The Kumbh of the Written Word

IMG_0159It was a love affair with the printed word. Words that represented ideas, generated debates and elicited humour. The Jaipur Literature Festival this year had thousands jostling to listen to writers and browse through books. You were spoilt for choice. Whom do you listen to and whom do you leave out? I did a careful book-cart selection to maximise my visit of two days.

My big discovery was Reza Aslan, the Iranian author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, an attempt to humanise Jesus that became number one on Amazon after a Fox news interview, deemed “the most embarrassing interview” of the decade, where the anchor asked him how as a Muslim he could write about the life of Jesus. He was in conversation with A N Wilson, British writer and columnist, whose biography of Leo Tolstoy I had devoured as a college student, and whose recent Dante in Love and The Elizabethans stunned critics with its profound scholarship. The session was moderated by William Dalrymple, festival co-director, who tweeted on Republic Day: “On this day, exactly 30 years ago, 26th Jan 1984, I first touched down in India (from the UK), and my life changed irrevocably and irreversibly forever”.

I followed that up with a session on “Raj aur Samaj: Democracy and the People”, with journalist Kalyani Shankar, ex-election commissioner Navin Chawla and Bihar Government adviser Pavan Varma in conversation with Ravish Kumar the talkative Zee news anchor. It was fun because the argumentative Indians never did agree with each other and with the many vocal members of the audience.

A N Wilson was worth encountering the second time when he was in conversation with Richard Holmes on The Age of Wonder/The Victorians. Holmes’s Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science focuses on the work of British naturalist Sir Joseph Banks, Hanoverian-born British astronomer William Herschel and English chemist and inventor Humphry Davy, describing the relationships between the scientists of that time, and the early days of the Royal Society.

In his latest book In Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air Richard Holmes writes about the history of ballooning. I had seen a balloon go up (and not go up) recently at the International Kite Festival in Kolkata and my interest was kindled to learn more about a science (or art?) where the basic mechanics as Holmes explains have not advanced much since its heyday in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Besides being a first-rate writer, Holmes is a delightful raconteur and his account of James Glaisher and Henry Coxwell making several ascents of over 20,000ft, calmly recording the discolouration of their skin and the onset of oxygen deprivation along with the meteorological information they were primarily seeking, was hilarious.

Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge and called “Britain’s best-known classicist”, brought Pompeii alive by describing the lives, obviously sometimes raucous, of its residents. She has inspired me to read up more about the Romans and download her BBC Two documentary on the subject.

Then there was the gripping account of The Siege by Adrian Levy, an award-winning journalist currently with The Guardian, who along with his wife Cathy Scott-Clark has done a detailed reconstruction of the 27/11 terror attack on the Taj in Mumbai. The book has been a sensation as it has spine-chilling revelations of how Lashkar-e-Taiba and David Headley carefully planned the attack for years.

You have to be fleet-footed to flit from one session to the other at JLF and I only managed to catch a bit of Rana Dasgupta discussing his Capital on the global elite (“the farm house in Delhi is nothing like a farmhouse”) and then Nicholas Shakespeare, Isabella Tree, Robyn Davidson, Cheryl Strayed discuss the relevance of travel writing in the age of social media and Google, both dexterously moderated by William Dalrymple. I ended my tryst with JLF with the true story behind F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece The Great Gatsby as related by Sarah Churchwell, Professor at the University of East Anglia, to the skilful moderator Chiki Sarkar, publisher with Penguin Books India.

As I soaked in the atmosphere at JLF near the British Council stall selling online library memberships, I remembered how I had travelled with Sanjoy Roy of Teamwork, and producer of JLF, to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1999 that set off his agenda for international arts festivals. Sanjoy writes about this in the Bloomsbury-British Council publication Re-Imagine: India-UK Cultural Relations in the 21st Century. Our work in the arts has impact, but some of it is felt years later!

Post by Sujata Sen, Director, British Council, East India

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