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As a battlefield for inflamed debates, the Jaipur Literature Festival emerges for the better, making room for both sides to every argument.

IN its tenth year, the Jaipur Literature Festival has unquestionably established itself as the most eminent ground for gathering the finest literary and culturally inclined minds in the country – arguably, in Asia. Yet, it was a bit of a mixed bag of an event. Perhaps inevitably, many of the discussions – all too many to count – descended into abject displays of overly charismatic and rabble-rousing oratory, almost intending to by-pass the rational faculties of the audience.

Some of these discourses did descend into downright bedlam, turning into live arenas for verbal jousting and pompous rhetorical slugfests, of the kind we’re given to accommodate on our TV news shows. Then again, the festival’s highlights – in keeping with its stated all-inclusive purview – were in a handful of unfavourable, dissentient comments that came along with the thoughtful and provocative subjects up for discussion. Par for the course, as some would say.

Treading the fine line that distinguishes the instigative and the seditious from the stimulating and the cerebrally arousing was, indeed, the measure of the festival’s success.

She had not a spirit to resist
The defining picture of JLF 2017 is likely to be of Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen taking stage, despite a ragtag and bobtail gathering of demonstrators, harking back to the 2012 agi tat ions against Salman Rushdie. Taslima reiterated her antifundamentalist stance, voicing hope for women’s rights, while festival director Sanjoy Roy cajoled the mob, assuring them of support towards minority groups. Taslima’s appeal, seemingly for the quintillionth time – “If they disagree with me, they can write or share their views” – isn’t about to quell signs of dissent in a hurry, just as it might hopefully invigorate a new crop of emerging writers.

Management counsel Suhel Seth was later virtually lynched by a fury of feminists, in a session on “Manelists, Misogyny and Mansplaining”. While the mightiest panel of them all was in the concluding debate, “We Are Living in Post-Truth World”, moderated by Barkha Dutt, who faced the brunt of the opinionated assaults with unemotional grace. The jolliest moment, yet, appeared when Luke Harding, The Guardian foreign correspondent acclaimed for his work on Edward Snowden, inadvertently shot down the senior journalist Swapan Dasgupta with a biting, “Shut up”, to get his word in. Evidently, everybody loves a curt put-down.

The Oxford English Dictionary, for the reader’s benefit, defines the adjective “post-truth” as “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” As in, “in this era of post-truth politics, it’s easy to cherry-pick data and come to whatever conclusion you desire”. At JLF 2017, it wasn’t too ironic that the open snubs and blunt rebuffs made for the most endearing highlights.

A heaven in hell’s despair
If the writers and editors were at the vortex of all the vexed exchanges in the media enclave, they also brought back some of the mirth among the crowds, at the close of each day’s events. As is the wont of wordmongers, they set the barometers of opinion by the manner of hilarity on the sidelines – telling the thigh-slapping howlers apart from the sneering chuckles, the haughty guffaws from the nervous giggles, and the resounding suspirations from the resigned sighs. The obiter dictum – “back to the writing desk” – pronounced collectively, ultimately bound the loose ends together.

The abiding interest, deeming overstatement, was in matters of poor judgement, lapses in decision making, misunderstandings and, to an extent, even delusions. Ultimately, things do boil down to mass consensus – notwithstanding the controverted viewpoints. Few people applauded the American poet Anne Waldman, as she cautioned – in a chillingly prophetic tone, “These are dystopian times. We are facing a war on the imagination.” It was a good thing that the crowds were also given to discern Anne’s speechmaking skills at a live poetry reading session, held at the gloriously decked venue of Amer Fort, where she rhapsodised William Blake’s The Garden of Love with ignited gusto.

Dissent is the new norm
Hearteningly, as the speakers, every now and then, descended into disarming moments of facetious banter – much to the enlivened crowds’ spirited applause, these moments did also segue into pointed observations, and incisive remarks, gripping the same crowds in hushed silence.

The anti-stances over the power shifts in the United States of America were a foregone conclusion, as Booker Prize-winning author Paul Beatty vehemently denounced the swearing-in of President Donald Trump. The astute observers had to concede, it takes more than a festival to change collective mindsets. And that’s precisely the challenge that makes JLF much more of an inspiring affair.

The footnotes for posterity were ultimately in a select few tragicomic tales of eccentricity, such as from an open conversation between festival codirector Namita Gokhale, journalist Mrinal Pande and writer Sunil Sethi, bidding hearty consent to the bold and venturesome women of Kumaon.

For an added touch of local fervour, albeit far from home, Aishwarya Rajinikanth Dhanush, daughter of the cine superstar Rajinikanth, at the launch of her debut book, Standing on an Apple Box: The Story of a Girl Among the Stars, took a moment to back the ongoing protests in Tamil Nadu. “Jallikattu must, will and should happen,” she asserted, adding, “I salute the protesting students.” Aishwarya’s shout-out is bound to resonate across the country.

By Jaideep Sen
(Jaideep Sen attended the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival 2017 by invitation)

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