Jaipur Lit Fest and the Cycle of Cynicism

Social Commentary

Jaipur Lit Fest and the Cycle of Cynicism

Illustration: Shivali Devalkar

Writing, as any writer will tell you, is a hopeless, Sisyphean struggle just to stay afloat. Publications keep shutting down, low-IQ marketing drones act as “editorial supervisors”, and the need for “content” is championed over the need for good writing. Forget jobs; writers are left worrying if they’ll even have a profession left in five years.

The whole year is spent in this dark pit of hopelessness… except for five days each year in January. These five days are a springtime oasis, a utopian corner of your own in a party of rich, unpleasant lawyers wearing branded pocket squares. For nearly one entire week, the writer community is showered with love, affection, feigned interest, and other feelings that are not indifference/apathy/ridicule by the mainstream. The air becomes thick with the smell of old books, the sky turns the colour of organic ink, and yuppies with poor grammar are put in jail. Social scientists have even come up with a name for this phenomenon. It’s called the Jaipur Literature Festival, or JLF.

This almost-week is when writerly types become real functional human beings, not rickety, pale-faced Palika Bazaar-knockoffs. They come crawling out of the woodwork; their clandestine sense of self-importance now on full, vulgar display to the world. What we do is important, they tell anyone who’ll listen. And for a few days, people are actually listening to them.

All stops are pulled out to make the most of this opportunity. The first is the obvious overload of swagger and change in tone. From timid to obnoxious, it doesn’t take long for the true personality of the writer to come out. Then there are the serious, influential, eminent journalists, such as myself, who begin live-Tweeting the minutiae of the festival. You know, like it’s a matter of actual significance that people who didn’t even care enough to get passes must know about, stat.

You’ll have people preparing these supposedly edgy performance-art gimmicks in the misguided belief that anyone outside of the bubble actually cares. They’ll rehearse grand speeches. For the Q&A sessions, they’ll note down complicated questions in sentences cluttered with cerebral, show-off words, impossible-to-count clauses and even more impossible syntax – all to show up their peers, or to suck up to people they secretly admire but publicly slate (or the other way ’round). Celebrity gossip, derided for the other 360 days, is given a free pass, even encouraged. Serious subjects like politics and censorship and the future of journalism are discussed in iambic pentameter. Literature puns become cool.

Even before the five days have a chance to shine some sun, the self-loathing returns and with it returns world-weariness not just towards festivals but for writers and writing and anything remotely literary.

For this moment in the sun, writers take the effort to shave. Grimaces transform, for a fleeting period, into ugly, toothy smiles. People get away with saying things like “prose before hoes” or “pitches before bitches” without being shunned by society. Even drinking tap beer and calling it your First Draft is allowed.

It’s a jolly time, but also a short-lived one.

The thing is that, inherently, writers cannot appreciate a good thing. We’re not wired that way (yes, I am a member of this self-loathing tribe). We just don’t know how to have fun, burdened, as we are, by the weight of our own formidable intellect. Writers aren’t happy merely puffing up their hair and their chests and letting loose. We need more. We need misery.

So self-sabotage comes into play. It’s the last refuge of the detached hipster trying to stay relevant: To claim that a good thing used to be a good thing only earlier, when you and not many others knew about its existence. So every year, you’ll have an expanding tribe of my people complaining about how JLF was better “back in my time”. How it’s too crowded now, how the speakers were superior in ’08, and how the event was more intimate and cosy just a few years ago. Now it’s all mainstream. The hype machine has taken over. How Suhel Seth is now a self-parody of a self-parody of a self-parody… Sigh.

So even before the five days have a chance to shine some sun, the self-loathing returns and with it returns world-weariness not just towards festivals but for writers and writing and anything remotely literary and just like that, we’re right back in our natural state… in the dark pit of hopelessness. And that’s where we happily remain until some other poor, misguided bloke attempts to aid the state of literature with another literary festival, this one with featuring snow leopards and dancing dervishes. If it’s hipster enough, maybe this time we won’t bitch.