Tahar Ben Jelloun (speaking), Selma Dabbagh, Reza Aslan and Jonathan Shainin

Tahar Ben Jelloun (speaking), Selma Dabbagh, Reza Aslan, Ahdaf Soueif and Jonathan Shainin

Selma Dabbagh took part in the EWWC panel on Maps of Love and Hate: Nationalism and Arab Literature, at the Jaipur Literature Festival last week.

There are few events on the literary calendar that compare with the scale or the desirability of the Jaipur Literary Festival (JLF), which in previous years has hosted Oprah Winfrey and last year had a flare up with Salman Rushdie’s presence being denied. This year, one of the writers, the dapper gangster/60s Fanon revolutionary attired Jeet Thayil who was international Man Booker shortlisted on the first day of this year’s Festival spent most of his time there surrounded by a four man police escort to protect him from possible backlash after he read sections from Rushdie’s Satanic Verses at last year’s event.

As a debut novelist, who came to literature late, I arrive in Jaipur at 6 am feeling rather daunted. I also have no schedule. In the car that takes us to the venue I meet a writer who also does not have a schedule and has flung his welcome pack (together with the Penguin Edition of The Path to Tranquility: Daily Meditations by the Dalai Lama) against his hotel wall in exasperation. All he needs is a schedule, he says and to wash his cricket whites which are baked with red sand after a week as part of the JLF Writers’ Cricket Team which was merrily thrashed in different locations around India by professionals the previous week.

I realize as I arrive that when I imagined the Festival venue, Diggi Palace, I was actually thinking of Rambagh Palace, where writers had glamorously dined and boozed the night before for the opening event. Diggi to me, is delightfully Egyptian. It is not a place of business venue like efficiency and aluminium encased one legged information placards typed in Arial font, but an endless sprawl of courtyards, halls and stalls linked together by roofs, secret staircases and gardens, where piles of bound leaflets sit in the corners, three legged desks lean backwards at the edge of corridors, wires dangle half painted from the ceiling and signage is written out in hand with large pens that curl capitals. Fading grandeur, courtyards, dusty trees, an alleyway of red and pink Chinese paper lanterns, old telephones, policemen well past retirement age in green with sticks and time on their hands. The place is surprisingly scruffy, confidently gorgeous. When I arrive, talks are going on everywhere, attendants offer to escort me to all of them, a group of devout Buddhists in orange mutter and pray on the sidelines.

Everyone gives me different directions to the Author’s Lounge, which is behind the stage. Flashing my Author ID, I push past half-hearted resistance at a gate and walk straight into a tight, moving crowd. A round familiar face rises up, as the crowds surge: metal framed glasses, the large smile of a saint, possibly because he is one. It’s the Dalai Lama, a metre in front of me about to be winded to death by a crowd, he dips, then rises beaming again, as though nothing could be more fun, like a child on a roller coaster as he is jostled away in an unending group of backs.

There’s too much to choose from. You don’t know where to begin or how much to event-hop. Ten minutes listening to the Afghanistan panel and there is agreement that the coalition forces died for nothing, that they created problems where there were none, that suicide bombing did not exist in areas until coalition forces arrived, that Guantánamo created a new fervor of resistance. The Short Story panel is composed of the best: Nicholas Hogg, Richard Beard and Yiyun Li, who say the short story lends itself to solitary figures, that it compresses time, that you need to tell as well as show, that sometimes the story decides the space it needs, that the short story is being revived, that it is gaining in popularity. Himmat Shah, an artist whose work is now sold at Christies, launches his book Terracotta, about Indian visual arts. The moderator is full of affection for his guest, ‘He used to be so poor, he could only offer me dhal and rice, with always a little ghulum juman at the end.’

Next to me a T-shirt proclaims, Screw Calm, It’s Boring.

The Pakistani writer Nadeem Aslam is The Real Thing. The Festival is agreed on this. His desire to write made him drop out of university, into working on construction sites to save so he could write, he has papered up his windows to focus on his first novel and bound his eyes for three weeks to research blindness for his last novel, The Blind Man’s Garden. Aslam’s sensitivity and modesty combined with his heartfelt assertions, each one, it seems, dug from moments of doubt and self assessment, his ability to quote other writers at length, seduces the large audience that surrounds him.

A somewhat glitterati North London Panel (Lawrence Norfolk, Zoe Heller, Linda Grant, Howard Jacobson and Nadeem Aslam) for the Novel of the Future, expertly moderated by Anita Anand, agree there is something funny going on, people are reading less (except in India where book sales are up by 45%) buying less books (except e-books), but the number of people wanting to write (even those who don’t read) is increasing all the time as are the number of literary festivals. Could it be that all the readers are becoming novelists, or that there are just people who like going to Festivals to touch writers?

The Man Booker dinner on the first evening in the CityPalace is elephant painted splendor and I am hijacked from the bar by a man with a long tragic oval face and blinking eyes that seems a little lost in his absurd outfit. I had seen him at Festival that day, in even more extravagant attire (Elton John eyewear, red knickerbockers, long red socks, a bolero). He is trying to cajole large quantities of hard liquor out of the bar staff in plaintive, yet fluent sounding, Hindi as the next two days are Dry Days in Rajasthan and he is very scared. He insists that I join his table to meet a woman who used, she said, to do serious things in Afghanistan but now mainly writes about men’s crotches. Her brother, an academic who spends several months each year in North Korea, is delegated to the job of funnelling vodka into a small Evian bottle under the table. ‘My job is so boring, I have to dress like this at the weekends,’ sighs my flamboyantly dressed companion, who I later find out works for the Potato Board and once had a prang in Delhi causing his driver to be knocked out by the impact of the car’s disco ball on his cranium.

Outside the palace I wait for a taxi by the wrong elephant entrance, in a traffic-devoid alleyway of fortress walls and baying stray dogs with prancy feet before I find an exit where a group of well-heeled Britishers who could be hedge fund managers, await their drivers. One of them wanders off to stroke a dark cow that grazes by a tree that props up a bicycle. A rickshaw trundles towards us, ‘You better take that,’ says a woman, waving a moisturized limb and creating a flurry of beige silk, and I’m off, bumping past ditches, graffiti offering tuition, pinky orange buildings and shops with all kinds of things I would like to buy to make my children look more Indian.

When the police question the Indian intellectual, Ashis Nandy, they bring him into the Author’s Lounge (a courtyard with trees and very small cups of tea) after his on-stage comments about the ‘dalit’ or (an Indian term, not mine, ‘backward’) castes/classes were tweeted, misinterpreted (according to Nandy) and caused an outrage. I am sure that there were people online in New York who had a far better idea as to what was going on than we did. As I sit on the edges of the fountain with Jonathan Shainin trying to prepare for a panel on Arabic Literature where I am to share a stage with Reza Aslan, Tahar Ben Jalloun and Ahdaf Soueif, the scrum of policemen and onlookers containing Nandy is spitting distance from us. It’s a matter of talking over an excitable crowd, which just seems to be the order of the day in Jaipur. When the jostling becomes extreme, I ask a school age volunteer who appears bedazzled by her own prettiness, what’s going on, she informs me that it’s the cricket player. It is only when the cricket player, Rahul Dravid, who raises mass hysteria every time he appears, wanders unassumingly in the courtyard, crowd and police-free, that I start to suspect that she may have got it wrong.

On the second night, my editor, Alexandra Pringle, hosts a dinner for all the Bloomsbury writers on the roof of her hotel, where wine is drunk (despite the dryness of the day) provided by the capable of fixing anything, anywhere, anyhow Mr. Raj. We have a placement  which places me next to an Italian separationist from the state of Veneto (Carlo Pizatti). Carlo passes Orange Prize winner, Madeleine Miller a Greek quote, ‘The whole world is a tomb for enlightened man,’ which she is tasked to decipher and identify (It’s Pericles, silly). Lawrence Norfolk quizzes Simon Armitage on poetry referred to in Bolaño’s Savage Detectives. William Dalrymple (aka Willy), like Tigger, seems to have the most extraordinary amount of bounce. He also has disarming eyes. Alexandra thrives in India and in crowds of her writers and buzzes and engages in her hugely personable, yet paradoxically regal way. The Bloomsbury writer Gary Shteyngart is missing, but on the panel on Jewish writing that afternoon he had proclaimed to the masses that all he really wants to do is go someplace and be licked by his dachshunds, so maybe that’s where he has gone.

At buffet lunch at the Diggi, I connect with two Indian gentlemen and wander to a table where a younger man’s eyes widen at the sight of the company I am bringing to join him. My companions know the younger man’s father, but don’t like to be called uncle. The younger man seizes the opportunity to make a book pitch to my influential book show host companion, he has Ivy League credentials and an interesting idea that he pitches well. Before the meal is over, e-mails have been sent to a leading Indian agent, advice given and the electric word ‘auction’, is being bandied about.

I miss many events while at the Diggi being interviewed by some of the brightest and most canny journalists I have ever come across with questions about Kashmir, diaspora politics, novels being used as rationales for intervention and whether 9/11 changed the novel as Ian McEwan predicted it would. I also meet my ideal reader in the form of a journalist who tells me that he initially avoided my novel because he doesn’t like politics, but then he sat down to read it and didn’t get up until it was finished.

One of the many highpoints of the Festival for me is the EWWC panel on Arab Literature, introduced by Dalrymple, which challenges common conceptions by presenting writers from the Arab world and of Iranian origin (Reza Aslan) who write in languages other than Arabic (i.e. English and French). Knowing that readers from outside the region may be relying on novels to provide a disproportionate amount of understanding of the Arab or Muslim worlds (or in my case Palestine), places particular responsibilities on the author. I have struggled with these issues, in the large part on my own, so to be in conversation with writers like Soueif and ben Jelloun is an honour and an inspiration, making me want to continue the discussion long after we have to stop. The questions from the audience are excellent: on using the language of the oppressor (not a problem as far as we are concerned) and ethnicity preventing writers from writing on certain subjects (no problem either as long as writers are responsible and sensitive to their subject matter, is our conclusion).

At Jaipur airport, I group up with a band of novelists and journalists who make intrepid trips back through security to access the Smoke Room, their iPhones twittering with news of a fatal accident allegedly caused by the drunk driving of a Festival sponsor. In the queue for the plane, a journalist with an infectious laugh says he will write about Nandy who he admires. I suggest that if he really wants to get into trouble he should compare Nandy’s treatment by the authorities to how any case against the Festival sponsor proceeds. He laughs, has a musing think and thanks me for the idea.

The official who peruses my immigration form slowly behind his desk in New Delhi is impressed that I am a writer. He asks how many hours a week I work, where I get ideas and how he can get published. I give him advice, take out my phone, contact a leading Indian agent and the electric word ‘auction’ starts buzzing around the immigration hall.

Selma Dabbagh is the author of Out of It (Bloomsbury, 2011)