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A JLF edition unlike itself

Arpita Das | Updated on February 01, 2019 Published on February 01, 2019

Interrogating giants: Feminist scholar Germaine Greer (right) in conversation with author Bee Rowlatt on Day 1 of the Jaipur Literature Festival 2019   -  COURTESY: JLF

But what does #MeToo have to do with it? Everything

There is no denying that if visiting lit fests is your thing, then the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) is the annual Hajj for bibliophiles. This year’s edition, which ended last week, was my eighth outing to what is touted as the biggest literary event in the world. I was particularly delighted to be at this year’s JLF because I had been asked, for the first time, to moderate not the usual industry fare, but the two panels on queer writings. With 2018 being such a landmark year for the LGBTQ community and the country as a whole, these panels were exactly how I wanted to ring in 2019.

The latter half of 2018 was also witness to the second wave of the #MeToo movement, particularly in the entertainment and media industries, with some repercussions for well-known and bestselling authors as well. For the first time, women were coming out with detailed allegations of sexual misconduct from celebrities in these spheres, and being supported by other women and many good men in an unprecedented manner. Resignations and severance notices were handed out in response to the allegations, even as event programmes were hastily revised to disinvite all those who had been accused.

As I left for Jaipur, I was naturally interested in seeing how the lit fest would play out against the backdrop of this radically altered atmosphere. Even before getting on that flight to the pink city, many of us had heard of the expected absence of prominent regular attendees from the festival edition this year because of whispers of allegations against them. Much as I had grown to enjoy JLF over my many visits there, my memories of previous editions were somewhat coloured by rampant ‘manels’; loud, entitled men cracking wink-wink-nudge-nudge jokes at unsure younger women at parties; and uncle-jis routinely elbowing one out at lunch even as they paused to tell you not to drink too much. Was any of this going to change, I wondered. Little did I know then that my question would be answered from almost the minute the festival began.

On the morning of Day 1, the front lawns were teeming with people waiting to listen to — nope, not a Bollywood or Hollywood celebrity — but good old feminist scholar Germaine Greer. My teenage icon and the creator of The Female Eunuch was the star of the first big session of JLF this year. And, for me, that pretty much set the tone for the rest of the festival. Greer was in conversation with the brilliant and outspoken Bee Rowlatt, author of the splendid In Search of Mary. Greer has turned controversial — young feminists would say even anti-feminist — in more recent times, particularly with her views on transwomen, #MeToo and, more recently, on rape. Rowlatt did not skirt around controversial questions, and when Greer spouted fairly dodgy responses, she was nimble on her feet with counter-questions which challenged the great Greer into a sulk at one point. My takeaway moment from that session was when a young schoolgirl asked Greer a question about sons being favoured even in this era. She responded to Greer’s rather bland answer by saying, “But now girls are the same as boys, na?” A deafening cheer went up from the audience, and, for me, this JLF was rocking.

This was also the JLF with the maximum number of panels made up of only women — talking about more than just gender. There was never a more heartening sight than the panel on Mughal India with authors Parvati Sharma, Ira Mukhoty, Audrey Truschke and Rana Safvi, with the venue full to the rafters, and people queuing outside to get in. And, of course, those magnificent conversations with Sohaila Abdulali, author of What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape, and Mary Beard, author of Women and Power; there was no place to stand, let alone sit, in both these sessions. Two more outstanding all-women sessions were the ones on mental health and on millennials, both featuring the veteran child psychotherapist Shelja Sen, who is always a pleasure to listen to.

But one cannot end a piece about JLF without mention of its parties, can one? Well, the loud, obnoxious men had miraculously vaporised this time, and you could actually hear the music that was being played on stage. The bars were easily accessible and you didn’t have to hold your arms around yourself as a personal-space corset as you asked for your vodka-soda. The vestigial remnants of the old boys’ club appeared almost apologetic for being there as they doled out cigarettes when one ran out of stock. And nope, not a single one of them cracked a #MeToo joke. Group after group was discussing, wait for it — Sabarimala and Priyanka Gandhi’s entry into politics.

What about JLF on Twitter, you ask? Well, the popular Twitter handle @JLFInsider might have rubbed some people the wrong away with a few tasteless barbs, but I was impressed by the consistently warm queerness of the group of people behind the handle. More notably, however, the most important Twitter controversy in the run-up to the festival featured transmen and a woman author. A prominent trans-activist Gee Imaan had critiqued a new book on India’s transmasculine networks by journalist and writer Nandini Krishnan and as the author was one of the festival attendees, a twitter storm had raged about representational writing in an era which was finally seeing a more nuanced delineation of identities. Frankly, my dear, what was not to love about JLF 2019?

Arpita Das runs the independent publishing house Yoda Press

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Published on February 01, 2019
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