A weekend in Jaipur: Literature, Camels and Oprah Winfrey!

Posted: January 24, 2012 in Uncategorized

So a few days ago, I packed my bags and got on a train to Jaipur, Rajasthan, mostly for the Jaipur Literature Festival (Indian version of the Galle Lit Fest). Set at the Diggi House in Shivaji Marg, the fest promised a star host of literary celebrities — including Michael Ondaatje, our very own Shehan Karunatilaka (who bagged the DSC prize), Kunal Basu, Fathima Bhutto, playwright David Hare, Amy Chua, Vinod Mehta, Willian Dalrymple, Deepak Chopra, 1994 Booker Prize judge Alastair Niven — among others – and then an added bonus — Oprah Winfrey! The queen of American telly is trotting about India itseems for inspiration for her upcoming documentary. Salman Rushdie sadly cancelled cuz of crazy people wanting to kill him though.

Needless to say, I was kind of star-struck. Though I’m not really the type to get all hyper over getting writers’ autographs, I was still pretty much all, I can’t believe I’m going to meet Michael Ondaatje and Oprah Winfrey.. for free. O_O

Anyway, let’s start at the beginning.

A room of one’s own!

After sharing an apartment with six teenagers — getting my own hotel room at a snazzy little inn was nothing short of heaven. Also, I’d never really had my own hotel room all to myself before, let alone with cable TV and room service and a fancy swipey-card thingy.. the possibilities buzzed through my brain.. ordering craploads of lasagna to my room, standing under the hot shower forever (without the interruption of roommates knocking on the door!), lying in bed watching The Simpsons reruns for hours while eating a packet of Oreos, hell, I could dance around in my underwear! All these things may or may not have been committed, I cannot specify on grounds of Too Much Information.

I really savoured the peace and quiet and just coming back at the end of the day to my absolute own personal space. Also the privacy conducive to the act of flailing around like a happy little lunatic.

The Indian Literati

I met five of my Sri Lankan friends at the Fest and we did our secret Sri Lankan handshake. The place was decorated in loud primary colours, and the presentations much like in Galle were scheduled at separate locations and you had to pick and choose which to attend. But unlike in Galle, there was a togetherness about the JLF locations, since they were all inside a sort of compact Diggi House (something like Park Street Mews minus ugly warehouses) which was essentially a massive outdoorsy area divided only by gates and tents — as opposed to the locations at the Galle Fort which are so far apart that I get distracted and lost on the way to the program. Ticketing and all that jazz was surprisingly organized for an event that was FREE to the public. And the crowd? — You know, there’s this particular Colombo crowd that goes to Galle for the GLF, in their best shades, best shoes, all fashioned up, going all oh my, I’m going to the GLF, are you? Everyone who’s anyone is going to be there! I haven’t read a goddamn book since ninth grade but hanging out at the Fest makes me feel like an intellectual! ..? Well, news flash, this species is most probably universal. The same fashion, the same pretentious ‘I’m going to get my book signed by this awesome writer though I’ve never heard of him or his book before today in my life! yay!’, the same English intelligentsia accents, the same everything — at the Jaipur Lit Fest. You even found the Hipster, the Cross-Dressing Guy and the Flamboyantly Coloured Hippy making their appearance as part of the ‘liberal minded literati.’ I have nothing against them though,  the ones in Galle or the ones in Jaipur, just that it was hilarious to find out they were common to ‘literature festivals’ in general.

However, you don’t notice any of these silly things at the JLF all that much because your mind is too busy being befuddled by the fact that all this is free (as opposed to the ridiculous cost of the GLF). I listened to writers tell me about how they overcame natural obstacles that writers face in this century, to Booker Prize judges tell me how to write prize winning fiction, to world renowned gurus tell me how to earn big bucks as a writer without having to sell your soul, and to useful anecdotes, advice and discussion — about everything and anything to do with the art of literature — for the price of nothing. Michael Ondaatje talked to us about writing historical fiction, Samit Basu discussed ‘creating imaginary worlds’ when writing, Alastair Niven explained the things that factor into writing something of ‘literary excellence,’ Katherine Boo talked passionately about journalistic literature and how the issues written are more important than the writer himself. The music concerts at the end of each day, though, was at the cost of only 500 Sri Lankan rupees, and featured epic indigenous music styles, some Hindustani vocals, some Rajasthani dancing, and even some world fusion. I made some good buys at the Fest’s bookstore, including a book of poetry by Rumi — whose work I have never seen in a bookshop before.

The Oprah Mob

So on my last day in Jaipur, Oprah Winfrey was going to descend upon us mortals at the Fest. I am a huge fan of Oprah and her work. Getting there about twenty minutes before her presentation, all excited, I found myself right at the front of a big mob that had gathered outside the gate of the location Oprah was gonna be at; the gate was closed, and the security guys said ‘no entry, too crowded.’ We peeped through the gate and saw that the security guys were lying! There was loads of space to stand though the seats were taken up — ‘Oprah would not approve, Security Guy!’ I protested. Huge ruckus as we all fussed and fretted out loud outside the gate, only a few minutes before Oprah begins, we pleaded, an old lady next to me got a bit hysterical and screamed ‘kutta!’ (you dog!’) at the security guy for not opening the gate for her. I was almost to tears when I heard Oprah receive applause and still the guards wouldn’t let us in. The angry mob and I really bonded.

Random mob guy: They can’t do this, this is a free event!
Me: Totally, what a bunch of douches.
Random mob girl: I mean can you believe these guards? I’m going to report them!
Me: Yeah I should write about them..
Random mob girl: DO IT and send it to a paper too. Nice bag by the way.
Me: lol thx.

Suddenly I found myself rubbing shoulders with the Bhutanese Queen and Princess and some other members of their court — and by rubbing shoulders, I don’t mean we went to a tea party together, but they were literally standing next to me and brushed past me in the crowd to get through the gate. They floated past all majestically in long silk robes, porcelain skin framed by long straight dark hair, before disappearing behind the gate.

Finally a policeman came and flung open the gates and we stampeded into the venue. Oprah — in an orange shalwar kameez — was about twenty feet away from me, and talked to us hundreds about her life, about literature, about what she thinks of India, and all that, nothing short of inspirational as usual, and I got some relatively good shots from where I was standing (mostly because I yelled ‘media! media!’ and trudged through the crowd to a good spot with  my camera like a sneaky weasel).

Deepak Chopra thinks hard work is for luzrs

‘I don’t believe in hard work… Do nothing and accomplish everything!’ said the spiritual guru, and I was like, HMMM sounds like my kind of job description. So at the very end of his seminar — which was totally fascinating cuz he related quantum physics to everything which made everything seem cooler than it actually was (and I quote, ‘we are all essentially stardust’) — I waved my hand frantically in the air and he picked me as his last question. Um, how exactly do you do nothing and accomplish everything? I asked, getting my notebook out to write a step-by-step procedure.

By being, thinking, feeling and doing — he said, all profound like, before exiting the stage. Wow. Way to be specific, Deepak.

Palaces & camels

Jaipur is a beautiful, beautiful city! It had perfect weather this time of year, cool enough to have to wear two layers, but still with fresh hot sun streaming through the windows. Pink, yellow, orange powdery walls for miles and miles, decorated with shapely arches and intricate trellis work.

A friend and I spent our second day in Jaipur at the Ameer Palace, where the movie Jodha Akbar was filmed. It’s this seriously epic palace that looks straight out of some arabian-nights-esque movie, built by some ancient king, featuring amazing Islamic architecture — all inclusive of those faded orange/yellow walls, vast courtyards, lush oases and mini-palaces — some with corridors and ceilings covered in mirror work, some with innovative roofs, some with dark long narrow passages that carry you to some other mystical part of the place. Before exploring the place we visited the zillions of pigeons perched on the floor outside the palace, and three of them sat on my arm eating birdseed from my palm. After leaving the palace we rode a camel in traffic — and damn, camels are tall as hell, I felt like I was 10 feet above ground.’I am camel driver, give me tip!’ demanded the little boy pulling the camel. So I did.

The case of the missing shoes

I had half an hour to get packed and be at the railway station on my last day in Jaipur — I threw things into my bags and made a run for it, I was going to be late. Idiot that I am, I always, as tradition, leave something behind when I’m leaving some place from vacation. When I got to the railway station, barely fifteen minutes from my train’s arrival, I realize I’d left my beautiful turquoise blue sneakers in the hotel room. I looked at the railway station clock — do I, don’t I, do I, don’t I, what’s wrong with you? Who runs back to their hotel just minutes before their train arrives?! I’m going to miss it and I’ll have to stay in Jaipur another day, don’t be stupid, yeah I’ll just forget about the shoes and get on the train.

A minute later I was in a tuk-tuk speeding to my hotel.
Grabbed the shoes and sped back, barely in time, jumped into the train a few minutes before it took off.

Mad skillz, bruh.

The four-hour train ride was peaceful. Except for this weird little child who kept walking around and staring into people’s faces. She literally had her face an inch away from mine, staring into the pores of my skin. ‘You’re weird,’ I told her.

I took a lot away from the JLF, and it was extremely memorable; but to be honest, of my memories of going to the GLF twice, I hardly remember anything of the Fest in itself. The JLF, though welcomes celebrities from all over the world, I feel is overflowing with celebrated Indian writers. But I feel like Sri Lankan literature is not celebrated enough at the GLF — too many books written by our Sinhalese and Tamil writers remain untranslated and so less attention to this vast library we’ve got full of rich old indigenous literature and more to our modern written-in-English literature- which is okay, but I feel makes the event so much less than it could be. Maybe we’re getting there though? People back home, how’d it go this year?

Sigh. Anyhoo, all in all, epic weekend. Sucks to be back.

  1. Blub The Whale says:

    The Galle Literary Festival should simply be renamed and referred to as the Galle Glitterati Festival. While initially a wonderful endeavour and a intellectual experience it has degraded in recent times to a ‘Hi! Magazine’ event.

  2. Dee says:


  3. Jack Point says:

    Sounds excellent. I under the JLF has huge sponsors who underwrite the entire cost, which is why they can afford to give it away free.

  4. Tulie says:

    Just got around to reading this! Epic post 🙂

    You made me jealous for not being there!

  5. Ayesha says:

    Wow, it sounds incredible!

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