Of Poets and Fools in a Literary Paradise: Jaipur Literary Fest 2019

I am married into a family of poets and talented people! My great grandfather-in-law was a celebrated Sufi Poet in Jaipur! I have always wondered at the ability of my husband and daughter, and my brother-in-law, to spin verse at the drop of a hat, mostly in Hindi and Urdu! Occasionally in English for the illiterate, untalented folk like me! An occasion, an event, or just a thought, is enough to write eloquent words in poetic verse. It must be hereditary, I have convinced myself, as I can barely write a blog post in prose!! So when my husband and I got an opportunity to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival 2019, a celebrated event in India, we were thrilled. I thought I could be a free-rider and enjoy the literary paradise if not as a Poet at least as a Fool!
The place was swarming with young people and on a Saturday we had to jostle elbow to elbow to move down the road leading to the venue. The young folk were busy taking selfies and photos with celebrities. One senior journalist told me that someone requested a selfie with her and then turned around and asked, “So, who are you?” Well, I was not to be outdone and took some shots myself of the teeming crowds, but not of celebrities!
Swarming Selfie taking youth
We sampled various sessions of the Fest for two days, my husband nearly always choosing Hindi-Urdu sessions and me, the English Mam, choosing quirky English panels. A session on ‘Where do poems come from’ was a common choice for poets and fools. The session anchored by William Sieghart had three interesting young poets from different countries and cultures. Kaven Akbar, from Iran, but settled in Indiana, US categorized poets into ‘Cat Poets’ and ‘Ox Poets’. Cat poets are those who prowl around the house thinking and looking, and suddenly pounce upon a moment when a sunbeam falls on the window sill. Ox poets are out there in the open, capturing the moments, landscape, people, tensions as they travel through the land. The Ox is also more systematic and dogged. How often have I waited to watch the early morning sunbeam fall on the leaves and plants in our backyard? How often have I travelled the world moving through and observing cultures and historic sites? Never once have these moments inspired a single poem in my head either as a ‘Cat Poet’ or an ‘Ox Poet’!!
The Poets’s Panel
Satyajit Sarna from India shared his experience of that moment when a poem formed in his head as he stepped out of a shop and noted the absolute uncoordinated placement of things and people in the courtyard. At that moment he only had his cell phone with him. He moved over and stood under a tree to record the moment in verse! He called the poem “Ship of Fools”, an allegory from Plato about a ship with a dysfunctional crew. He said that if at that moment all he had was a box of matchsticks, he would use it to write the poem that formed in his head. Made sense to me as I have watched my husband get up suddenly and note down a poem. Wow, always been a wonder to me.
Zeina Hashem Beck from Lebanon, whose native language was Arabic, said she started to write in English as someone told her that an international language would find her poems a larger audience. But her poems came from her experiences which reflected her culture and natural language. She creates a map of her poem before it is structured as a verse! Kaveh Akbar spoke about a ‘difficult poem’ when he wrote about a real incident of Reyhaneh Jabbari who was hanged for stabbing and killing the man who assaulted her. He wrote the poem at first based on the transcript of Reyhaneh’s last letter to her mother. Kaveh felt guilty about publishing this poem based on a real life incident of alleged rape and kept the poem with him for a long time. “It seemed off, fundamentally wrong, and I couldn’t figure out why. I put the poem away and moved on into my grieving” He re-visited it a year later and then it became his poem which he called ‘Heritage’.
I moved on to the next rather light-hearted session on ‘The Life and Art of Nonsense: Mr. Lear’. Edward Lear was well known as the author of the poem ‘The Owl and the Pussy Cat’ which I learnt in my English medium school. ‘Let us be married, too long have we tarried’. Jenny Uglow who has written a biography, ‘Mr. Lear: A life of art and nonsense’, was in conversation with Christopher de Hamel. For the first time I learnt that ‘Nonsense Literature’ is a form of literature which has a way of subverting the conventional language. These rhymes by Edward Lear were published in the ‘Book of Nonsense’ in 1846 long before the term Limericks was coined. Lewis Carroll continued this tradition of nonsense rhymes in his very famous books, ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ (1865) and ‘Through the Looking Glass’ (1871). When our daughter went to kindergarten in New Haven, United States, we came across Dr. Seuss. He is an American author who followed the tradition of nonsense literature in his children’s books. Of these books I remember ‘The Cat in the Hat’, for its simple set of words and hilarious illustrations which kept our daughter fascinated. We borrowed these and other sets of books regularly from the Public Library and we think it taught our daughter to read with great speed and interest. Each book contained not more than 5 words, 10 words or few more that were jumbled up and repeated again and again. It gave the child a sense that she could read and indeed very soon she did.
Jenny Uglow and Christopher
Mr. Lear’s poetry often had a lot of violence where people were bashed up, but children seem to enjoy this. We have of course noticed this in a lot of cartoons appearing on TV and now are increasingly aware of the ill effects leading children to become immune to violence. There was a dark side to his poems. Many of them began with ‘There was an old man….”.
“There was an Old Person of Berlin,
Whose form was uncommonly thin;
Till he once, by mistake, Was mixed up in a cake,
So they baked that Old Man of Berlin.”
“There was an Old Man of New York who murdered himself with a fork.”
The poems came with gleeful illustrations of the event that made the children laugh.
Edward Lear;s poem with sketches 
He travelled through India for 14 months painting landscapes and he wrote:
“There was an Old Man of Madras,
Who rode on a cream-coloured ass;
But the length of its ears, So promoted his fears,
That it killed that Old Man of Madras.”
Jenny Uglow narrated that Edward Lear was ill as a child and had an unhappy childhood. This could be the reason for his writing nonsense poem to entertain children. There was also the use of the word ‘they’. After reciting some comic episode the word ‘they’ was a mystery, as though someone disapproved of it. The use of the words ‘I don’t care’ was frequent, as though the protagonist in the poem was seeking to escape. In the poem ‘They went out to sea in a Sieve’, the nonsense element was how could anyone float in a sieve?
“They went to sea in a Sieve, they did; In a Sieve they went to sea:
In spite of all their friends could say,
On a winter’s morn, on a stormy day, In a Sieve they went to sea!
And when the Sieve turned round and round, And everyone cried, “You’ll be drowned!”
They called aloud, “Our Sieve ain’t big, but we don’t care a button! We don’t care a fig! In a Sieve we’ll go to sea!”
“My Husband and Other Animals”, was a hilarious session by Janki Lenin and her husband Rom Whittaker, in conversation with an Urban Ecologist, Darryl Jones. They are conservationists and fight to conserve wild life within the slow creeping urbanization that is encroaching on the lands of the animals leading to conflict. Rom runs the crocodile park in Chennai. The American model of conservation is to separate out the areas with wild life and indigenous flora and fauna as National Parks. While this model exists in India, whole villages and people live in some of these Reserved Forest. Wild life also roams free in areas inhabited by people in a relatively harmonious manner. Rom shared that the King Cobra is the most well conserved species in India. People in the villages around Agumbe in Karnataka state, with high rainfall and a Rainforest, lived comfortably with King Cobras. Similarly the Dungar pastoralists of Maharashtra were used to the loss of sheep and goat as the wolves in the area feasted on them. In the Charotar region of Gujarat they observed villages where crocodiles were in slumber on the banks of a lake where the women were washing their clothes without fear.
Janaki Lenin and Rom Whittaker
Janaki narrated an incident when one of their pet dogs went missing in the outskirts of Chennai. Rom lodged an FIR at the local Police station. Later they discovered it had been eaten by a leopard. This upset her, but when she enquired with the villagers around she found that this was a regular feature of their lives and they were not concerned even though herding goat and sheep was part of their livelihood. When Rom went to report that the dog had been eaten by wild life, the policeman in charge said “oh, a leotard!” And so the matter ended and Janaki learned to live in harmony with the leopards!! This remarkable couple was making a plea for conserving wild life and that it was not tigers alone that were an endangered species. ‘Save the Tiger’ got a lot of sponsorship and attention of the wild life lobby and the media in India. Smaller species deserved as much attention.

How about concern for the endangered Homo sapiens! I walked into a session titled ‘Rainbow Readings’ and the fool in me took some time to figure out that these authors were talking about then LGBTQ community! Chike Edozien, Sandip Roy, Tova Reich and Madhavi Menon were in conversation with Arpita Das. Chike Edozien, author of the first Nigerian Gay man’s memoir ‘Lives of Great Men’, read out a beautiful piece on meeting an old flame many years later and finding the embers of the flame had not fully been extinguished. Sandip Roy spoke about how a taxi driver, after a long trip out of town, is suddenly made aware that his client was a gay man. His reaction was simple acceptance of the fact that ‘well, it takes all kinds to make this world’, which is my favourite philosophy! Tova Reich told the story of three generations of Jewish women through the eyes of Meena, a divorced lesbian, in her novel Mother India. Finally, Madhavi Menon spoke about one of the essays in her book ‘Infinite Variety: A History of Desire in India’. According to her Lord Ayyappa, at the center of the recent controversy at Sabarimala Temple in Kerala, was likely to have been fond of men! First, he is the god born of two men, Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu! Lord Vishnu periodically went around entice gods in the form of Mohini!  His soul companion is Vavar, a Muslim sailor, at whose shrine all pilgrims to Sabarimala have to worship before entering the temple. Hence the ban on women of menstrual age to enter Sabarimala Temple on the ground that it would distract Lord Ayyappa made no sense!! Indeed an interesting insight into the Sabarimala controversy. Perhaps they should ban the entry of men into the temple!!

Rainbow Readings Panel
The final session I attended had Rakesh Basant, an academic, Salman Khurshid, a Congress party member, Harsh Mander, a die-hard liberal, and an author Revati Laul in conversation with journalist Sagarika Ghosh. The hot topic was whether successive governments have practiced appeasement of the Muslim minority community in India. The Sachar Committee report had convincingly shown that the Muslim community fared very badly economically, socially, in terms of infrastructure facilities in their areas, including banks and transport. However, there was a silver lining as the Muslim community had better sex ratios, lower infant and child mortality and better education among the women. Revati Laul’s book was based on interviews with three men who had participated in the mob attacks on Muslims in the Gujarat riots of 2002. They had no remorse, except one who seemed to have a change of heart. It seemed to me that the book was in poor taste. Why give importance to the worst elements, murderers and participants in such a heinous crime? Why not focus on the people who risked their lives to protect and help the helpless, incidences narrated by Harsh Mander? The attack from the public was mainly on the Congress party and its policies of ‘so-called’ appeasement and were they now practicing ‘soft Hinduism’ with their leaders visiting temples? Salman Khurshid gallantly responded that while the party was truly secular in ideology they had to be practical in their strategy. The debate became rather hot with a couple of old men getting very agitated and shouting Hindutva invectives at the panel. As one young lady responding to my tweets on the panel noted “what gave hope was the fact that the younger crowd did not support the two ‘uncles’, remained calm and listened”. Yes we have hope in India in spite of much churning in the current run up to the general elections in the country!
The Final Panel!
It was a wonderful foray into the lives and works of people that one could never have otherwise met or heard. While I am not sure that the teeming youth at the venue would really read any of these books, it was heartening to see the youth and school children in uniforms moving around, meeting and hopefully opening their minds to new ways of thinking and living. I definitely got a glimmer into the lives of poets and the process of creating verse. We also came away with hope for the endangered species, both animals and home sapiens!

4 thoughts on “Of Poets and Fools in a Literary Paradise: Jaipur Literary Fest 2019

  1. Ramaswamy V Krishnamurti Nicely written.. gave a nice glimpse of the festival. I had attended Bangalore Litfest and had met up with Janaki Lenin and Tom Wittekar. Finally, uncles who make asses of themselves is a new phenomenon in the last four years…You could checkout my blog writeup on-uBangalore Litfest.


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