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So a new year rolls around and just like every year the one thing that gets me totally excited is the idea of reading more books, discovering new authors and characters along the way and have these become a part of my heart and soul. I read about a challenge called – How to read 24 books or more in one year.
I read this and was super excited and stumped at the same time. Excitement that stemmed from knowing how many more people, probably at the same time as me, were curled up with their favorite book or were perhaps reading the same one as me. But 24? I read that many books in a month and can’t even think of a single day without reading. But no doubt the challenge has set a reasonably realistic timeline and is a great way to motivate everyone around to successfully complete 2 books per month.
The best part about January is the Jaipur Literature Festival. The festival began in 2006 and is conducted annually at Hotel Diggi Palace. It helps if the year starts on a note that encourages literature, books, poetry, ideas and creativity. It paves the way for looking at things differently, being open to change and welcoming these changes into one’s life with an open heart and mind.
The JLF has gained popularity over the years and now has a major section of the youth in attendance. It is a festival like no other, as it is not aimed only at those who are serious writers and have a deep understanding of literature but today anyone who loves books and writing, wishes to attend sessions which inspire and encourage, wants to interact with their favorite authors is welcomed. There is a space for everyone and the festival offers a dynamic range of options which would definitely appeal to each one present.
The JLF has had sessions by Amartya Sen, Amish Tripathi, Jonathan Franzen, Chandrahas Choudhary, Gloria Steinem, Jason Burke, Javed Akhtar, Mahesh Dattani, Marcus Du Sautoy, Rana Dasgupta, Jhumpa Lahiri, Suhel Seth, Vikram Chandra, William Dalrymple, Zuni Chopra (all of 12 years old!) to name a few. In the past the festival has even hosted Oprah Winfrey, the talk show queen and philanthropist, interviewed by Barkha Dutt.
JLF further encourages music across the world having had performances this year by the Ska Vengers, Sonam Kalra and the Sufi Gospel Project, Midival Punditz, Karsh Kale, Gods Robots with Suhail Yusuf Khan. This certainly added an extra dimension bringing people together who love music as much as books! The festival combines art, music, literature as well as various workshops to enhance writing and self expression.
With each session taking a firm stand on the topic in question and encouraging a debate on the same, three sessions in particular stood out to me.
A session titled ‘The Interpreter of Stories’ by Jhumpa Lahiri, an Indian American author who spoke about the connections between her novels and stories. Her recently published second novel, The Lowland, was the centre of discussion. She spoke about the characters of the book, the leading protagonists being 2 brothers who come of age in the 1950’s and 60’s in Calcutta. As one of them gets involved in the Naxalite movement, their paths diverge and the second brother goes to the United States. The book focuses on their choices and the effects of the same on each of their lives.
There is no doubt about the fact that the author delves into her own history and her childhood in order to create the magic on paper for which she is widely acclaimed. She mentions being all of five years old during the Naxalite movement and it is indeed stimulating when one realizes through the pages that having been born to parents from West Bengal and her early years has a huge influence on her writing.
She mentions that she is always unsure of how the book would turn out as she does not set a limit or a direction to the writing. The reason her writing stands out and has received various awards is also to do with the fact that her language is simple and in a sense autobiographical as the characters in both her books talk of Indian immigrants to the U.S. and the differences and challenges they face in terms of their culture and traditions. She explores an elaborative narrative of the character’s life, their thoughts, feelings; apprehensions which draw you to the character and help you understand their life and feel you are experiencing the same, even from the safe confines of your home and your homeland.
Unfortunately I was unable to read The Lowland before heading to Jaipur but it is on my list of books to read and has been since last year once I knew her second novel is out. Her book The Namesake which was made into a film as well is undoubtedly one of my favorite books and movies too. She brings her characters to life where the reader feels that they are walking alongside and living each day with them. Writing which spills from the soul is able to achieve that.
Throughout the discussion I felt that though she described her reasons and research for the book, she was somehow, in my opinion, unable to connect with the audience. As powerful as her words are and the genius of her mind which trickles onto paper, I was left feeling that the discussion had none of the magical hold on me as her books do. Or perhaps this may be the case as I am yet to read the second book which was the main center of conversation. Nevertheless her words did spark in me a curiosity to understand where she is coming from and lead me to flipping through the pages of her book currently.
Another session which held my interest was conducted by Marcus du Sautoy on ‘Symmetry’. As a top UK scientist as well as a professor in Oxford University he had recently published his second book – Finding Moonshine which details his journey as a mathematician focusing on symmetry. He spoke about mathematics as a language and not merely numbers which fascinated me as who would have ever thought math as a language especially one who had never been able to grasp this ‘language’ successfully all through the school years! He kept a monthly record for a year of places that he visited and where he was able to find the beauty of symmetry, whether in music, walls or even a deadly virus.
What really struck me about this session was his reasoning of mathematics being both a science as well as an art. Until now I had never believed there to be any language or beauty in a subject I had dreaded in school. But having heard his comparisons as well as the various examples of symmetry he discovered all around him, led me to see this from another person’s perspective which was indeed a remarkable learning. What I really admired was his passion for his research and subject and the enthusiasm that reflected in his discourse. No doubt as a professor he knows how to hold the attention of the listeners and convey what he wishes to, but to be able to do so not with a bunch of students, rather people from various educational backgrounds, demographics and interests and still manage to generate curiosity and learning, is indeed remarkable.
One of the most invigorating sessions I attended was the following day on January 19th 2014 on a cold winter morning. The session titled ‘The Immortals’ carried out by Amish Tripathi, the brain behind the Shiva Trilogy. His session centered on speaking about myths, mythology and how he has brought in a fresh take on the Gods where by humanizing them we are able to perceive them as more spiritual than religious.
He has created a storm with his writing and has reached a wide range of readers everywhere, whether you see it in the hands of the person next to you at the coffee table, while waiting for a flight, someone stepping out with a copy from the bookstore, a colleague who is taking a quick break to finish a few more pages or even a relative you didn’t realize was quite the reader. Before I share my opinion of having heard him discuss his books and the journey leading to them, I confess that I have only read 2 of his books and do not have any major inclination towards the third.
I read the first purely because it created such a rage that was hard to miss. Hence the curiosity. I liked his style of writing but the book did not pull me into it like most do. I read the second thinking that perhaps I did not allow myself to see it the way the author did and this caused a disconnect. I realized early on into the second book that the reason I was unable to enjoy the book as much as others did was the fact that I do not have a keen interest in mythology and the historical narrative which is required to narrate a mythological story even though it is colored with modernity.
Nevertheless, I hugely admire his work and the dedication and research that has gone into it, which is evident from him having created ripples in the literary section of India and globally.
What strikes one instantly as he begins to talk is the humility he exudes while speaking of his success and his journey from a banker to an author. His forthright and straight forward approach in discussing his books and style of writing captures one’s interest. His love for mythology and a connection to Lord Shiva is indeed reflected in his work but once he started interacting with his fans, I was amazed to discover the amount of research he had invested in and the wealth of knowledge he possesses in his subject. It’s no surprise that filmmakers, both from India and the West are keen to adapt his books into films.
He concluded his session with 3 pieces of advice to aspiring writers. Firstly, one should write from the heart, for oneself as it helps to serve the purpose of our own soul. Secondly, he added a realistic element, that of having a stable job to pay one’s bills while pursuing one’s passion till it takes off in the direction we want, or being lucky enough to be financially sound. Lastly, he mentioned that most writers do not take marketing as seriously as they should and feel the book would sell itself successfully. He said one must be practical in marketing and should come up with novel and creative ideas to do so rather than follow already applied tactics.
My experience at the festival this year was super special having attended it with one of my gal pals, one with an equally ardent love for books and new experiences, whose spirit and energy made the weekend doubly invigorating. As we left Jaipur post the session, I knew that I took with me lessons for a lifetime, of following my dreams and passion, of having faith in oneself and knowing that I would never be alone – as long as I have sheets of paper and a pen as well as few books in my bag. Food for my soul indeed.
Pic credit: Paras Chopra (Used under a Creative Commons license)
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