Sunday, May 6, 2012

How the magic was nearly lost at the Jaipur Literature Festival

The Jaipur Literature Festival this year exhibited true Indian ethos – it had the melodrama of a masala Bollywood movie, the chaos of a Big Fat Indian Wedding and the cliffhangers and dramatic tension of the Mahabharata. And that wasn’t the literature being discussed, but the event itself.
Last year the controversy was over the public spat between Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor of the magazine Open and British author William Dalrymple, co-founder of the event, with Bal accusing Dalrymple of deliberately tying the event to the British literary establishment.

This year it was Salman Rushdie’s proposed visit which cast a shadow over the event from the start, with many speakers expressing their outrage during their sessions at the attempts by certain Muslim groups to prevent Rushdie’s trip and the same issue dominating questions from members of the audience in such sessions, which had no connection to him or his works.
This culminated in the front lawns of Diggi Palace being crammed with people and police on the final day and a media scrum anticipating a video link with the author of The Satanic Verses. Even at 3.45pm that day, the time when he was due to appear, the audience were told a decision had not yet been reached as to whether he would appear, leaving everyone, myself included, on tenterhooks.

Most of the time people had to stand outside the Durbar Hall to listen to the speakers.
Shortly before 4pm, the owner of the Palace, Ram Pratap Singh, announced that people were inside the property intent on committing violence if the video link went ahead. Organiser Sanjoy Roy promptly burst into tears and we were told that people were “marching on Diggi Palace” conjuring up scenes of Birnam Wood marching on Dunsinane.  All the emotions, drama and tension of Indian fiction were on show.

There were similar scenes of chaos too when Oprah Winfrey arrived on the third day of the event. Queues stretched for miles down the road outside the venue and crowds trying to enter surged against a police barricade, but the authorities had closed all the entrance points because the venue was overcrowded inside.
The festival was far less relaxing this year with crowds everywhere.
These knife-edge dramas were bad enough but poor crowd control throughout the five days meant the festival almost lost its special vibe this year.

Even on the four days when Oprah Winfrey was not there, it was overcrowded, you could not get into see many speakers and there were tiring long queues for toilets and the coffee stands. 

The festival was, seemingly for the first time, packed with school children and gangs of college students and a variety of other people, many of whom could not speak English, when the sessions were held in English. 

Coca-Cola umbrellas added to the "commercial" atmosphere. 

Even the central area in front of the Durbar Hall was packed.

Overcrowding was a common complaint among the educated Delhi and Mumbai intellectual types who frequent the likes of the India Habitat Centre in Delhi and Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai and who descend on Jaipur every January.

A typical scene inside Mughal Tent. You were very lucky to get a  seat. Many people sat outside and listened through the tent.
One university lecturer from Delhi turned to me in the queue for the toilets and said: “I asked the guy on the seat next to me whether the seat was vacated and he couldn’t understand that simple question. If he couldn’t understand that, how can he understand what is being discussed? There are people here who have come just because they have seen it on the news with all the publicity it has generated and they haven’t read anything and don’t have a clue what is going on. This festival is meant for a more mature crowd.” Since the tickets are free and there are no entry requirements, indeed anyone can attend - something the organisers have till date been proud of. 

As I stood outside the Ben Okri session, straining my ears to hear, a man who looked like a software geek asked me: “What topic is it?” “Ben Okri,” I replied. “But what topic is that?” he asked. “Ben Okri,” I responded. “But what does that mean?” He said. “He is the Booker Prize winner,” I said. “Oh I better take his picture,” he said and got out his digital camera.
It was impossible to get anywhere near the Ben Okri speech.
Scenes outside the Durbar Hall.

People pushed and shoved outside the Durbar Hall.

So, having Oprah Winfrey on the programme was, in my view, not the best idea. The venue is very small and cannot handle the crowds she attracts. I first went to the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2010 and the beauty of it then was the informal intimate atmosphere, the fact the authors were accessible and freely mingled in the central yard with the public and indeed the free steaming chai served in earthen cups from huge bronze pots by men dressed in brightly-coloured Rajasthani turbans. I remember chatting to William Dalrymple and Mark Tully while waiting for a cup. This year conversely the authors were in a segregated area and not accessible. The one time that Gulzar ventured into the public area, he was mobbed. Besides, the tea cost Rs10 and every time the vendor turned up with it he too was mobbed. 
Even the Rajasthani tea vendor was mobbed whenever he appeared.

People pushed and shoved just to get a cup of tea. The vendor was visibly stressed out by the crowds.

There was an array of shops run by fairly aggressive sales people, Coca Cola and Café Coffee Day stalls dotted around too. It was becoming commercial.

The Coca-Cola stand

Cafe Coffee Day stalls were everywhere

The  shopping parade

The festival was flooded with police as well for its five day duration. This was to prevent a terrorist attack following the threats against Rushdie and the organisers. These police spent most of the time in groups, taking up the limited chairs around, drinking chai. Occasionally they even sat in on the literature speeches and fell asleep.

Police are caught on my camera snoozing during a speech

Police were everywhere reading newspapers and drinking chai 

But not all the magic was lost. There were still plenty of opportunities to bump into friends you were not expecting to see from Delhi and Mumbai, to strike up new friendships with other literature lovers, to chat to anyone you like without appearing odd and even to lobby literary agents and publishers in the festival cafes with your book ideas. Apart from that, all the speakers, such as playwright Tom Stoppard, author and speaker Deepak Chopra, author Mohammed Hanif and Outlook editor-in-chief Vinod Mehta, were, unsurprisingly intensely engaging and stimulating.

However, now great thought needs to be given to the future direction of this prized festival, which is listed in the Debrett’s social calendar. Should it return to being an informal gathering of intellectual arty types at Diggi Palace or should it move to a larger venue and attract the masses but at the cost of losing that special magical vibe? 

The tragedy of the Bengal tiger in India

A renowned TV cameraman came to the Brympton Literature Festival in Somerset recently to speak about the plight of tigers in India.
Michael Richards is the cameraman behind "Tiger: Spy in The Jungle" ( a BBC TV documentary narrated by David Attenborough) as well as the book "Tigers", which he wrote with Hashim Taybji.
The festival, the first ever to be held, took place inside the majestic and quirky Brympton House, a privately-owned 13th Century grade I-listed manor house in Somerset. It is occasionally hired out for weddings or films but otherwise remains a private residence.  It originally belonged to various aristocratic families but it was sold in 1992 to the present owner, who is a judge and his wife. 
Richards, one of the speakers at the literary event, is one of the world's leading experts on wildlife who works for an independent production house in Bristol which makes programmes for, among others, the BBC.
He spent three years inside Pench National Park in India filming the tigers and his talk was about how he made the famous documentary film, "Spy in the Jungle."

The three series of the film were first broadcast on the BBC in 2008. They  followed the lives of four baby cubs, two male and two female, growing up to be adults in the Park.

The production team used motion sensitive cameras, hidden in logs and rocks, triggered by moving wildlife as well as remotely-controlled cameras carried by elephants on their trunks and tusks, known as trunk-cams and tusk-cams, so they could catch the lives of tigers, not usually caught on film. The tigers were oblivious to the elephant as they do not perceive them as a threat so they went about their daily business as usual, so it all got caught on film - something that would never had happened had humans done the filming. The human crew instead watched the images and controlled the cameras from the tops of other elephants nearby.

The spy cameras happened to catch four 10-day-old baby cubs playing with their mother and the crew decided to follow them as the core thread of the documentary.  It showed them suckling their mother, playing together, relaxing in water, learning to hunt and having to face the dangers of the jungle. One of the elephants they used to film the tigers with also gave birth in the middle of the film!

Apart from capturing on film a range of other extraordinary wildlife such as sloth bears and langur monkeys, the cameras also happened to capture illegal activities such as rural people and cattle illegally bathing in waters in the national park, Richards said.  Did the Park staff turn a blind eye? It is very concerning.
The truth is that humans and tigers cannot coexist as the unsustainable habits of of humans further degrades the tiger habitats.

Richards also spoke about how hotels were being constructed just outside the Park too, which were also destroying the tiger corridors. Fences were being put up around areas that tigers had previously used to migrate through. Tigers need corridors to move freely between different tiger habitats in search of mates to spread their genes. These corridors are especially crucial for male tigers who need to establish their own territory to avoid being killed by another male. These corridors can play a crucial part in preventing tigers from going extinct, which could easily happen if more is not done to protect the tiger in India. Why is planning permission being given?

Poaching is another massive problem that tigers in India face as their body parts are used in traditional Chinese medicine, even though doing so is illegal and there is no scientific evidence to support the idea that tiger skin and bones can cure anything. Ninety-five tigers are said to have been killed across India in 1994, 89 tigers were killed in 1997, 36 tigers were killed in 1998, 72 tigers were killed in 2001 and 35 tigers were killed in 2003. Are Park staff turning a blind eye?
The number of tigers in India has halved in the past 10 years. 

But Richards explains that the brutal slaughter of tigers began not with the Indians, but with the British - during the British Raj - something for the Brits to be ashamed of. 

Apparently there were more than 100,000 Bengal tigers in India during the British Raj but hunting them became a prized sport of off-duty British Army Generals, who would go hunting with the Maharjahs. Jim Corbett, a British Indian army colonel, is one of the most famous tiger hunters, who killed the Champawat Tigress which had killed nearly 500 humans. 
Between 1997 and 2006, Bengal tigers in India are thought to have lost more than 50 per cent of their habitat. Now there are believed to be less than 1,800 tigers in India and less than 3,500 in the world. This is a far cry from 100,000 a century ago. Indeed mining, dams and road building are seriously interfering with their natural habitat as trees get felled and the dense forest they require to live in shrinks.

Richards also  spoke about the challenge of getting the millions of Indians who scrape a meagre living at the bottom of the social ladder the slightest bit bothered about saving the tiger, when they have so much to worry about in their own lives. 

When I was in Mumbai recently, I visited the apartment block I had stayed at in Bandra. There was not a cat in sight. That was mainly because I had brought my two domestic short-haired Indian cats back to England. The other Indian strays, who I had tried to look after, who lived outside, had disappeared. The building, by the way, was suddenly eerie and soulless.

One wonders what an India without its national symbol of the tiger would be like? The word soulless comes to mind. Will India allow this to happen?  It would be ironic if India, one of the world's fastest-growing economies, manages to destroy the tiger, its unique national symbol, through a rapid and  programme of deforestation and industrialisation, in a ruthless attempt to be come a global economic power.

Wildlife expert George Schaller once wrote: "India has to decide whether it wants to keep the tiger or not. It has to decide if it is worthwhile to keep its National Symbol, its icon, representing wildlife. It has to decide if it wants to keep its natural heritage for future generations, a heritage more important than the cultural one, whether we speak of its temples, the Taj Mahal, or others, because once destroyed it cannot be replaced."