If you can’t go to the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), the festival comes to you with its travelling caravan of writers, poets and raconteurs. It is good news for the many disaporic communities that this wandering festival now comes to New York, Boulder, Colorado and its latest stop is Toronto, Canada. It is worth noting that even in a digital world, the Kingdom of Books is surviving – and expanding. The JLF, which is India’s unique tribute to the written word came to New York for the third year running and also to Boulder, Colorado. Book lovers will be happy to know that plans are afoot to take the festival to California.
As Namita Gokhale, co-founder of the festival puts it, the sun doesn’t seem to set on the JLF literary empire or enterprise since it exists from India to Europe to the US: “The advantage is that you have writers speaking to each other from very different parts of the world, and from very different linguistic cultures and from different literary traditions. And every time we go to a new place, we remain rooted, and yet very cosmopolitan.” Hunger for books
That there is a hunger out there for books and authors was seen at the opening reception at DAG Gallery in New York where it was a packed social and cultural event. The key points were the book launch for Anupam Kher’s biography and William Dalrymple’s latest book,
The Anarchy, on the rise and significance of the East India Company. Kher whose book Lessons Life Taught Me, Unknowingly was launched by the artist Madhvi Parekh, actor Manisha Koirala and CG Sandeep Chakravorty, spoke about his life in the US, “I meet a lot of people and if I feel lost, I stop near an Indian and I take a picture with him! Every Indian has the most successful, amazing story in the city. My next book is going to be about Indians in America, whether they are cab drivers, whether they are successful entrepreneurs -- everybody has a story. And everybody has a story which can be made into a beautiful film, especially about the first generation. My only request to you all is tell your stories to your children.”
Anupam Kher with Manisha Koirala and Dulari Kher. Photo: Siraj Huda.
William Dalrymple talked about his latest book ‘The Anarchy’ which has almost a contemporary touch to it – as he noted, “India was not conquered by the British per se – it was conquered by a single rogue multinational corporation founded in an office block, five windows wide. In its hundred years of history the company only employed 132 fulltime employees. Yet the skeleton staff undertook one of the most extraordinary corporate coups in history.”
People from all walks of life were at the reception and many turned up the next morning for the opening of JLF at Asia Society which has been its partner from the start.
East-west musical dialogue
The JLF began with a robust east-west musical dialogue with Utsav Lal, Raga and Jazz pianist and guitarist Alec Goldfarb. This was followed by the inaugural address aptly titled
Each other’s Stories with Ambassador Sandeep Chakrovorty, Consul General of India in New York, JLF’s co-founders Sanjoy K Roy, and William Dalrymple, introduced by Tom Nagorski, Executive Vice President, Programming, Asia Society.
Privamvada Natarajan and Sree Sreenivasan. Photo: Asia Society
Ambassador Sandeep Chakravorty raised an interesting point – the importance of regional literature in America in a burgeoning Indian population: “Telugu is the fastest growing language in New Jersey -- and I believe it is the fastest growing language in the United States,” he said. “This is fertile ground for JLF to get into our language literature and bring in authors from regional literature. Our population has grown by 300 a day since 2000. And it is growing.”
Food, Memory and Culture panel - Chandrahas Choudhury, Krishnendu Ray and Adam Platt in conversation with Ligaya Mishan. Photo: Asia Society.
What is an Indian gathering, even an intellectual one, without a mention of food? So it was a full hall for a discussion on
‘Food, Memory and Culture’ by some very noted names; novelist Chandrahas Choudhary, food historian Krishnendu Ray, and New York magazine’s food critic Adam Platt in conversation with Ligaya Mishan of the New York Times.
And nowdays can there be any conversation without a mention of race, color and gender? Some very powerful speakers came together to discuss this potent subject -- Margo Jefferson, Sharmila Sen, and Yashica Dutt, in conversation with Prajwal Parajuly. Dutt, who is a journalist and the author of
Coming out as Dalit, spent a lifetime pretending to be ‘upper’ caste in India and finally came out as a Dalit. She lives in New York while navigating her identities as a brown, South Asian, and Dalit woman in the United States.
This was followed by an equally vital and important talk on
“These Lands we call Home’ with Neeraj Kaushal, Prajwal Parajuly, Zarrar Said, and Alia Malek in conversation with professor and activist Ruchira Gupta. In an age when immigration has become a four-letter word, these writers discussed the pain of dislocation, the trials and triumphs of globalisation and the intricacies of multiple identities.
From the tensions of our inner space, it was a journey to outer space with Priyamvada Natarajan introduced by New York journalist and professor, Sree Sreenivasan. Natarajan is the Professor of Astronomy and Physics at Yale University, noted for her work in mapping dark matter, dark energy, and black holes. Author of
Mapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas That Reveal the Cosmos, Natarajan took the audience with ease to complex worlds which exist beyond our own. Koirala's fight against cancer
Perhaps the most emotional moment of the day was the question and answer period with the lovely Bollywood star, Manisha Koirala -- a survivor of late stage ovarian cancer, who has just co-authored the memoir
The Healing. Koirala, who was interviewed by Sanjoy K. Roy was open and honest about her ordeal and how she battled the disease and survived by redefining her priorities. Fans now saw the beauty queen of 1942: A Love Story as a courageous woman who has gone on to embrace life and has been cancer-free since 2015.
Manisha Koirala with Sanjoy K. Roy and Consul General Sandeep Chakravorty. Photo: Siraj Huda.
As she shared, “Cancer is not a death sentence – there is life beyond cancer. I tell people to basically not lose hope because there are treatments available and I know many people who after cancer treatment are really having a great life, a mindful and healthy life.”
As always, one of the true delights of the JLF was the chance to hobnob with literary stars and upcoming authors and to purchase and get the books signed by them. A chance to own a provocative bundle of ideas and thoughts, to open and delve into at leisure, to browse in train or bus or in bed – still one of the best bargains in the world!
Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who blogs at Lassi with Lavina. Read Lavina Melwani's columns .