er). I realize I have been divorced from Delhi winters for three years now and hence lost touch with it completely. I regret not having worn my socks as I shiver around food stalls that refuse to sell any appetizing item for less than Rs. 100. Math again. Damn! V and I decide to “indulge” in some pasta. Mediocre quality, meagre quantity. We are left craving for more. We head back as we have a long day tomorrow—quite a few interesting sessions lined up. We stop by at a shopping complex (the one we made a note of while on our way to Diggi in the afternoon) and hunt for something “Jaipuri”. It isn’t exactly a flea market but at least there is scope for bargaining—an art V is so much better at. She purchases a couple of colourful shawls and a Jaipuri block print cotton sari for me. I’m already excited to wear it. Before heading back to our Dharamshala, we stop at the roadside omelette guy to put our unsatisfied stomachs to rest. Our night ends with a “Regular Thali” (Rs.40) consisting of chapatis, dal and aloo. We crib about the oil again as we snuggle inside our blankets for the night in the hope we aren’t bitten by bed bugs. And we’re spared the horror! :->
Day 2 for us is pretty jammed. We have a couple of sessions to attend today and I’m looking forward to hear Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak speak. It’s a session entitled ‘Rogues, Reviewers and Critics’. Quite an experience to hear them talk and debate. I make notes as a diligent audience trying hard to remember all the literary criticism I studied in my graduating years. It feels like a million years ago. We then head to a session on ‘The Language of Literature’ and I’m enthralled by some of the points that Ambai makes. I wish my mother were here to hear her speak. As a reader and admirer of Tamil literature, she would have been mesmerized. As the session ends, the announcer states that the venue for the session by Rahul Dravid has now been changed. My heart skips a beat as those words sink in. That Dravid is going to be here was completely off my imagination and expectation. I barely noticed that in the four-day event schedule. I have no idea how I missed it. I decide I have to attend the next one; there’ no way I can miss it.
V and I head outside Diggi to hunt for food. We barely have a map or location in mind as we board the cycle rickshaw to the nearest “circle”. We turn into typical dogs as we sniff melted butter and cheese. It’s perhaps one of the most arousing smells ever for me, personally. We stop at Jaipur Hot Breads—a discovery worth cherishing. It’s a land of butter, cheese, cake, pies, breads, garlic and cookies. It’s paradise for V and me. We hog like pigs as our stomachs dance in ecstasy. I’m more energetic than ever to “meet” Dravid now. To avoid the rush, we decide to reach the venue a good 30 minutes in advance. Of course, in this process, we forget that we belong to a cricket crazy nation. As we head to the front lawns, we spot around 30,000 people already awaiting the session to start. My heart sinks.
V, unlike me, doesn’t give up so easily. We fight our way through the crowd and manage to grab enough space for us to sit on the ground and leer at whoever comes on the stage. It’s not just Dravid but joining him is yesteryear’s actor Sharmila Tagore, cricket critic and historian Suresh Menon and journalist Rajdeep Sardesai. Who cares? I can’t stop staring at Mr. Dravid. The session is quite lively, though completely diverted from the topic that was to be discussed in the first place. I don’t mind that as (personal) questions are directed at Dravid on his life after retirement. It’s as if someone fixed a hanger inside my mouth: I can’t stop smiling. As the session ends and people hog him for an autograph, I wonder if I should get one, too. I decide against it for two reasons. One, I believe I shall interview him some day. Two, I’m not sure how useful his signature would be. What would I do with a piece of paper that has RD’s sign on it? Why would I want anyone’s signature for that matter? (unless on a blank cheque, of course)
With such stream of thoughts, I stand outside the ladies bathroom with V’s bag as I wait for her to return. Maybe I’d be interested in getting a writer’s autograph, I continue to muse. I’d definitely be interested to look at a writer’s handwriting. That would be thrilling, I infer. Lost in these thoughts, a woman with a very familiar face asks the way to the loo. I direct her as I stare at her with my piercing eyes. I leer at her face for over three minutes before I finally manage to speak.
“Do I know you? You look very familiar and I have a feeling I have seen this face before.”
“I doubt that. I’m a writer.”
And I know it right then. She is Meena Kandasamy, a writer whose works I have closely followed, admired, read out to friends, forwarded to acquaintances and relentlessly pursued on social networking sites after being in awe of her poetry and her writing. It’s hard to believe it’s her. I had always imagined her taller in my petite bourgeois brain. We talk for about five minutes. I request for her autograph. She obliges. I’m overwhelmed. V pulls me away as I contemplate what just happened.
We head to Johri bazaar for our much-needed city outing. It’s a colourful lane of artisans, masons, goldsmiths, silversmiths and roadside shops for stationary and anything fancy. Apart from jewellery, almost everything else interests my eye. Both V and I share a common love for books and stationary. While books are getting expensive, stationary is no far behind. Nevertheless, we do end up buying a bunch of notebooks made of hand-made paper (called ‘Bahi’) that look absolutely stunning. We’re happy with our purchase and I mentally visualize my monthly pass-book that has no space for credit and has all the space in the world for debit.
Day 3 is highly “literary”. William Darlymple, Jason Burke, Kishwar Desai, Sandip Roy, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Amit Chaudhuri, Anjum Hasan, K R Indira and Pavan Verma, to name a few (I’m too tired to hyperlink all these names. Kindly Google, oh curious soul!).
It’s a lot to take a single day. From talks on writing about love and longing to historical trajectory of a now war-torn Afghanistan to re-imagining the Kama Sutra: our poor brains are saturated. Tomorrow is the last day of the fest but we decide to give it a miss. We are yet to do some tourist-y stuff: visit the Hawa Mahal.
The palace is an experience in itself. It’s a paradise for those interested in historical architecture and photography. As I click pictures from any and every possible angle that my humble cell phone allows, I promise myself I’ll be back in this city again to explore more of its colours and not just pink. :- )