2011 Jaipur Lit Fest Days 4 and 5: Myths of Mumbai, coincidences on the Nile, and cabbage

The 2011 Jaipur Literature Festival is over. Walking past the jampacked final panel--the standing easily outnumbering the seated 3-to-1--with Vikram Seth, under the colored banners, and through the gate of Diggi Palace a final time, I was a little melancholic. What next?

Enter the festival

On Day 4 I opened with the "Mumbai Narratives" session with Sonia Falerio and Gyan Prakash because--what the hell--I had just been to Mumbai and I'll be back and I wanted to hear some stories. Now I have another book to find and read when I return home: Mumbai Fables by Gyan Prakash. Like a fair number of authors at the event I had never heard of Gyan Prakash, but I was taken in as much by his motivations for his work as what he read. In Mumbai Fables Prakash says he was not looking for the stories themselves, but inquiring into the nature of how they were created--peering behind the curtain of the mythology, trying not only to understand what something is but how and why it got that way. That's important: as in engineering, always check your assumptions.

Anthony Sattin's session on the unlikely coincidence of Gustave Flaubert and Florence Nightingale, from his book A Winter on the Nile, was one of the top panels of the week. Imagine this: two young people go on a trip (independently--they never meet) because they are frustrated with their progress at home, then return to do major work which history has not forgotten. Yes. Familiar. Sattin's enthusiasm for the two main characters, the arcs of their lives, and the places in Egypt (and France and England) was exciting.

On Day 5, Priya Sarukkai Chhabria and Arunava Sinha spoke about "Translating the Classics." I have an enormous amount of respect for translators (and, more broadly, polyglots). To be able to decode works in a language different from one's native tongue--that seems like having keys to a level of the castle that few will ever see. The chief concern of the panels was with which version of the final language to use. When translating a classic, should one use an archaic English to create a sense of temporal distance? Should one use a contemporary voice? And what does one do with words and ideas that exist in the base language but not the final language? Of course the answers were: it depends.

I'll admit here: I harbor this pointless desire to be able to translate something myself--to be able to open the locked door with my own hand. That's why I attended one more session with Katherine Russell Rich, the "Dreaming in Sanskrit" panel with Lee Siegel. I envy and admire the focus she exhibited to spend a year learning Hindi in Udaipur, then writing about it in Dreaming in Hindi. Hooray for the doers of the world, in whatever form they appear.

Choose Irvine Welsh

To end the day and the festival, Irvine Welsh read from his upcoming book, Reheated Cabbage. I've never read any Irvine Welsh, and his session was up against Indian literature titan Vikram Seth. I've not read anything by Vikram Seth yet either, but I'm aware of him and his books are on my list, so I decided to give Irvine Welsh a try, a final attempt at broadening my experience. Maybe it was the Scottish accent, or the unhesitating use of street language, or the straightforward stride through some putrid subject matter--anyway, the point is that Irvine Welsh ended the festival, for me, on a sustained high note.

I enjoyed the 2011 Jaipur Literature Festival--I'm happy that it was suggested to me and that I modified my trip to Jaipur to attend. There is the immediate question, "What next?" that applies to my remaining 57 days in India. But the value of the festival to me was listening to accomplished people on stage and conversing with members of the audience and how it all gave me the confidence to consider the greater "What next?" that will exist when I go home.

Jaipur Lit Fest Days 2 and 3: Courtesans, migrations, and the madness of crowds

Day 2 of the Jaipur Literature Festival was slammed. Packed. Jammed. If you wanted to get your Indian experience of moving in colossal crowds, well, there you were. I'm not sure what made Day 2 so much more dense. People coming for the party that the festival is? Loads of schoolkids? I don't know. The days of hosting the festival at Diggi Palace are numbered. All four speaking venues were overflowing.

In the morning of Day 2, I watched the "A Time Apart" panel with J.P. Das and Rita Chowdhury. Ms. Chowdhury gave a presentation on her book about Chinese-Indians living in Assam who were, after border conflicts with China, all arrested, moved to concentration camps, and then deported to China even though they had been living in India for generations. I don't recall the name of the book, though I remember it was Hindi only. I liked her description of it, though. I'll find it later--perhaps a good place to focus myself on reading Hindi better.

One of the reasons I attended the previous panel was to get an early seat for the following presentation, "One amazing thing" with Chitra Devakurni Banerjee. At the end of the previous panel, people started packing the back of the tent. At the end of the panel they poured in, occupying every stool and divan so densely that it created its own gravity field. They packed in deep in the back. They crawled in from under the edges of the tent. It was intense. Even the festival organizer had to come to the microphone and ask for help getting the authors into the tent so they could speak.

But it wasn't Ms. Banerjee. It was two other guys and, to my undertrained ears, incomprehensible. It was in Hindi. And I was trapped there in the Kingfisher Baithak tent, not looking forward to squeezing my way out. For thirty minutes I sat there, trying to at least get the essence of what was going on, but to no avail. I finally left when I felt awkward not getting the jokes. As I crawled out under the tent myself, I saw an army of people outside the tent, listening, ravenous to get inside. If anyone knows who that was at 12pm, and again for a repeat performance at 1:30 on the Front Lawns, please inform me. I'm curious what could make a crowd of Indians go absolutely bonkers like that.

Ah... madness... what else, what else?

Rory Stewart talked about his book, The Spaces in Between, and how his skepticism of how useful the big cash and big armies approach to "fixing" Afghanistan led him to walk across the country for eighteen months.

There was a panel on travel writing, "On the Road," with Anthony Sattin, Katie Hickman, Rory Stewart, Pallavi Aiyar, and William Fiennes. The notable portion of that was Katie Hickman reading from her book about traveling with a circus in Mexico. She read from her own favorite part of the book, which happened after she stopped following the circus and visited a migratory home for Monarch butterflies. What struck me was that I expected a short description of the place and sight, but she turned it into a fantastic world in which you were immersed in the Monarchs themselves. I didn't catch the name of the book. There is so much that I missed.

Day 2 ended with Katie Hickman and Muzaffar Ali in the panel "From Courtesans East and West" in which they described and compared, yes, courtesans from Lucknow and London. Mr. Ali's descriptions tried to place the courtesans of Lucknow in a finer, more elegant, more learned place. (This relates to a movie of his, I think. I don't know the title. Can someone fill me in?) Ms. Hickman focused a bit more in her book on the humorous aspects of their place in society--not bawdy descriptions, no, but a history of the tangled web of mistresses and courtesans and society men and women that existed in London. It wasn't something that I expected from what I had assumed was totally straight-laced 1800s England.

Day 3... I missed most of this for the Jaipur Half Marathon. Stay tuned for notes on that, etc.

The one full panel I saw was "Migritude" with Abha Dawesar, Shailaja Patel, and Pauline Melville. It was hit and miss. What I appreciated most was Ms. Melville's incisive comments and answers. For example, the other two opened with poems and stories from their books, but Ms. Melville opened by pointing at the list of sponsors in the back and accusing them of forcing many migrations with their actions of opening and closing facilities around the world, displacing and replacing thousands of people. An unexpected zing--I think I'll check her out again on Day 4.

2011 Jaipur Lit Fest Day 1: The earnestness of art, mathematical chimps, and the literature of cancer

Day 1 of the Jaipur Literature Festival (http://www.jaipurliteraturefestival.org) is over. It was my first ever day at the festival, and I had an enormously good time. Thanks to Supriya for suggesting it.

I used the word "enormous" intentionally. The place is packed. There are four main stages, plus assorted vendor stalls, cafés, common areas, etc. Sometimes it seems too enormous for Diggi Palace, but it's like going to see a concert where the energy of the performance is complemented by the energy of the crowd moving in and around itself--a kind of static electricity from all of the rubbing shoulders.

Night 1 at the Jaipur Literature Festival

My favorite panel of the day was the Emperor of Maladies panel with Siddhartha Mukherjee and Katherine Russell Rich. The title of the panel comes from Mr. Mukherjee's book, The Emperor of Maladies, a history--a biography, even--of cancer. And Ms. Rich was there talking about her 1999 book, The Red Devil, a story of her own history with cancer.

So, yes, my favorite panel was on the topic of cancer--a dismal-sounding subject indeed. But the focus wasn't that dismal. It wasn't what I would call entertaining, though. It was engaging. Ms. Rich has never gotten rid of cancer. Eighteen years later she still deals with its recurrence, and she makes her way slowly through the crowd during the day. For good or for ill, that's the most compelling part of the story. That's what makes her, in my opinion, a good role model. On one hand you have a Lance Armstrong, who recovers to become King of the World. On the other hand you have someone who survives but still has to live with the day-to-day problems. That seems more real, or at least more applicable. Suresh S., a Jaipur native, said to me after the panel that he is going to recommend the book to a family member dealing with cancer.

Mr. Mukherjee's presentation was also good--I'm more likely even to go read The Emperor of Maladies than The Red Devil--but I'll focus on Ms. Rich. I saw her for the first time in Boston in 2008, when she was on tour for her latest book, Dreaming in Hindi, which I assumed she was in India to present. Obviously she wasn't. I found her later and asked a few questions about it. Listen: I don't like bothering authors or musicians or performing people of whatever kind after the show. My baseline assumption is that they're getting hassled enough as it is, so maybe I should give them a break. Besides, they're not going to be very congenial or thoughtful when harried anyway.

She was warm nonetheless--me and my preoccupations, etc. I asked her if Nand, a wise character and mentor (I referred to him as a sort of "Yoda," because I'm a dork) in the memoir, had read Dreaming in Hindi yet. She said that he had, and developed a greater respect for her because of it. He's not just anybody. He's an eminent Rajasthani poet. His deeper respect was a valuable thing to earn. I enjoyed the book also, so I was pleased for her. We talked a bit also about her break to come to India--she spent a year in Udaipur learning Hindi--and my own. I did a fabulously timid job talking about writing on running in India--see previous paragraph about baseline hassle--so I'll try to explain more passionately about what all I'm doing. I'm here in India because I think I can write. I'm here on the front edge, on the precipice of doing the thing, so maybe it's time to own up to it. I am, after all, at a literature festival surrounded by authors who stopped thinking they had an idea and actually crafted the idea into something real. She also asked what I was going to become when I returned home. I didn't have an answer for that. Like so many other experiences here: something to think about.

I got to see Junot Díaz in action. I made sure to say that like I'm really familiar with him. I'm not. I am aware of him as a name only--he's a Pulitzer Prize winner. He teaches at MIT, so I'm discovering, in India, a notable writer who essentially lives down the street from me at home. Yeah. Pay attention, etc. So I can't tell you about his work. And I'm typing this damned thing by mobile phone, so I'm not going to look it up either. I can tell you that he was terribly funny and entertaining, but also lapsed into extended moments of earnestness where he explained his approach and experience with the art of literature.

"We read books as individuals, but understand them as a collective. [...] Reading a novel is an invitation to form a community."

"America's entire relationship with art is like... 'Wait, you're still here?' "

And so on. Junot Díaz just jumped onto my to-read list and clawed his way toward the top.

I stepped into Alex Bellos' presentation, Alex's Adventures in Numberland, quite arbitrarily. I didn't have a program yet. I wanted to get out of the sun. I stepped in and discovered it was a book and presentation about math. Well, what the hell? I guess that's a nice way for an engineer like me to get acquainted with the festival.

It was entertaining. It was way better than just a time pass. There were videos of chimpanzees demonstrating not only their trained understanding of the cardinality and ordinality of numbers--amount and order, I learned, are the two qualities that make numbers numbers--but that they could recognize and remember them faster than humans. There were pictures of Japanese schoolkids using abacuses (abaci?) both to compute and compete. Mr. Bellos mentioned that there is no research that shows using an abacus improves mathematical cognition. None. But, as he shows, the abacus makes it fun, and the students excel at it. That made me think. Math is a slog for me--no fun at all. I took calculus, etc., because I needed the credits to get into and pass out of engineering. I'm now curious what it would be like to learn math or learn about the history of math as someone who wants to learn it, not someone who has to learn it.

And on and on. It is, like so many other occurrences in India, an awful lot to deal with at once. It is simultaneously fun and informative--a heady combo indeed.