Jyoti at Kitab Festival, Mumbai, India
Jyoti attended the flamboyant Kitabfest, the International Literature and Media Festival, in Mumbai, India, where he talked along with leading writers, publishers, agents and film directors from Britain and the Indian subcontinent.
21st and 22nd February 2007
I arrive at Delhi Int. airport. Someone is supposed to be waiting for me, but my fears materialise: I see no plaque reading “Jyoti Guptara” or, if they are more security-conscious, something like “Samarth’s Wedding”. My Swiss phone is out of juice and my Indian phone has expired, and would not work anyway because it was purchased in Goa. But a payphone call with my “Chacha” puts things back on course, and I discover that beyond the two Exits there are yet further reception areas. Fortunately, on the horizon of new plaques one of them reads my name. The driver wheels my luggage to the car park before I realise I’ve left my papers with contact details, an absolute essential, in the pay phone booth. Run back and retrieve them from the operator, whom I leave looking like he wants a reward.
Beep. Beep. Beep. It’s good to be back.
Whereas other countries endure chaotic organisation, India happily boasts organised chaos.
I spend two days with relatives for the wedding of my cousin, a colourful time of festivities and ceremonies, my first Indian wedding experienced in India. Usually, they last for many more days. I would have stayed on, but had to get the 03.30am train from Baroda, where the wedding was, to Mumbai, for the Kitabfest, International Literature and Media Festival.
Kitabfest Day One, Friday 23rd February 2007
After two consecutive nights on Indian trains, I arrived bleary-eyed and with ruffled hair at Mumbai main station. Expecting nothing else, I experience the same problem as I did at Delhi airport: no plaque. After twenty minutes of being harassed by Taxi drivers and porters, I seemingly run into dear friend Babu Verghese, who is there to pick me up with a driver of Gul Kripalani, with whom I am staying.
We head for the Asiatic Library, where an original of Dante’s Divine Comedy / Inferno resides. We’re early (that’s a first), so we drive to my host’s home to get washed and changed and prepared. Babu and I attend the first session in the Asiatic library, visit the next location, Max Mueller Bhavan and scout out the scene at the Oxford bookstore where I will be speaking tomorrow. There is a thick pillar that blocks the view of the stage in certain places. They offer drinks and snacks between readings.
From 7pm are opening speeches and the “Times of India Dinner”, taking place at the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower hotel. I turn up in a smart-casual shirt to find that most are rather (more) smartly dressed (than I). Fortunately my hosts live six buildings away, and discovering I have forgotten my business cards convinces me to turn back. I return dressed in a luxurious “Kurta” and Kurta-scarf. After readings and speeches by Deborah Moggach, Bachi Karkaria and Malavika Sanghvi the drinking, snacking and mingling begins (or, rather, continues). Several dozen journalists flit to and fro, blinding celebrities with flashes; cameras run, recording this event as all of the other main events. I talk with Toby Litt, with whom we had become MySpace friends a matter of days before (having been on MySpace for a week). What a coincidence to be speaking at the same literary festival – in India! By far the most interesting meeting is with Gregory David Roberts (Shantaram), a rock star of an author. He said some unbelievably encouraging and supportive things to me, and as he himself said, he’s not the kind of person who would do so out of politeness. It is the kind of thing that happens in dreams. Deborah Moggach‘s speech was hilarious, about out-sourcing England’s old people to India, where they are more likely to be visited by their families anyway. And the screenwriter of Pride & Prejudice is like that “in person” too. After the last guests drift off, and the waiters watch us exit with reproachful relief, I join organiser Pablo Ganguli and some of his team in their hotel room and gain a real insight to the goings-on of the festival. But I promised that was off-the-record, haha.
This is my first literary festival (as opposed to Book Fair). The focus is not on business, but on art and artists, which makes for a more relaxed ambience. People are interested in exchanging and developing ideas in a friendly and pleasurable way.
What can I say? It’s fun.
Kitabfest Day Two, Saturday 24th February
I am by far the youngest contributor. Lots of people thought I was a helper or student. It was rather humbling, one editor always said after introducing me, “Don’t talk to this chap, he’ll only humiliate you. You’ll feel like a failure after hearing of his success at this age.” However, Pablo Ganguli, the founder and organiser of Kitab among many other international festivals of similar scale and grandeur, is only 24. He organised his first such festival at 17. He is very laid back and spontaneous, a good networker / socialiser, and charming. He has to be.
True, this is India – and not just India, but Mumbai – but virtually everything is delayed, postponed, cancelled, or somehow disturbed or impinged upon. For example, the Boat Trip was cancelled, the programmes arrived on the second day, all of the microphones were extremely temperamental, sometimes disagreeable even. Events went on simultaneously, sometimes an hour away from one another, and lunch often had to be skipped.
Gregory David Roberts talks for an hour on Human Rights two sessions before my slot, and he only just finishes signing books by the time I am on. One of the cameramen showed him a project of his with the intent of getting to work on Shantaram the film, which is being made by none other than Johnny Depp, who will also act the author, and directed by Mira Nair, whom I met at Frankfurt last year. Gregory is so friendly and patient, you have a hard time believing he is the same person who escaped prison so many times, smuggled drugs, and experienced all the other escapades described in Shantaram. God bless him.
“Jyoti Guptara talks about the inspiration behind his fantasy novels” runs the title of my event. I start with four A4 pages on inspiration in general, read a passage, and take questions from the floor. At first the audience is not large, but by the time I finish the bookstore is packed. Unfortunately, this means many of the questions they ask were covered in my opening remarks or speech, but never mind. Talked to a couple of journalists before squeezing into a taxi with six other writers and driving for an hour to Good Earth, a furniture shop where Wasafiri was to launch the magazine in India.
Music plays while the poets perform, and it is then turned down rather than off; dinner is served simultaneously, seducing the literary crowd into the foyer; the microphones aren’t working well for anyone except Jackie Kay, who, perhaps, simply knows how to use one. Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal and Jeet Thayil educate and enlighten me with anecdote, regret and reminiscence. Hugo Rifkind looks forward to his speech tomorrow on Indian food, although he claims to know nothing on the subject.
How stimulating and interesting it is to meet these people. The ironic thing is that most of these celebrated individuals are more down-to-earth than certain arrogant journalists whom nobody has heard of, who don’t even bother to feign polite interest.
Kitabfest Day Three, Sunday 25th February
Had my first Panel discussion alongside Helen Cross, Dilip Chitre, Antara Dev Sen and Alexandra Pringle. The Panel was moderated by Susheila Nasta, editor-in-chief of Wasafiri, who turned out to know my father from “twenty-something years ago”, like so many others. The topic was “World Literature – a new category?”, one of those broad topics that doesn’t really go anywhere, under the umbrella of which you can discuss myriad subjects. I got to present about 1% of my notes (let alone thoughts), but any one of us panellists could have filled the given time by ourselves. I am amazed Alexandra remembers me from the time I visited her Bloomsbury booth at Frankfurt some years ago, unknown and unpublished, when she was so encouraging.
By the end of the Panel I am hungry and, not keen on another lunch-less day, we travel to Bandra, where Shekhar Kapur is talking on ‘story as myth’. Unfortunately I only get to hear the last few minutes of his talk, but I eat a great lunch, which is what I came for, and get to meet him. He asked whether I had a copy of my book handy, which he would read on the flight to London that night, where he will work on post-production of his new film The Golden Age. Apparently he lives near the next reading venue, so I can leave it at the bookstore there. I do so, to “Shekhar Kapoor” (after consulting with Farrukh Dhondy and others about the spelling), but now I see that he himself spells it “Kapur”, although it is often written Kapoor. Made me feel terrible and look it up on IMDB, where it says “sometimes credited as Shekar Kapoor / Shekhar Kapoor”. How stupid can I be…
I mistake one similarly bearded man for Vivek Narayanan, whom I met yesterday, and philosophise for an hour with who is really poet C. P. Surendran, who would rather talk with me than read his poetry without a microphone (power cut!).
Trundle off to our next location, Olive, in a journey that lasts over an hour. Fortunately I am not starved for company, and I get to spend the time with such eminent journalists as John Kampfner and Boyd Tonkin.
At Olive we are spoiled with lavish refreshments and bump into Vikram Chandra, who happens to have heard of our book because he is a big sci-fi fan. I meet Pablo’s father, an art critic. Judging by their looks, I would not have been surprised to hear that Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi or Tishani Doshi were my age, they look so young. Many people guess I am 20-something, because of my career. I talk with Geoff Dyer about keeping healthy and social as a writer; the poor man hurt his wrist during tennis, and is sorely missing the sport. And I, able-bodied (for the moment), continue to waste away, moving only my fingers.
We eat and talk, like every evening, and before long my time is up. I had brought my luggage with me so that I could go directly to the airport, which is this side of town, to catch my 2am flight. The Kripalanis kindly provided a driver – so thanks to them and driver Biju.
By now I have met, if not spoken to, more or less all of the participants – and realised how bad I am at remembering names. I call Esther Freud Helen (congratulations Jyoti), mistaking Helen Cross for Helen Simpson (or vice versa; how do I do it?). Now that I am under time pressure, typically everyone seems more interested in talking. Geoffrey Dobbs, founder of The Galle Literary Festival, talks of Elephant Polo and asks whether I will come to Sri Lanka. Um … sure! (Time permitting, cough, deadlines for books 2 and 3, other commitments, and so on)
The greatest pity is that I did not get to see much of Mumbai. It was all from airport to venue, car to car, hotel to hotel, venue to airport. They were very nice hotels / venues / cars, with chauffeurs of course, but these things would have been more or less the same wherever in the world we were. Oh, and I never saw the original copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy in the Asiatic Library. I thought we’d return there, but lesson learned: grab the opportunity while it presents itself.
Wow, what a time. What a laugh! Writers – introverted, dried-up, dusty, humourless things? Far from it! I would have had a less amusing time with my “peers”…
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