I came back from my first trip to the Jaipur Literature Festival with a buzzing brain, happy memories, a notepad full of new books to add to my to-read list, and a stomach bug that I acquired by completely ignoring what my sense of smell was specifically evolved to avoid and eating railway station kachori that smelled a bit funky. To the shock of everyone around me, my self-imposed book ban was implemented successfully thanks in part to surprisingly strong willpower and mostly due to JLF’s decision to bring in Amazon as their bookstore partner.
I didn’t get to make it for any sessions on the first day because it clashed with a conference we had signed up for (the best part of which was the gorgeous palace location where peacocks and peahens just casually strolled through the grounds). But the sessions I did attend made up for it by being incredibly stimulating, expanding my knowledge about matters I was ignorant of and introducing me to some great new authors and books.
A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel
The author casually informed the audience that he and his partner bought a medieval presbytery in southern France, renovated it, moved in and currently share space with his library of over 30,000 books. He was fascinating on stage, dissed Amazon and Paulo Coelho (the latter on multiple occassions), and has a library of 30,000 books in southern France! Of course I want to read what he has to say. You can read more about his bookworm habits here. Now if anybody asks me where I put all the books I buy, instead of saying, “In the pots and pans in the kitchen,” I’m going to reply, “In my future library in southern France.”
I didn’t manage to attend this session but the title by itself sounded fascinating. At the age of sixteen, in a nationwide selection for royal consorts, Cixi was chosen as one of the emperor’s numerous concubines. When he died in 1861, their five-year-old son succeeded to the throne. Cixi at once launched a palace coup against the regents appointed by her husband and made herself the real ruler of China—behind the throne, literally, with a silk screen separating her from her officials who were all male.”
I have minimal interest in J. D. Salinger so even though I’d heard about this book, it hadn’t really interested me. But the author was delightful, and listening to her talk about her book made me want to give it a shot. When she was 23, the author worked in a literary agency where one of her jobs involved replying to fanmail addressed to J. D. Salinger. If the book is anything like the author, it’s sure to be interesting and have a brilliant sense of humour.
Another session I didn’t attend but wanted to thanks to its original title: How to Ruin a Queen: Marie Antoinette, the Stolen Diamonds and the Scandal that Shook the French Throne. In 1785, a sensational trial began in Paris that would divide the country and captivate Europe. A leading Catholic cardinal and scion of one of the most distinguished families in France stood accused of forging the queen’s signature to obtain the most expensive piece of jewelry in Europe: a 2,800-carat diamond necklace. Where were the diamonds? Was the cardinal innocent? Was, for that matter, the queen? The revelations from the trial would bedevil the French monarchy as the country descended into a bloody revolution.
An interesting title is half the battle won. I didn’t even have to attend the session to know I wanted to know more about this lesser known figures of 19th century India. In 1876 Sophia Duleep Singh was born into Indian royalty. Sophia transcended her heritage to devote herself to battling injustice and inequality, a far cry from the life to which she was born. Her causes were the struggle for Indian Independence, the fate of the lascars, the welfare of Indian soldiers in the First World War – and, above all, the fight for female suffrage. She was bold and fearless, attacking politicians, putting herself in the front line and swapping her silks for a nurse’s uniform to tend wounded soldiers evacuated from the battlefields.
This was an utterly fantastic discussion and I’m so glad it was my last full session at the festival. Next time I’m going to make sure I leave the day after JLF ends, but this time, unfortunately, I had an afternoon train to catch. Even though the author spoke of Socrates and his philosophy (something I am nearly clueless about), it wasn’t scholarly, but accessible and enjoyable. In fact, now I’m desperate to learn more about Socrates and his life and times. One of the things she spoke about (through the example of a genius ape) was how sharing knowledge is what makes humans more capable than animals because this is what allows different ideas to come together and consequently leads to progress. Something the festival did a great job of too.
This was the last session I stayed for, and could only sit for half of it, thanks to my 2pm train. But I usually love Granta, so I’m sure I’ll love an India-focused one edition even more. For a long time – too long – the mirror that India held to its face was made elsewhere. ‘What writer about the country would you recommend I read?’ first-time travellers to India would ask, and in the later twentieth century the answer was still Forster or Naipaul or even the long-dead Kipling. In fiction, that changed with Rushdie. Now it has changed in all kinds of non-fiction. Narrative history, reportage, memoir, biography, the travel account: all have their gifted exponents in a country perfecting its own frank gaze.
Books by Brigid Keenan
who was hilarious, and frustratingly didn’t mention the title of the book she read her sidesplitting excerpt from. So I’m just going to have to track them all down!
Sam Miller investigates how the ancient Greeks, the Romans, the Chinese, Arabs, Africans, Europeans and Americans – everyone really, except for Indians themselves – came to imagine India. His account of the engagement between foreigners and India spans the centuries from Alexander the Great to Slumdog Millionaire. It features, among many others, Thomas the Apostle, the Chinese monk Xuanzang, Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, Vasco da Gama, Babur, Clive of India, several Victorian pornographers, Mark Twain, EM Forster, Allen Ginsberg, the Beatles and Steve Jobs. Interspersed between these tales is the story of Sam Miller’s own 25-year-long love affair with India. The result is a spellbinding, 2500-year-long journey through Indian history, culture and society, in the company of an author who informs, educates and entertains in equal measure, as he travels in the footsteps of foreign chroniclers, exposes some of their fabulous fantasies and overturns longheld stereotypes about race, identity and migration. A tour de force that is at once scholarly and thought-provoking, delightfully eccentric and laugh-out-loud funny, this book is destined to become a much-loved classic.
In 587 A.D., two monks set off on an extraordinary journey that would take them in an arc across the entire Byzantine world, from the shores of the Bosphorus to the sand dunes of Egypt. On the way John Moschos and his pupil Sophronius the Sophist stayed in caves, monasteries, and remote hermitages, collecting the wisdom of the stylites and the desert fathers before their fragile world finally shattered under the great eruption of Islam. More than a thousand years later, using Moschos’s writings as his guide, William Dalrymple sets off to retrace their footsteps and composes “an evensong for a dying civilization”
In the summer of 2009, the leader of the dreaded Tamil Tiger guerrillas was killed, bringing to a bloody end the stubborn and complicated civil war in Sri Lanka. What happens to the texture of life in a country that endures such bitter conflict? What happens to the country’s soul? Samanth Subramanian gives us an extraordinary account of the Sri Lankan war and the lives it changed. Taking us to the ghosts of summers past and to other battles from other times, he draws out the story of Sri Lanka today-an exhausted, disturbed society, still hot from the embers of the war. Through travels and conversations, he examines how people reconcile themselves to violence, how religion and state conspire, how the powerful become cruel and how victory can be put to the task of reshaping memory and burying histories.
While other authors on the Travel Writers panel spoke about their difficulties with a new country’s language, customs or people, Charles Glass had his experience of being kidnapped to talk about. So it’s a good thing he was saved until the end. Tribes With Flags is a chronicle of Glass’ journey from the southern Turkish coast to Lebanon, and includes the 62 days he was held captive by pro-Iranian terrorists in Beirut.
In the centuries before the British Raj, when the Mughals were the preeminent power in the subcontinent, a wide array of migrants known as firangis made India their home. In this book, Jonathan Gil Harris, a twenty-first-century firangi, tells their stories. These gripping accounts are of healers, soldiers, artists, ascetics, thieves, pirates and courtesans who were not powerful or privileged. Often they were escaping poverty or religious persecution; many were brought here as slaves; others simply followed their spirit of adventure. Some of these migrants were absorbed into the military. Others fell in with religious communities the Catholics of Rachol, the underground Jews of Goa, the fakirs of Ajmer, the Sufis of Delhi. Healers from Portugal and Italy adapted their medical practice in accordance with local traditions. Gifted artisans from Europe joined Akbar’s and Jahangir’s royal ateliers, and helped create enduring works of art. And though almost invisible within the archival record, some migrant women such as the Armenian Bibi Juliana and the Portuguese Juliana Dias da Costa found a home in royal Mughal harems.
The book explores a dozen of history’s most influential maps, from stone tablet to vibrant computer screen. As Brotton shows, the long road to our present geographical reality was rife with controversy, manipulation, and special interests trumping science. Through the centuries maps have been wielded to promote any number of imperial, religious, and economic agendas, and have represented the idiosyncratic and uneasy fusion of science and subjectivity. Brotton also conjures the worlds that produced these notable works of cartography and tells the stories of those who created, used, and misused them for their own ends.
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
The author made the process of researching for historical fiction seem particularly inviting. It is 1866, and young Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On the stormy night of his arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men who have met in secret to discuss a series of unexplained events: A wealthy man has vanished, a prostitute has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely ornate as the night sky. Richly evoking a mid-nineteenth-century world of shipping, banking, and gold rush boom and bust, the book is a brilliantly constructed, fiendishly clever ghost story and a gripping page-turner.
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
Sue Trinder is an orphan, left as an infant in the care of Mrs. Sucksby, a “baby farmer,” who raised her with unusual tenderness, as if Sue were her own. Mrs. Sucksby’s household, with its fussy babies calmed with doses of gin, also hosts a transient family of petty thieves—fingersmiths—for whom this house in the heart of a mean London slum is home. One day, the most beloved thief of all arrives—Gentleman, an elegant con man, who carries with him an enticing proposition for Sue: If she wins a position as the maid to Maud Lilly, a naïve gentlewoman, and aids Gentleman in her seduction, then they will all share in Maud’s vast inheritance. Once the inheritance is secured, Maud will be disposed of—passed off as mad, and made to live out the rest of her days in a lunatic asylum. With dreams of paying back the kindness of her adopted family, Sue agrees to the plan. Once in, however, Sue begins to pity her helpless mark and care for Maud Lilly in unexpected ways…But no one and nothing is as it seems in this Dickensian novel of thrills and reversals.
CHILDREN’S BOOKS: MIDDLE GRADE
Wild Magic by Cat Weatherill
Mari and her brother Jakob have followed enchanted music and are now trapped in a world of wild magic. A world as cruel as it is beautiful. And all the time, they are being stalked by a fearsome beast, who needs one of the children to break a centuries-old curse.