• The Whirl of JLF: Personal Highlights

    There’s no point pretending you don’t have FOMO when you’re at JLF — there’s inevitably sessions and speakers you miss, whether because they’re cross-scheduled against other enticing options, or you’re up… for a session, or an interview or a mish-mash of the two. The crowds at JLF are legendary and while it can sometimes feel like years of your life span are being cut short every time you cross the front lawn, the jostle and bustle is as much a part of the festival as the kulhad chai on offer.

    Also Read: Five Women You Should Not Miss at JLF

    This year, I was beyond delighted to meet some fascinating and grounded writers, and to host some memorable sessions. Award-winning French writer Maylis de Kerangal was one of my first festival conversations. Two of her novels have been translated into English, including the latest one, Reparer Les Vivants — translated as The Heart, and Mend the Living, depending on whether you get the US or UK version. Fascinating to see the changes in translation also from the original French text — translators bring so much to the table. The book starts with an accident which leaves a 19 year old surfer brain-dead. His heart still pumping, and while he want(ed) to be an organ donor, the shards of that decision and the repercussions for his parents, while still grief-stricken are at the core of the book, and our conversation too. No surprise that I learned later from a member of the audience that her book sold out.

    The Booker Prize winning author of The Sellout, Paul Beatty, was another festival favourite. He might be most uncomfortable while fielding questions, making it quite clear that he doesn’t see himself as some ‘voice of god’ type of authority (especially when asked by a reporter about some macro-economic ramifications of a Donald Trump presidency). Nor does he feel comfortable answering questions as some “ambassador” for black Americans — and if you read his book, it’s almost impossible to want to box him in or label him, making it a tough task for journalists, for sure! I moderated the ad-hoc press conference for him, and followed up with a more in-depth conversation, and was blown away by how actively he listens to questions (“unpacking them” as a fellow journalist put it), trying to understand where you the questioner are coming from, and while the conversation twists and turns, he often comes back to earlier strands, and ties many stray thoughts together. (He very charmingly also did say sorry for “not answering your question” more than once to more than one reporter.)

    I had a pretty intense and interesting session with Devdutt Pattnaik, on his latest book Olympus — looking at Greek Mythology, from the point of view of “reversing the gaze” from the east. He compares and contrasts many of the stories and offers counterpoints from the Indian mythology canon — and in the session also made it clear that the fundamental world views are different, looking at conquest of the ‘other’ and a linear quest, vs a more cyclical perspective, birth, re-birth and the need to change from within. Essentially, karmic balance sheets being what they are, in this part of the world, your goal is to ensure you’re debt-free, before you get to end the cycle of re-birth. He was witty, very approachable and amiable, and more than happy to engage with a massive crowd!

    There’s also some genuine movie star glamour at hand — I had a fan moment meeting actor Dominic West and telling him I had just missed him (because I was naturally staring at my phone, tweeting) and then got a quick photo taken before asking him if he was getting mobbed. “A little,” he said, so I not-so-gracefully stepped away slowly!

    I enjoyed meeting and having a chat with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, who is quite lovely and lively with her readers and reporters alike, genuinely seeming grateful for the privilege to get to travel and talk to them, as much as for her chosen profession as a writer.

    Also Read: Namita Gokhale Writes Her ‘Big Book’ With Things to Leave Behind

    But it’s hard to pick just a few highlights — there was the North Korean defector Hyeonseo Lee (not her real name), whose story is told in The Girl With Seven Names, Volga, the author of The Liberation of Sita, historian John Keay, writer Vivek Shanbag, and so many other writers that it’s been quite a whirl!

    Meanwhile the Women’s March happened while we were here in our bubble and of course that came up in several conversations, and probably will again at the final session pending for me to moderate — on mansplaining and misogyny.