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Jaipur Literature Festival 2024 (wrap): ‘How free are we?’ Ask leading authors…

Jaipur Literature Festival 2024 (wrap): ‘How free are we?’ Ask leading authors…

Co-Festival director William Dalrymple said to one Indian newspaper that this year’s was one of the best with no controversies but incredible contributions by the world’s leading authors…

FREEDOM and politics were two subjects that were never too far away from this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF).

The five-day festival from February 1, saw over 250 authors from the around the world discuss their own work – among the other subjects covered were history, current affairs, gender, science, medicine, climate justice, food and cinema.

Amia Srinavan with her book, ‘The Right to Sex
and Bee Rowlatt (JLF picture)

A particular highlight is always the final session which centres around freedom of expression. Billed this year as ‘Free Speech will survive surveillance technology and privacy invasions’ – Pavan K Varma, former diplomat politician and writer, Varghese K George, author and resident editor of The Hindu; Pinky Anand and Amia Srinivasan, both Oxford University academics, Marcus du Sautoy, Simonyi Professor of Public Understanding of Scient and Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University, and Mohit Satyanand, chairperson and founder of Teamwork Arts, the company that produces JLF, all participated in the discussion moderated by veteran journalist Vir Sanghvi.

George said: “Big tech and a big state are promising us great things, but there is a price to be paid. Speak less, speak when asked, speak only what is being told. Before free speech, you have to have free thought. Without free thought there is no free speech.”

Du Sautoy felt: “I guess you could argue that the (digital) mob is asserting its own right to free speech but I think this ignores the aim of the digital onslaught which is to intimidate people into being quiet. These technologies are creating an environment to fear which destroys the freedom of speech.”

Srinivasan, Chichele Professor of social and political theory at All Souls College Oxford, said it was important in democracies for citizens “to decide whether we allow these technologies to further erode our civil liberties, our right to protest, our right to consent, our right to power”, and that in the end it wasn’t inevitable that there should be an erosion of liberty in the current technological age.

Varma seemed less certain that anything was sacrosanct, despite India’s Constitution offering some protection – he suggested that freedom of thought and expression was being supressed but wasn’t conclusive and described current pressures as a “situation”.

Gulzar – one of India’s best known
poets and lyricists (JLF/Edelman)

One of India’s best known and most respected feminist commentators and activists, and now publisher Urvashi Butalia said that the links between power and those who had none were broken now.

“When we were young feminists thousands of us could go up to the Houses of Parliament in Delhi and then 10 women (would) take the delegation across … They could meet any minister and talk to them and they would listen…” She argued that the citizen had become “the state’s enemy. It’s like the state is at war with its citizens,” she said in a session moderated by British journalist Bee Rowlatt and featuring Australian historian Clare Wright and Norwegian writer Marta Breen.

Wright felt white men of a certain generation were being courted by conservative voices which opposed equality and diversity – while independent women were being pulled in another direction, as they sought equal treatment and pay parity in the workplace and beyond.

Elsewhere British based chef and restauranteur Asma Khan spoke to Sanghvi about ‘Flavours of Diversity: The Indian Palate’ – her recent book, ‘Ammu: Food to Nourish Your Soul’ is dedicated to the memory of her mother and her Khan’s calling into Indian cooking in Britain came as a Cambridge law student initially.

Sudha Murty who is part of the story of Infosys, the global Indian tech company, co-founded by husband Narayana Murthy, talked about her book, ‘Common Yet Uncommon’ which is written from a naïve child’s perspective and gives an insight into her own childhood and upbringing. Her courtship with the young Narayana is now covered in a best-selling book in India, ‘An Uncommon Love’ was also discussed at a JLF session with author Chitra Divakaruni taking to the stage and telling the audience the couple’s courtship and notions of sacrifice and support of each other a life partners held many insights and inspiration to those looking for such. “They made plenty of mistakes – and in this book – they share those difficult learning opportunities very frankly with the reader, hoping the reader will learn from their errors,” Divarkaruni told the newspaper Indian Express in an interview.

Filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj was at JLF to celebrate Jaipur born actor Irrfan Khan’s impact on cinema, in ‘Irrfan: A Life in Movies’ which is also the title of a book by critic Shubra Gupta. She was also joined by theatre actor and Bhardwaj wife Sutapa Sikdar. Bhardwaj cast Khan in the lead role in ‘Maqbool’ (2003) – it was the among Bhardwaj’s trilogy adaptations of Shakespeare’s work into an Indian cinema context and was inspired by ‘Macbeth’.

One of the fest highlights was the appearance of Kai Bird who co-authored the book, ‘American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer’ and which provided the inspiration for one of the films of last year – Brit Christopher Nolan’s ‘Oppenheimer’. Bird was in conversation with British journalist and Guardian writer Jonathan Freedland.

Another JLF regular and former Booker Prize winner Damon Galgut talked with Anish Gawande about the writing process and how four funerals in a friend’s family in post-Apartheid South Africa provided the backdrop and inspiration to his, Booker prize winning, ‘The Promise’.

Indrajit Roy, Nidhi Razdan, Shashi Tharoor

Palestine took centre stage in ‘The Palestine Laboratory’ with authors Antony Loewenstein, Charles Glass and Bird and former Indian diplomat Navtej Sarna, discussing the current situation with the newspaper The Hindu’s Diplomatic Editor, Suhashini Haidar. Loewenstein said he sympathised with the Palestinians and thought a single democratic state might offer a way out, while Glass spoke about the humanitarian crisis while Bird said October 7 and American Jewish sensibilities over security had shifted and that was having an impact on US domestic politics.

Amrita Tripathi, Richard Osman and William Dalyrmple discussed podcasts and how these engage with books. Dalrymple, who co-hosts the hugely popular, ‘Empire’ podcasts with British broadcaster Anita Anand, said: “Nothing I’ve ever done has reached a fraction of the number of people you can reach through podcasts. Empire crossed 20 million downloads. It’s amazing.” Osman said that podcasts could be billed as “slow culture” – “The ultimate slow cultures is books,” said the host of ‘The Rest is Entertainment’ podcast.

Opposition MP Shashi Tharoor, a JLF regular, talked about how India seemed to be sliding towards Presidential style debates, while still being a parliamentary democracy.

On the opening day former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull talked to former India’s High Commissioner to Australia, Navdeep Suri. Booker Prize winner 2023 Irishman Paul Lynch revealed that he had no idea how ‘Prophet Song’ would develop when he began writing. “I had no idea what it was I was embarking on…if I had truly known I would have stopped writing,” he told the audience in conversation with Ireland’s Ambassador to India, Kevin Kelly.

The opening day saw sessions on Indian Queer Writing in Rainbow Readings with Bharat Ola, Chintan Girish Modi and Kinshuk Gupta in conversation. There was also a session Celebrating 50 Years of Publishing: DC Books with the son’s founder, Ravi Decee discussing how his father created the publishing titan from Kerala. Also Norwegian Ambassador May-Elin Stener helped to launch a new Translation Rights Catalogue with publisher JBM. It showcases 50 titles from various Indian languages.

Top picture: Amia Srinivasan, Marcus du Sautoy, Mohit Satyanand, Vir Sanghvi (moderator), Pavan k Varma and Varghese K George (JLF/Edelman)

With thanks to JLF 2024 Edelman for quotes

Some of this year’s sessions have started to drop on Youtube
Go to Youtube and type in Jaipur Literature Festival please – direct links are not working…

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture