Ex-lovers, High Heels & Netas: Namita Gokhale on JLF’s Inner World

Is Namita Gokhale’s latest novel ‘Jaipur Journals’ a thinly-veiled tell all from Jaipur Literature Festival? 

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Author Namita Gokhale has come out with her 19th book recently. This time it is a novel set at the Jaipur Literature Festival. Since she is also one of the founding directors of the festival, it is being speculated that the novel is a thinly veiled ‘tell-all’ about the biggest literary event in the world. In this exclusive conversation with The Quint, Gokhale reveals what the novel is about and what characters we can identify as real life flesh and blood people.

Below is a select excerpt from the interview:

The World of ‘Jaipur Journals’ and Real Life

I think everyone was waiting for this book to be written...

I don’t know, because I was certainly not waiting for it. It came to me as an idea, a long time ago and I resisted the idea. But once I got into it, I have to tell you, that I had a lot of fun writing it.

You are the mother of the festival and you have a certain degree of ownership when it comes to ‘Jaipur Literature Festival’ and then you make it into a novel. How was the experience?

Years ago, I had decided that I would write about the things I knew. I know every millimeter of the landscape in the Diggi Palace. I’d say that Jaipur Literature Festivals run through my veins.

Congress leader Shashi Tharoor at JLF
Congress leader Shashi Tharoor at JLF
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter/@ZEEJLF)

Right! And some of the regulars of the festival also appear in the novel of cause. I mean, Dr. Tharoor, Javed sahab and there are others who also have found way to the novel. But of course, you’re going to deny that.

I don’t even know what you are talking about. My first novel ‘Paro’ was considered a roman a clef and Delhi had… people around me in Delhi Society had a guessing game going on, this guessing game continued for few years, if not more. I think ‘Jaipur Journals’ is quite different because in the eventuality, that somebody may recognise themselves, it would be their own recognition.

This book was written before this year’s edition of JLF. So, when you were in the middle of the festival, were you also trying to see your characters in real flesh and blood people?

Yes and no. You know, I’m sitting in the third row where I normally sit, looking at the audiences and I get a glimpse of this one or I get a glimpse of that one. Yes.

Inside the ‘Author’s Lounge’ at JLF

What is your favourite kind of speaker or writer?

Well, that’s very difficult to say. You learn a lot about human nature from the way writers conduct themselves. And I have to say that one of my greatest life learnings is that the greater the writer and by greater, I mean the sheer quality of writing. The greater the writer; the greater the humility, the greater the kindness, the greater the gentleness. And the more aspirational the writer; the more the anxiety, the more the vulnerability. The other thing I’ve realised is that writers are not performers and many writers have a little ball of anxiety before their sessions and after their sessions, they are just different people. I find that in myself, also.

Who are the most difficult people to deal with? We’re just generalising.

No, I know generalising. I think, sometimes it’s the anxieties people bring with them.I know that sounds like a very diplomatic answer.

Minor tantrums and major tantrums: whose tantrums are the worst to handle? The politicians or the actors? Or these big fat writers, the award-winning writers?

Well, I have to say that everybody behaves like an absolute pussycat with us. And I think it’s because the sheer number of celebrities evens it out. If there is one celebrity, then the stocking space is so much more. So, the tantrums are the least of our problems. Our problem is the controversies. Running the Jaipur Literature Festival is like crossing the Niagara Falls on a tightrope.

JLF’s Long List of Controversies

Just tell us one time that you thought, ‘Oh my god, this is too much!’

I think, that was the year when Salman Rushdie couldn’t come to the festival because there was a perceived death threat against him and we had then decided on a video interview and then there were these twenty-two worthies of the local Muslim community including some Mullahs, many of them were very cooperative but some of them were not and we were asked not to have the video interview and suddenly the whole of the Diggi Palace was full of hostile crowds.

British author Salman Rushdie.
British author Salman Rushdie.
(Photo Courtesy: Flickr/Hillel Steinberg)

You’ve worked with both the governments; the BJP government and the Congress government, both at the Centre and at the state in Rajasthan. Do you feel that there is a difference in the way that they respond to the festival?

I don’t think so.

So, Namita Gokhale – the writer and Namita Gokhale – the festival organiser, do they clash sometimes?

That’s interesting and I have often thought about it myself, that are these two separate people? But I don’t think so.

What about values or your priorities? For example, as the organiser of the festival, you may be concerned about the safety of the people but as a writer, maybe you are a little more charged about the idea of freedom of speech and expression.

This is a place for interaction, for dialogue, for debate, for argument. I welcome argument, I welcome conflict as long as it is within some rules of shared space.

Ex Lovers, Discreet Politicians, and Kiss-and-Make-Up Sessions at JLF

Have you had to referee fights behind the scenes?

Never.

Have people come back to you after the festival, maybe after a year or two or even more that okay, we met at JLF and now we are very good friends or maybe we’re even married?

Yes! Not only married, there also seem to be a lot of ex-lovers meeting up there. I think for example, Vishal Bharadwaj, so he was with Charan Singh Pathik who’d written the short story which he’d based for his new film, Patakha. And they’ve met on the lawns of the Jaipur Festival five years ago.

Based on Charan Singh Pathik’s short story Do Behnein, Vishal Bhardwaj’s comedy drama, Patakha features Sanya Malhotra, Radhika Madan and Sunil Grover.  (Photo Courtesy: Twitter)
Based on Charan Singh Pathik’s short story Do Behnein, Vishal Bhardwaj’s comedy drama, Patakha features Sanya Malhotra, Radhika Madan and Sunil Grover. (Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

And it has also been a place of reconciliation, I would say. I remember, the famous Naipaul reconciliation with Paul Theroux. Would you like to tell about that particular moment and what happened before and after that?

Paul Theroux had a famous falling out with Sir Vidya many many years ago and it was very very emotive moment when Sir Vidya came with Nadira on his wheelchair and there was this moment of reconciliation. There were many other such incidences.

Like?

There have been places where political adversaries had a quiet cup of tea and made some private peace.

Fashion at JLF

When people talk about JLF, they also talk about fashion.

I am not so sure about that, because most of the people I know, who go to the festival, they say “wear anything!” There may be a few first timers who think it’s like Ascot and they come out to make a statement. I went to this wonderful festival in Pakistan, I found it absolutely amazing and quite funny also that there was a blow-dryer lady on demand. There was a hairdresser right in the middle of the festival. In Jaipur, I completely disagree. I think, on the contrary, some really fashionable and well-dressed people, normally are in their absolute grunge wear. Except, I have to say Shobhaa De.

Shobhaa De. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Shobhaa De. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

What about men? The best dressed men?

You know, for writers best dressed has a very different meaning. I can never forget Marlon James with his Rastafarian locks and he was walking around proudly thinking that ‘how cool am I?’ Which he was! He was absolutely a magnificent looking person with a fashion statement in the way he dressed. And suddenly he came to the front and who was there but our very own Laxmi. I can tell you; high heels don’t take very far in the Jaipur Festival. I have indeed seen a lot of elegant women holding their high heels in their hands, going barefoot.

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