The Jaipur Literary Festival is often called a mela, usually by people who haven’t been able to attend it that year. There’s something to that beyond envy: like any self-respecting mela, it is large, crowded, colourful and fun. You can lose your heart here as easily as you can lose your iPhone. You can also find long-lost friends or run into somebody you have been trying to avoid. But I’ll take this literary mela over a stuffy seminar room setting any day. Where else can you listen to Orhan Pamuk or Michael Ondaatje between gol-gappas and matka chai under a benign wintry sun? To add mirch to the literary masala, there is at least one major political controversy every year; police, politicians and protesters are in ample attendance and the left and right slug it out. Even as the festival is under threat of being moved out from its trademark venue at the understated Diggi Palace, its co-founder and co-director Namita Gokhale has produced a fitting tribute to it in the shape of her delightful novel, Jaipur Journals.
The festival and the city of Jaipur are ultimately just characters in this novel. Gokhale’s real subject is what lies at the centre of all good literature — the human heart, with its aspirations, fears and insecurities. Rudrani Rana, elderly and grey-haired, of the aching knees and unsure walk, is not a successful writer or a celebrity, not even a selfie-seeker. She is at the edge of the magic circle, outside the charmed Authors’ Lounge, struggling to understand the writing world, and hoping one day to be part of it. She has literary aspirations, not ambition; ambition smacks too much of money, power, awards. All she wants is a validation of her story, a recognition of her worth, encapsulated in the spiral-bound manuscript that she carries around in a canvas bag. Rudrani Rana is utterly credible; you can see the likes of her, young and old, men and women, at every session at JLF, tortured by similar literary aspirations. They are the lifeblood of literary festivals. Several carry their manuscript with them in the hope of showing it to a slippery foreign literary agent who flits around the lawns, looking for red wine even as he avoids eye contact. Others carry the grand notion in their heads and live for the day they can make it a reality; they search the methods and minds of published greats to find the magic trap-door that leads to success. But not too many do what Rudrani does best: she tells the unvarnished truth to people in venomous but hilarious anonymous letters written in her favourite purple ink.
Rudrani is not alone in the teeming crowd and Gokhale picks her other companions in the story with an unerring and deeply perceptive eye. There is Anirban M., the bearded young graphic artist who ends up as Rudrani’s confidante. The attractive Gayatri Smyth Gandhy, academic anthropologist and aspiring novelist torn between India and the West. Raju Srivastava, the slick-fingered burglar with a poet’s heart who finds momentary fame on stage. Zoya Mankotia, defiant lesbian, fierce feminist and recipient of Rudrani’s most trenchant purple letter. Anna Wilde from Colorado, one-time companion of the Beat Poets, returning to rekindle her love affair with the India of the Sixties, the India of ashrams, gurus, Hare Krishna. And many others whose lives criss-cross in the sprawling Diggi Palace, even as the festival mela carries on around them, serious debates alternating with comic interludes. This is home turf for Namita Gokhale — she knows all that can and does, happen at JLF, and it all rings very true.
But life is not just a festival, nor literary aspiration its be-all and end-all. One can throw an incomplete manuscript into the lake and still dance with gay abandon at the Writer’s Ball, free from its asphyxiating burden. A burglar will go back to thievery even if he has been able to recite a poem before thousands. A love that you think has slipped through your fingers forever may return, if only for a while… Gokhale’s skill as a novelist is on full display as she explores the lives of her characters before and after the festival, with humour, sympathy and affection. She shuns pretension and this is clear in her satirical references to the festival discussions, as well as in her writing; the light touch is her leitmotif and she comes down on the side of honest simplicity every time. It is heartening to see that despite her multiple distractions, Namita Gokhale’s talent remains as fresh in Jaipur Journals as it was in her debut novel Paro: Dreams of Passion. Her writing reflects a life thoughtfully lived, with her feet on real ground and her mind forever creating.