Jaipur literary extravaganza spans genres, generations, cultures, and continents

By Annette Gartland

This year’s Jaipur Literature Festival featured luminaries from the literary, academic, and scientific worlds and offered audiences conversations and debates on subjects ranging from cancer survival, rape, and racism to climate change, genetics, artificial intelligence, and the psychological aftermath of migration.

Women and power, the adaptation of books into screenplays, America’s secret wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and mapping the heavens were just some of the other topics discussed during the five-day literary extravaganza, held in Jaipur’s Diggi Palace.

The Jaipur event, which is the largest free literary festival in the world and now attracts about 500,000 visitors, was this year attended by more than 500 speakers hailing from more than 35 different countries.

The youngest writer presented this year was ten years old. Eighty-one percent of those attending the Jaipur literature festivals are under the age of thirty.

This year’s keynote address was given by molecular biologist Venkatraman (Venki) Ramakrishnan, who talked about the role of science in today’s world.

Ramakrishnan has a breadth of knowledge that is mind-boggling, but he speaks with modesty. He was joint winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009 for his work uncovering the structure of the ribosome and has just written his first book for the general reader, Gene Machine.

Venkatraman (Venki) Ramakrishnan delivering the keynote address. Picture by Annette Gartland

He told the audience at Jaipur that he was trying to immunise himself against “Nobelitis”: Nobel laureates starting to believe in their own genius.

“Being here today gives me an opportunity to talk across the divide between the humanities and sciences that has plagued many societies for a very long time,” he said.

“All of us should enjoy science and mathematics, which are as much a triumph of human achievement and as much a part of our culture as history, literature, art and music.”

Ramakrishnan talked about being an outsider, as an immigrant and being outside the main fast track of science. The latter, he said, may have been an advantage in his work, enabling him to avoid the pack mentality.

He also talked about the tension of having to compete as scientists. The system, with its competitions and having to publish in certain journals to be recognised, exacerbated this, he said.

Opening the festival, Sanjoy Roy spoke about how literature is able to elevate us and transport us into another world. Writers, he says, look into the “crystal glass of the future” and can put in place a vision for all of mankind.

The Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri is one such visionary. He is not only an extraordinary writer; he is also a compelling speaker. His answers to questions are poetic in themselves. In explaining his vision of the world, he is thoughtful, insightful, and imaginative.

When Okri won the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1991 for The Famished Road, he was, at 32, the then youngest winner of the prize.

The Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri . Picture by Annette Gartland

“Everything that is great that lives transcends the boundaries of its definition,” Okri told the audience at Jaipur. The act of writing at its highest and purest, he said, was “the closest people come to meditation in this secular world”.

When one woman in the audience said she had no time to read slowly, Okri told her that he would rather she read just one paragraph well than a whole book badly. “It’s precisely because you are busy that you should read slowly,” he said. “One sentence in a good book can change your life.”

Reading slowly, Okri told the audience, “is like entering into someone else’s dream”.

Okri’s new book is entitled The Freedom Artist. A young woman called Amalantis has been arrested for asking the question “Who is the Prisoner?”.

When Amalantis disappears, her lover Karnak goes looking for her. He searches desperately at first, then with a growing realisation that, to find her, he must first understand the meaning of her question.

Okri told the audience at Jaipur: “Freedom doesn’t mean the freedom to burp in someone’s face, to be rude to someone you don’t know, to be inhospitable to strangers in your house.”

Freedom, Okri says, “is the allowing of someone else’s genius to flower so that my genius can flower”.

The whole of literature, Okri told the audience, emerges from the questions human beings ask about reality.

Okri says that, after his first manuscript was accepted for publication, he was practically levitating for six days afterwards. He says that he has never lost that feeling and feels more vulnerable and excited after each book is published.

Fiction ‘sails through time’

Another of the key speakers at Jaipur was the author of Life of Pi, Yann Martel, who also speaks very thoughtfully. His presentation of his ideas is unrushed.

The author of Life of Pi, Yann Martel. Picture by Annette Gartland

In conversation with author and translator Jerry Pinto, Martel talked about language, mathematics, and writing Life of Pi, which he described as a “past incarnation of my curiosity”.

Pi, religion, and art are all slightly irrational, Martel says, but they all help us make sense of the world.

Martel told the audience how India has inspired him. The country is a vast buffet, he says, and it brought him multiplicity. “I was drying up and India nourished me with its monsoon rains.”

In India, everything is there to be seen and selected, and loved or hated, he said. “Whatever gain and pain is right there.”

Martel said he wrote Life of Pi “to try and understand the mechanism of faith”. He said his next book would be about the Trojan War. It will be an “anti-plutocratic discourse”; a dialogue between two voices on the subjects of antiquity and modernity, fiction and non-fiction.

Fiction, Martel says, sails through time and it is best if history is expressed as story.

Martel cited the example of the Holocaust. “Why are we so limitive when we talk about the Holocaust?” he asked. “The big tomes on the Holocaust that are the ones that are go-to texts are all works of non-fiction and when you get fiction it’s very thinly disguised biography or autobiography.” There is a fear of fiction about the Holocaust, Martel says.

This is an extract from Annette Gartland’s article on Changing Times. Click here to read more.

About Annette Gartland

Annette is an Irish journalist, based mainly in Southeast Asia. She produces a website, Changing Times, which is focused primarily on environmental issues, health, and human rights.