Since the inception of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) in 2006, Namita Gokhale has acquired prominence as the director of the event that is held annually in January in Rajasthan.
For five days, writers of every hue, agents, publishers, celebrities, representatives of world media and giant crowds descend on the Diggi Palace, a haveli turned into a heritage hotel, to participate in the festival.
With its 13th edition this year, JLF has grown to be the world’s biggest such event, a 21st-century cultural phenomenon that, inspite of its achievements, has been associated with controversies.
The free entry has allowed the festival to grow a sixth finger and acquire a carnivalesque atmosphere. It has become the hangout for local fun-seekers—Instagrammers, autograph-hunters, shoppers, and those who are simply there to ogle (ladki taadna).
To its credit, the festival has managed to retain its essential focus—on writers and writing—while catering to both high and popular culture.
These twin themes are at the heart of Gokhale’s latest novel Jaipur Journals: A love Letter to the Greatest Literary Show on Earth.
Though Gokhale has authored 18 works of fiction and non-fiction, she is best remembered for her 1984 debut work, Paro: Dreams of Passion, about a shrewd, sharp-tongued and feisty heroine.
Reviled by some for being sexually explicit, the novel for all its entertaining, gossipy style was an incisive social commentary.
In Jaipur Journals, we encounter a ripened version of the same—witty writing, keen observation, as well as another kind of ‘bad girl’.
This is Rudrani Rana, an elderly spinster who goes to the JLF for the third time, armed with two canvas bags and a 1,35,000-word-long manuscript that has been in progress forever.
‘Only the first line has never been changed or revised: “My body remains a haunted house”.’ Rudrani also has a penchant for sending cruel anonymous notes, ‘truth letters’ to those who are unfortunate enough to provoke her dislike.
A self-styled ‘troglodyte’—a word she acquired from attending a session featuring Shashi Tharoor—Rudrani personifies the quirks as well as the peculiar loneliness of writers and the heartbreak that goes into the writing of one’s first novel.
‘She was in the shadow of every line, of every vexed question, every hope and despair and consolation.’
With its action spread over five days, Jaipur Journals expertly decodes the festival for us. Using a varied cast of lifelike characters—a child prodigy, a graphic artist, a Spanish poet, an American writer looking for her vanished youth in India—it offers insights into onstage events and offstage stories.
The most interesting of backstories is that of a cat burglar-turned-Urdu poet, Raju Srivastava, who adopts the pen name Betaab.
We learn that his career suffered a severe blow when demonetisation made the loot acquired in the biggest heist of his life redundant. Betaab is at the festival for two reasons.
‘One was to meet India’s greatest poet, Janab Javed Akhtar. The other was to cover the cost of the trip through some well-executed burglaries, with a margin to spare.’
As the paths of several characters intersect, one-story loops into another, yet all are contained within the canvas of the festival, making for an immersive reading experience.
Among them, almost as a footnote—and all the more poignant for that—is the brief appearance of Madan Bhopa, the balladeer who gives a recital at the cultural programme one evening and dies in an accident the next day.
At the Writers’ Ball marking the end of the festivities, Betaab meets Torres, the Spanish poet, who on the spur of the moment translates his poem into Spanish and reads it out.
‘This poem—she has “duende”,’ he says, going to explain the term. ‘It is the pain within us, the wounding and also the healing.’ The author sums it up for us as beautifully. ‘We are each other’s stories.’
By: Namita Gokhale
Price: Rs 499