What happens when a group of diverse writer-ly characters comes together at a literary festival? Especially a lit fest that is bursting at the seams with an audience desperate to catch a glimpse of their favourite authors, writers anxious to get their points across at panels as well as up-and-coming novelists seeking inspiration and answers from established authors?
“Around her, the sounds of the lit-fest, of hissing microphones and frenzied footfalls and occasional bursts of applause. In her heart, poison and vitriol.” The opening lines of writer, publisher and festival director Namita Gokhale’s latest novel Jaipur Journals allude to a mysterious unravelling of a tragedy, but are in fact the precursor to the stories woven into the backdropof the five days of the Jaipur Literature Festival, often referred to as the “greatest literary show on Earth”.
A prolific writer, Gokhale has authored 18 books known for their strong female characters, sweeping temporal arcs and sharply delineated scenes. In Jaipur Journals , the motivations of the characters emerge through a series of flashbacks, with the multiple perspectives culminating in the present day with the JLF as the setting. The result is a fast-paced read.
The characters include Rudrani Rana, a septuagenarian who lugs around an unsubmitted manuscript in a canvas bag, attends panel discussions and employs surprising tactics such as sending anonymous poisonous letters to get even with the world and its many slights. Befriending Rudrani is Anirban, a graphic novelist who enjoys modest success as an anonymous columnist. Then there is Gayatri Smyth-Gandhy, who is trying to transition from academic writing to fiction and encounters her old flame at a discussion panel at the festival. Quentin Cripps is another character, described as a “man’s man”. Nursing a cold and a broken heart, he is bemused at being invited to speak at JLF about his book on Walt Disney as well as puzzled by the discussions and questions on the book.
There is Zoya Mankotia, a woman whose striking looks and confident stance belie her guilt and pain about the transgressions, done by her and unto her, in her personal life. Representing two ends of a spectrum of nationality and age are American writer Anna Wilde, returning to India after years of coping with trauma, and Indian teenager Anura, who has been selected to speak at the Young Adult session at the festival.
Gokhale’s writing is known for the rich depiction of the inner lives of her characters, as exemplified by her earlier novel Things We Leave Behind that intricately described life in the Kumaon region through the mid-19th to early 20th century. This power of description is amply showcased in Jaipur Journals as well. She weaves the narrative arcs of her characters with a few real life writers and attendees, such as writer and politician Shashi Tharoor and lyricist Javed Akhtar.
Many scenes deftly draw out the humour and rivalry that co-exist at such festivals. For instance, consider the description of a session: “A parrot swooped across the stage, like a daring trapeze artist. A peahen seated on the low branch of a mango tree let out its harsh call. A tattered yellow kite, impaled against the mango tree, fluttered in the gentle afternoon breeze. And then a monkey appeared, jumping from the highest balcony to the next, and then almost on the stage.” All this while the speaker on the panel is holding forth, but is interrupted by a malfunctioning sound system. And one has to chuckle when Zoya hisses, on spotting Bollywood star Patti Kapoor,at the festival: “These so-called literary festivals! This bimbo hasn’t written a word, or even read one, I’m sure.”
Particularly delicious is the character Raju Srivastava, who earns his living as a burglar and writes Urdu poetry under the pseudonym Betaab. The description of demonetisation and its effect on people such as Betaab and how he manages to launder his money is a story in itself.
In a modern-day fairy tale, while Betaab had come to the festival with the twin goals of earning some money through a few burglaries and meeting his idol, Javed Akhtar, he ends up on the stage, winning an impromptu contest, and much feted at the Writers’ Ball, showing that “the world of letters, so beguiling from the vantage point of the outsider [was] full of privileged hierarchies and lucky chances...”.
In crime writer Agatha Christie’s short story The Man In The Mist , a character says, “Very few of us are what we seem.” Each character in Jaipur Journals learns this in varied ways. The narrative threads converge towards the end of the festival, with the characters finding their healing through the power of words.
Ultimately, Jaipur Journals is a rich tribute to stories and storytellers, as Gokhale writes in a note at the end of the book, “We are each other’s stories.”
Jonaki Ray is a Delhi-based poet and writer; her poetry collection ‘Memory Talkies’ will be out in 2020