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Controversy-free lit fest makes for free-spirited discussions (JLF Review)

Posted on Jan 22 2014 | IANS

By Shilpa Raina, Jaipur, Jan 22 : It had been in the news for all the wrong reasons for two consecutive years, but the Jaipur Literature Festival 2014 traversed geopolitical borders, overcame language barriers and discussed political, social and women's issues to exchange ideas without attracting any unwanted controversy. Still, many a celebrity gave it a miss for a variety of reasons.

"It was truly a literary festival," said a journalist who has been attending the five-day festival for the past three years. The seventh edition of the festival concluded Tuesday.

"The last two editions were marred by controversies, but this time discussions were informative and so was the line-up of speakers, especially international authors who had come here," he added.

In the last two editions, Ashis Nandy's loaded remarks about corruption in Dalit ranks and controversial writer Salman Rushdie's participation had provided the much-desired fodder to the news-starved media.

But the latest edition of the festival provided much-needed relief. From Nobel laureate Amartya Sen's refreshing seven-point wish list to British historian Antony Beevor's viewpoint about prolonged civil war in the world from the beginning of the First World War in 1914 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.

From journalist-author Adrian Levy's describing 26/11 Mumbai terror attack mastermind David Headley as an "extraordinary maverick chameleon character" to Muslim women talking confidently about sexuality in the Islamic world - globetrotting books made a brief stop-over at the bookworms' Mecca to give the audience a taste of history and politics.

Such an eclectic mix of over 250 speakers attracted over 200,000 visitors and the footfall reached a staggering high Sunday with 75,210 people joining the weekend melee at the 17th-century Diggi Palace.

"The footfall has increased 25 percent chiefly due to increased capacity and better traffic flow around the site," said an official release.

But then, the festival will also be remembered for the absence of celebrities like boxer Mary Kom, lyricist Javed Akhtar and Iranian American strategic expert Vali Nasr.

Olympics boxing bronze medalist Mary Kom had to cancel her trip due to personal reasons. Her session - "Pulling Her Punches" - where she was to launch her book "Unbreakable" was replaced by a panel discussion under the same title with feminist and activist Gloria Steinem, publisher Urvashi Butalia and Bhutanese writer Lily Wangchhuk steering the debate.

The most surprising miss came from Bollywood lyricist Javed Akhtar who has been a regular at the literary event for a few years now. Apparently, his wife Shabana Azmi informed the organisers Sunday morning about his unavailability to attend the five-day fiesta because of back pain.

Akhtar was scheduled to participate in a session titled "Urdu Mein Hindustan" in conversation with popular Hindi poet Ashok Vajpayi. In his absence lyricist Prasoon Joshi and singer Vidya Shah took over.

There was a buzz that the 69-year-old lyricist chose to skip it because of last year's heated-debate over religion with writer Kancha Illaiah during one of the sessions.

Another prominent face missing was that of junior HRD Minister Shashi Tharoor due to the death of his wife Sunanda Pushkar. He was to launch a few books and moderate some discussions, but had no other choice than to skip the festival because of his personal tragedy.

Vali Nasr, dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at John Hopkins Univesity and an advisor to the then US AfPak pointsman Richard Holbrooke, had to miss the event due to a death in the family. He was to attend a session on Afghanistan and another on Iran and Shiiaism.

Two other international names: Investigative journalist and author Katherina Boo, and British actor Rupert Everett didn't make it to the final schedule and hence were absent from the festival.

Touted as the largest free literary festival, the event began on a small scale as part of the Jaipur Heritage International Festival in 2006. But then its co-founders, historian and author William Dalrymple and author Namita Gokhale have successfully managed to make it an independent annual pilgrimage for book lovers.

Between all this literati and intellectual debates and acknowledgement of growing footfalls lies a bewildered and weary audience that is exhausted of this hullabaloo about nothing, as many of them feel the festival has become more of a carnival for pseudo-intellectuals.

"It used to be an intimate affair with the authors. There was a select audience and authors could be reached easily, unlike now when one struggles to find a decent place to stand - forget about sitting," said Suman Varma, a lawyer, who had come from Delhi to listen to Lord Meghnad Desai.

"That charm is lost," he added, "You will see many people in the audience who have no clue about the speakers or have never read a book. But they are here so that they can show off through social networking sites."

"Pseudo-intellectuals have killed the joy. It has become a mela (carnival)," he mumbled.

While Dalrymple has announced that entry to the festival will always be free, journalist Gunjan Dua(name changed) feels the organisers should at least restrict entry of schoolchildren.

"Many students come here every year and hardly attend any session. Even if they do, they just talk. It is extremely annoying," said Dua.

"You can't blame them. Can you? When we were their age, we too would have done the same thing; made it an opportune moment for a picnic of sorts," she added, saying they (students) are always found near eating stalls.

But Gokhale isn't bothered about these distressed voices.

"Our joy and strength is our audience. We do this every year for them. People will say what they have to say, and we respect each opinion," Gokhale told IANS.

(Shilpa Raina can be contacted at

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