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Broadening engagement: amidst the crowds at JLF

Don’t ask my why this is my first visit to the Jaipur Literature Festival, the literary event that seems to have caught the fancy of the public owing to its curious mix of the eclectic and popular. To be honest, it hasn’t been high on my radar but this year work took me to the Pink City during Litfest week and the coincidence was too much to ignore.

I managed to squeeze in a few sessions, all of them invigorating. Whether it was Pavan Varma quizzing Naqvi on his reading of history or Manu Joseph making tongue-in-cheek remarks about the difficulties writers face putting themselves in the opposite gender’s shoes, the content was rich and engaging. Every single venue was full. The ones with Bollywood  personalities were distinctly overflowing. But sessions on Sanskrit writing and the literature of anger as expressed by Dalit and tribal writers were full as well. I wondered why.

One way of looking at it is that there are simply too many people at JLF and they have to go somewhere and do something! And while this is true, I suspect there’s a lot more going on here beyond the thrill of attending a mela.

I identified a few distinct types of visitors- the artistic and creative community, the must-be-seen-here types, the book lovers, the firangs, the senior citizens and a large number of  school and college students. After a point, I opted out of the sessions and just sat and watched the crowd, overheard the conversations and chatted with folks. I met college kids from Jaipur who had chosen sessions because they were about subjects that were new to them. A friend who attends every year comes here to meet authors and expand his book collection. One young couple told me that it is exciting to be at an event like this where you get a chance to rub shoulders (literally) with everyone from popular Bollywood personalities to your favorite author. For some students I met here, being at JLF was like traveling the world, gaining a new set of experiences. Neither can I complain about passive audiences; I found questions from the floor were very sharp across age groups in the sessions I attended.

Clearly, JLF means different things to different people. All things said, it is certainly a step forward in taking literature, art and academic writing out of its elitist bastion (and may I say, pushing those in the bastion to learn a thing or two from the real world outside!). This is a new world where young people explore many ways to engage with new ideas and fresh content. Our schools and colleges are hard pressed to offer that novelty and excitement and maybe events like this, in some infinitesimally small way, fill that gap. Can we do more?

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Of creativity, wonder and the world of children: At Bookaroo

Accompanying three kids between the ages of 8 and 9 to a children’s literary festival is my idea of a fun time. The 5th edition of the Bookaroo brings together a number of writers from across the world to Anandgram, which is an absolutely charming artsy setup between Delhi and Gurgaon.

We reached the event well after it had begun. Utsa, one of the three friends who had come together, clutched tightly her piece of paper that had a list of the sessions of interest to this age group. She was tense that we were missing something. Udai and Medha were rather blank at this point. But the minute we entered the fest, the sheer energy in the space galvanised us into action. The kids jumped straightaway into a fiction writing workshop ‘Writing about your extraordinary life’ conducted by Ovidia Yu from Singapore. A few minutes late, they worked furiously to catch up. They had been asked to build a plot. To identify a hero and a villain, decide on a place and a situation on which to build their narrative that would ultimately perhaps be a book or film. Kids came up with really interesting ideas. I particularly liked the one in which a girl appointed herself the protagonist and her mother the antagonist, and she was charmingly part-apologetic whole saying so. The mother stood nearby, grinning in resignation! Now this girl had the ability to hypnotise people. So she hypnotises her kid brother to clean her room but he does it wrong. And so on…..

Then we moved to a storytelling session. Marcia Williams from the UK is reading Oliver Twist to the kids and telling them about the author’s life and conditions of his times. Marcia illustrates well known books and speaks beautifully. The kids seemed engrossed and asked questions through the narration as well, with Medha getting a pat from Marcia for good questions! All in all, the narration tried to give the kids a good idea of what Victorian England was like. Udai was Marcia’s little helper for a bit, putting up cutouts of Victorian objects on a washing line. After the session, the kids bought a book each and got it autographed by Marcia, who they kept in wait until I had procured them after standing in a long line at the bookstore!

The best session of the day was the last one, in which Michael Heyman and Sampurna Chattarji read nonsense verses, sang nonsense songs and taught kids to make up nonsense words! Udai loved the “Om bathum namah” chant and has been singing it since we left Bookaroo.

It was a pleasant surprise to meet an old college friend Dipang here, besides many other acquaintances. And half of Shokshantar School!

The popularity of something like Bookaroo clearly reflects the huge potential for fiction for children. It also captures the imagination of young educated parents who desperately want their kids to be well read, well spoken and jump at a chance to expose them up new ideas.

I had expected Bookaroo to be enriching, but a little crazy. But it wasn’t crazy at all! It was well organised, except for the food court and the slightly cramped bookstore! There were enough parallel sessions to keep most kids busy and many empty spaces for the others to run around. The November sunshine was warm and the breeze cool. Just the perfect setting to listen to stories and relax!

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