Jaipur January 24, 2011.
Every evening, the Jaipur LitFest culminates in an evening of dinner, music and song, but there are also a number of fascinating havelis in the city, that have been converted into hotels and which serve excellent meals. One evening, Alexander Pringle, the editor in chief of Bloomsbury, gave a dinner for her authors, at the beautiful Samode Haveli/hotel in an exquisite inner room with ceiling, pillars and archways, painted in intricate floral designs in a wonderful medley of muted colours. It was a truly elegant and enjoyable evening, a sit down dinner at a long table for 25. We were served thalis and other than Kamila and William Dalrymple, the Bloomsbury authors included philosopher, AC Grayling, memoirist William Fiennes, novelists Richard Ford (‘Independence Day’), Jay McInerney (‘Big City, Bright Lights’) Candace Bushnell (‘Sex and the City’).
The following day, being a Sunday was particularly crowded but by this time, I got the hang of things: you leave one session before the Q&A is over, move to the next venue and edge forward to a place when you grab the first vacant seat, as people start to move out. The session on “The Crisis in the American novel” was packed. The included Richard Ford, Jay McInerney, Junot Diaz in the conversation with Martin Amis. The discourse was lively and illuminating and Junot Diaz in particular was often very witty, although clearly no one really thought the American novel was undergoing undue crisis, especially since so much vital writing was coming from minority communities. But both Kamila and I (and the bright young Indian man sitting next to me) were truly amazed that the all-male panel clearly thought that only men wrote worthy American fiction: there was mention of Philip Roth, John Updike, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer et al – but there was absolutely NO discussion on any female writer, not even Toni Morrison, though there was a brief, passing reference to Eudora Welty! Then at some point Martin Amis came up with the bizarre statement that people who illiterate have different brain cells and other formations, to people who are literate – an idea which reminded me of all those appalling nineteenth century Europeans who, in the name of science went around measuring the skulls and noses of colonised people to define their racial (sub-human) characteristics.
At the same venue, earlier in the day there was a fascinating and stimulating discussion on ‘Af-Pak’ which was being televised live and was moderated by the TV host, Barka Dutt. The panel included the articulate Rory Stewart, author of ‘The Places in Between’ and is now a Tory MP. He has walked the length and breadth of Afghanistan and urged the need to understand the cultures and customs of the region. Pakistan’s award winning and bestselling author, Ahmed Rashid was incisive as always and urged, as he has so often done in his newspaper writings, the urgent need for a dialogue which would also involve all the regional players including India and Pakistan, to resolve the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan. The exiled Afghan writer and filmmaker Atiq Rahimi spoke in French through an English interpreter about exile, loss and the tragedies of his homeland, while William Dalrymple drew parallels between the nineteenth century accounts of the Afghan Wars and the problems faced by US and Nato troops today.
Later in the day I went to hear ex-patriats Ahdaf Souief and Leila Aboulela talk about contemporary Arab fiction and their place within it as writers of English fiction. The Egyptian-born, Soueif read from her Booker short-listed novel ‘A Map of Love’ and her new work-in-progress. Leila Aboulela, the daughter of a Sudanese father and Egyptian mother read extracts from her new novel ‘Lyrics Alley’ which is set in Sudan in 1950 and draws on the life of her uncle, who became a brilliant and famous lyricist, though he suffered from a severe physical handicap. There I also ran into an old friend, Charlie Walker, who used to head the British Council in Karachi and is now posted in Delhi.
I took time off from the Jaipur Literature Festival to do some sightseeing. Thanks to the good advice given by some cousins who live in Jaipur and have turned their family home into a boutique hotel, I went to see the City Palace. Situated within the fabled (if overcrowded) pink city, this splendid and extensive building is certainly well worth a visit, with its strong lines and clear open spaces, but inspired by the photos of the Maharajah’s private apartments which are still in use, I paid (a horrendous amount) extra to go inside: the fee included a free guide, who turned out to belong to an old family of palace retainers and was extremely knowledgeable. He took me through a long verandah with frescoes of Maharajahs and floral designs, made from paint derived from ground semi-precious stones; beyond were the Mughal style gardens and fountains and a vista that led to a hillside temple. In the westernised sitting room/drawing room, there was a long, spot-lit glass dining table by Lalique engraved with two spectacular peacocks. But it was the rooms on the upper levels that held me spellbound: one was spread with a ‘masnad’, bolster and floor cushions, but the entire room - its walls, arches and pillars were embedded with coloured glass and edged with gold leaf against a white background to resemble ‘kundan work’, to stunning effect. Higher up, there was another room – embedded with mirrors and coloured – sheesh – so that when the guide lit a single candle, it was reflected/refracted throughout the room as tiny stars – and of course, from the verandah outside there was a spectacular view of the city. I also visited the famous Jaipur observatory afterwards, but missed the Albert Museum as it was almost closing time by then. Until next time…
Muneeza Shamsie, in Jaipur