Inscrutable India: Jaipur Literature Festival’s Baffling Bazaar of Culture and Commotion

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The line to see Oprah stretched far down the highway. At the entrance to Diggi Palace, the front of the queue fanned into a thick crowd spread across several police barricades. A row of khaki-uniformed officers stood blocking the entrance. I elbowed my way to the front of the crowd, made eye contact with some police officers and waved my press pass. “Press, okay,” I heard someone say. “Okay?” I said, jumping over the barricade. Perhaps I’d misheard: A group of officers moved towards me, berets and rifles at alert.  It was my second day in Jaipur.

I arrived at the Jaipur Literature Festival a day late. After flying into India from New York, the plan had been to spend a day sightseeing with friends in Delhi — despite many India trips over the years, it had been more than 20 years since I visited north India — before taking an early morning train into the Pink City just in time for day two of the festival. This plan turned out to be a something of a miscalculation. Though I’d been following the controversy around Salman Rushdie’s invitation, I didn’t realize that the real drama of the “the greatest literary show on earth” (in Tina Brown’s words) would play out just hours after the festival opened.

Up until the day before JLF began, there were rumors that Rushdie — who reportedly had been dropped from the official program due to “a very real threat of violence at the venue” — planned to make a surprise appearance. Then, on the first day of the festival, Rushdie issued a statement: “I have now been informed by intelligence sources in Maharashtra and Rajasthan that paid assassins from the Mumbai underworld may be on their way to Jaipur to ‘eliminate’ me,” he wrote. “While I have some doubts about the accuracy of this intelligence, it would be irresponsible of me to come to the Festival in such circumstances.”

To voice their disapproval of the circumstances of Rushdie’s absence, four writers, Hari Kunzru, Amitava Kumar, Jeet Thayil, and Ruchir Joshi, read from The Satanic Verses — a book that has been banned in India — in their sessions later that day. They were subsequently advised to leave the festival, and the local police opened an investigation into their activities. There were still four days of panels left.

What was left to discuss? Anything but Rushdie. On guidance from the event organizers, everyone from Shashi Tharoor to David Remnick was talking around the debacle, momentarily alluding to it — knowingly, coyly — but never quite addressing it or the full array of issues it raised on India’s thorny history with censorship, religious fundamentalism, democratic and bureaucratic processes (and Salman Rushdie himself). It was a strange predicament for a symposium of ideas to find itself in. “So many awkward Rushdie references,” I scribbled in my notebook after day three. That’s all they were, though — fleeting references, fleetingly observed.

The show must go on! the organizers seemed to be saying. And, with 200-some authors still lined up to speak, it did. Lively on-stage conversations abounded. High-profile ones did too. Amy Chua debated economic policy. Teju Cole riffed on why it wasn’t necessarily only African writers who inspired him to become a writer. Oprah advocated for women’s rights. Fatima Bhutto discussed the future of Pakistan. Akash Kapur meditated on India’s changing rural landscape. Yet the topic of Rushdie continued to remain largely untouched, and a nagging question lingered in my mind: What kind of real intellectual discussion could go on in a setting that had proved itself so hospitable to self-censorship? When you gathered a hundred-thousand writers and book-lovers and then stripped away the opportunity for a truly free public exchange of ideas, what was left?

At a glance — and, as evidenced by my own exertions to see Oprah in a sari — the answer seemed to be: quite a bit of excitement, and quite a lot of people.  All day long, throngs of festival-goers filed through Diggi Palace. When they weren’t frantically crowding into the next session (securing a seat in any session was a herculean task; I gave up on several panels because I couldn’t find any place to position myself within earshot of the stage), attendees bought lunch, drinks, books, and snacks and sized each other up. College students flirted with one another over cigarettes. Small children chased authors for autographs. Expat journalists and writers mingled. Graduate students sipped chai from clay cups. Sassy aunties traded notes. It was, for all appearances, a happy bazaar — if not strictly of ideas, then, broadly, of culture.

The show went on — and what a carnival it was! — but it was impossible to fail to notice what was missing from the festival. “A panel entitled Creativity, Censorship and Dissent” — sponsored by Google — “made only glancing reference to Salman Rushdie in a list of other authors who have been similarly persecuted,” India Today reported. “After a brouhaha following readings from The Satanic Verses … the silence spoke volumes.” In that silence, the boisterous advertising that littered the whole affair seemed louder and all the more off-key. Panels were listed with their specific sponsors noted by name (a panel on “Reconstructing Rumi” was, poetically, sponsored by the maker of heavy-duty construction equipment). The young literati sported cute tote bags (“The Bag of Small Things” and “A Suitable Bag”) issued by Penguin to mark the publisher’s 25th anniversary in India.  Food stands selling pakoras, paninis, dosas, daquiris, chaat, and chocolate cake were around every corner. Sitting under a Tata Steel beam listening to one more author make one more emphatic marketing pitch for Katherine Boo’s new book (a title that enjoyed a “deafening publicity blitzkrieg” at the festival, as The Hindu put it), it seemed to me that — in the absence of any higher ideal — the pressure to purchase had become an organizing principal.

I wasn’t the only one questioning the festival’s priorities. At an extravagant 25th “birthday” bash thrown by Penguin at The Raj Palace — think tulle canopies floating above a regal courtyard and mini gulab jamuns served by bowing turbaned waiters — an open bar encouraged widespread theorizing. One Delhi-based writer (a panelist himself) told me he suspected the festival organizers had deliberately leaked news of Rushdie’s invitation months in advance as a publicity stunt. They knew they’d provoke hard-liners, he said; that was their intention. I had trouble imagining that the festival’s organizers were so naïve or cynical about India’s history of free speech controversies — or so ready to use a much-celebrated writer and friend for purely mercenary purposes — but it was an interesting explanation for someone so close to the eye of the storm to make. I was reminded of a simple argument put forward by Sunil Khilnani in The Idea of India: “Indians, no more than their counterparts anywhere else, are not virtuous, moderate, principled, or even especially tolerant people: they are deeply self-interested.” India is a capacious and often confusing place — for “insider” and “outsider” alike — so it didn’t seem far-fetched to suggest that the forces motivating the Rushdie fracas were even more complex than they appeared.

“But it is that self-interest — ” Khilnani goes on, hopefully, “so apparent in the conduct of the political elite — which encourages them to make compromises and accommodations.” Indeed, major compromises had been made to keep the festival alive, and through that compromise, many writers and readers had been connected. But in this case, there had been a significant cost.  Although the energy and sense of possibility in Jaipur far surpassed anything I’d encountered at, say, the New Yorker Festival in Manhattan (or even the beloved Brooklyn Book Festival), Jaipur Literature Festival’s inability to send a clear message about the value of free speech was dispiriting.

Take, for example, the cagey statement issued by JLF’s press team after Kunzru’s, Kumar’s, Thayil’s, and Ruchir’s readings:
This press release is being issued on behalf of the organizers of the Jaipur Literature Festival. It has come to their attention that certain delegates acted in a manner during their sessions today which were without the prior knowledge or consent of the organizers. Any views expressed or actions taken by these delegates are in no manner endorsed by the Jaipur Literature Festival.
William Dalrymple, one of the festival’s organizers, has since vocally defended how the JLF team handled the fuss. “I for one hope I am never again forced to choose between putting at risk all the principles upon which literary life is based, if I was to cancel an appearance by Salman, or knowingly igniting a major religious riot if his appearance went ahead,” he wrote in The New York Times, “and so putting at risk the lives of everyone who had come to the festival — including the authors who were our guests, and lines of school children in their blazers and elderly couples with their sandwiches and flasks of chai who had come to hear them.”

Lines of school children! Elderly couples with flasks of chai! Yes, it was a good thing the young and old alike had been able to safely partake in the delights of literary life in vibrant Jaipur. On the plane home, though, I found myself daydreaming about how very different my own earliest encounters with the world of books had been in India, on childhood trips to see my grandparents. With my American pastimes on hold for the summer, I’d plant myself under an oscillating fan and read. Some of those books transported me back to the U.S. and others rushed me away to new faraway lands but many took me deeper into the India I was slowly, haltingly, coming to understand and love. When the supply of books in my suitcase ended, there would be a trip to the bookstore, and after that, to the local lending library, where I’d find still more books to burrow into as hours, days, and weeks passed by. Outside my window, a world of activity whirled on — much of it, due in part to my age, gender, and foreignness, still beyond my comprehension and reach. Inside, alone, I quietly read.
image courtesy of the author

Rock ‘n Roll Malaise: Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia

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“Do you need an audience to create work or does not having an audience liberate you and make you a truer artist?” This is the question twenty-something Brooklynite Ada poses on her blog before she leaves Greenpoint to interview her eccentric uncle Nik in Los Angeles for the documentary she’s making. Ada’s film will be called Garageland, she writes, and it “will question what makes a person produce in the face of resounding obscurity.” Turn that question inside-out, and it is just as relevant to Stone Arabia, Dana Spiotta’s third novel: How is fame constructed? Do the famous make themselves for us, their fans and consumers, or do we make them? What do their narratives truly represent, and who do their stories belong to?

Nik is a rockstar, but only a handful of fans — his sister Denise, her daughter Ada, and a small collection of ex-girlfriends and former band-mates — know it. Over the years, Nik has released dozens of LPs to Denise and his few loyal followers, and he’s kept a meticulous record of his career in what he calls the Chronicles, a thirty-volume scrapbook filled with letters, reviews, and other “willful esoteria,” all of his own creation. The rock ’n roll posture gives Nik’s creativity a framework — one that provides cover for his self-destructive habits, but also spurs him to keep producing music long after his early, promising bands fail to make it. For Nik, celebrity is a state of mind.

Nik’s story drives the book’s plot, but it’s Denise who provides Stone Arabia’s narrative lens — and her slow, shapeless days of sorting through bills and checking in on her declining mother couldn’t be further from rock ’n roll. Spiotta writes that the hills of Santa Clarita, the Los Angeles suburb where Denise lives, are “tired” but it seems it is simply Denise who is tired. When Denise begins compiling her own Counterchronicles, her fragmented writings reveal the extent of her mental displacement from her own life. Denise is not an unreliable narrator, but she is clearly an unstable one; there are entire days she can’t account for. She sobs in front of the television while watching the news, and spends hours tunneling through search engine results for more details on the most sensational stories. The ceaseless onslaught of headlines depletes her emotional resources. “It is the feeling that your life has just left the room,” Denise says, broodingly.

In the age of the Internet, when we have an instant portal into the lives (real or imagined) of others through our computers, televisions, and smart-phones, it is a feeling many readers will surely relate to in some form, and this is the novel’s key strength. Stone Arabia’s pull largely lies in its ability to recreate the feeling of media saturation that permeates modern life. Take Denise’s birthday for example:
Ada called me in the morning from New York. She made me promise to look at her blog. She had posted a photo of us and it said, “happy birthday to my mom,” just like that, no caps or anything. Not “happy birthday mom” but “to my mom” because it was really reportage to some audience beyond me. It wasn’t a personal message to me, but a public announcement about me.
Denise stares at her screen for a while; she knows her daughter wants her to post a comment, but she just can’t bring herself to. “I just couldn’t say something spontaneous and pithy and then have it hang there for all eternity,” she thinks. “Those are opposite pulls — eternity and pithy — and if I thought at all about what to say it was even worse.” It’s a familiar dilemma, rendered strangely lyrical through Denise’s eyes. Moments like these repeatedly animate the novel. Again and again, Spiotta perfectly captures the static sound of our televisions and Ethernet cables numbly pumping in more information than we need (or can respond to). And she elegantly depicts the ambivalence this unending electronic stream inspires.

In her debut novel, Lightning Field, Spiotta depicted Los Angeles at its most brutally superficial — and female friendship at its most intimate. This was followed by Eat the Document, a mesmerizing story about a fugitive who reinvents herself in hiding, based on the true story of a real-life 1960s activist and her lover. Stone Arabia is also set in Los Angeles, and is also based on a true story. In the Author’s Note, Spiotta writes that though Nik Worth is a character of her imagination, he’s based her real-life stepfather, “Richard Frasca, a.k.a Jon Denmar. Richard Frasca is not Nik Worth but Richard’s devotion to his own music and Richard’s self-documented chronicle of his life as a secret rock star gave me the idea for Nik.” Most novelists invariably incorporate characters and experiences from their lives into their fiction, but there’s something particularly sly about publishing a work of fiction built off someone else’s semi-ironic, private fiction — particularly when that person is the author’s family member.

It’s a fittingly post-modern back-story for a novel which finds each of its main characters trying to make sense of their world through art/music, memoir, and film. Stone Arabia’s tangled layers not-so-subtly mimic the tangled layers of media we all live in. Obsessed with its obsessions (“Even the most pointless obsession can yield a certain kind of depth if it is pursued unfailingly,” Denise thinks), and enchanted by the tension between private and public personas as well as the blurry boundaries between self-documentation and self-creation, Stone Arabia is a truly contemporary novel. Do our stories bring us closer to ourselves, or do they simply hide and splinter our real identity? Stone Arabia assembles an impressive collage of questions about aging, identity, art and its audience, fame and its construction, privacy, knowing and being known, and how we define who we are.

But as the novel slips from third to first person, from Ada’s video transcripts to Nik’s fake-archives, from blog posts to voicemails to movie rentals to search engine results, its narrative coherence meanders. Surely these are deliberate structural choices, but flattened into prose, the onslaught of technology fractures Spiotta’s story-telling. Spiotta is a writer of keen observation and careful craftsmanship, but — though it summons Lightning Field’s cool disaffection and Eat the Document’s enchantment with secret lives and self-invention — Stone Arabia lacks the grace and fluidity of her previous novels. Denise’s recollections from her childhood and early adulthood with Nik are evocative, but they are strung together only tangentially, and none of the book’s secondary characters stick around long enough to matter much. By the end of Stone Arabia, Nik has concluded The Chronicles, Ada has finished Garageland, and Denise has completed her Counterchronicles, but these works offer no real answer or argument to the questions — both stated and understood — that fill their lives. Ultimately, the interruptions of many forms of media — precisely the kinds of interruptions most novels insulate their readers from — give the book a jagged immediacy that raises more questions than it’s capable of answering.