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Jaipur Literature Festival 2020: 12 Sessions You Shouldn't Miss

Elizabeth Gilbert, Manoranjan Byapari, Leïla Slimani, Madhur Jaffrey are just a few of the authors headlining panels this year.
JAIPUR, INDIA - JANUARY 24: Visitors at ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival 2019, at Diggi Palace on January 24, 2019 in Jaipur, India. (Photo by Amal KS/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Hindustan Times via Getty Images
JAIPUR, INDIA - JANUARY 24: Visitors at ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival 2019, at Diggi Palace on January 24, 2019 in Jaipur, India. (Photo by Amal KS/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

We’re more than halfway through January. Resolutions are starting to unravel, and depending on where you live, the cold has either seeped completely into the inner depths of our bones, or made its hasty getaway after a cruelly fleeting appearance. Through it all, the Indian litfest season marches on, reaching its frenzied zenith, as always, in the last week of the month with the Jaipur Literature Festival.

The 13th edition of the literature festival will take place over five days from Jan 23 to Jan 27 at Jaipur’s Diggi Palace, reportedly its last time at the historic location. Neil Gaiman continues to elude the festival—contrary to its reputation, this year’s edition has fewer literary heavyweights than usual—but there’s enough to catch between 300 speakers and nearly 200 sessions. Here are our picks of the 12 sessions that seem the most promising.

From Eat, Pray, Love to City of Girls (January 23, 11.15am–12.15pm, Front Lawn)

Elizabeth Gilbert 2019’s novel City of Girls is an entertaining romp through the theatre scene of 1940s New York replete with love, scandal and parties, but the American writer remains best known for her wildly successful 2006 memoir Eat Pray Love, which was adapted into a film starring Julia Roberts in 2010. Opinions vary on whether it’s life affirming or priv-lit, but the book has come to define an entire genre. Gilbert will be in conversation with Alexandra Pringle, editor-in-chief of Bloomsbury, who has published authors including Margaret Atwood, Ali Smith, Ann Patchett, and Gilbert herself.

There’s Gunpowder in the Air (January 23, 12.30pm–1.30pm)

Manoranjan Byapari has been writing in Bengali for years but his books have only been appreciated by English language readers relatively recently, thanks to translations of his autobiography, Interrogating My Chandal Life, and his 2013 novel Batashe Baruder Gondho (There’s Gunpowder in the Air), which found a place on the shortlists of both the DSC Prize and JCB Prize last year. Amid the glitz and pomp of the litfest, listening to Byapari on the power of rage and politics of writing is a crucial reminder of why literature matters.

On Memoir (January 24, 10.00 am–11.00am, Mughal Tent)

An eclectic group of writers will be in conversation with publisher Chiki Sarkar about memoirs. There’s Swedish journalist Åsne Seierstad, Israeli historian Avi Shlaim and Conde Nast head honcho Nicholas Coleridge, but we’re particularly interested in hearing what poet and performer Lemn Sissay—whose searing memoir details a troubled childhood in the British care system—and actress, writer and food legend Madhur Jaffrey have to say.

Celestial Bodies (January 24, 11.15 am–12.15 am, Charbagh)

In 2019, Jokha Alharthi became the first winner of the Man Booker International Prize to write in Arabic. She’s also the first Omani woman to be translated to English. Catch her talking about her winning novel, Celestial Bodies, a compelling tale about family, slavery and the evolution of Oman.

How To Judge A Book? (January 24, 11.15 am–12.15 am, Baithak)

KR Meera, Pradip Kishen and Parvati Sharma were three of the judges on last year’s jury of the JCB Prize for Literature, reading several dozen novels to choose one winner—Madhuri Vijay’s The Far Field. We’re hoping the session will shed light on what they discovered about Indian contemporary fiction published in English, how they went about the process of choosing a longlist and shortlist, and in the process provide some insight on that very tricky question: what goes into the making of a good novel?

Being Various: On Literary Diversity (January 24, 5.15pm–6.15pm, Mughal Tent)

Publisher Urvashi Butalia will moderate a conversation with an array of writers: Sunny Singh, Roanna Gonsalves, Annie Zaidi and Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar. We know why it’s necessary to read diverse voices, and to ensure there’s a platform for them, but hopefully the session promises to raise some thorny questions about the barriers that stand in the way (we’re looking at you too, literary gatekeepers) and how to remove them.

Where Does Fiction Come From? (January 25, 5.15 pm–6.15pm, Front Lawn)

It’s that classic, persistent question, and a regular panel at JLF. This year, novelists Elizabeth Gilbert, Avni Doshi, John Lancaster, Leïla Slimani, Jean Hanff Korelitz and Howard Jacobson will speak about the process behind the fiction that they write. It’s one of those huge panels that can either throw up a fascinating multitude of ideas and voices, or turn into a rushed cacophony. Moderator Damian Barr will have his work cut out.

Poetry Durbar (January 25, 5.15pm–6.15pm, Durbar Hall)

It’s going to be a cornucopia of poetry with some of the finest practitioners and thinkers of the form— Arvind Krishna Mahrotra, Jeet Thayil, Anamika, Annie Zaidi, Easterine Kire and Stephen Sexton— all on the same stage. An unmissable session if you’re a lover of verse.

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Uninhabitable Earth (January 26, 10.00 am–11.00 am, Baithak)

We can bury our head in the rapidly heating sand all we want, there’s no denying the urgency and scale of the climate change crisis. John Lancaster, whose dystopian novel The Wall tackles the subject; journalist David Wallace-Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth; Marcus Moench, who has worked on water, climate and urbanisation for three decades; and Delhi-based researcher and professor Navroz Dubash will speak on the climate emergency.

Bolna Hai: What Must Be Said (January 26, 12.30pm–1.30pm, Charbagh)

One of India’s sharpest journalists, Ravish Kumar, will be in conversation with columnist and author Nilanjana Roy. There’s no time more critical than right now in India to drive home the need for clear-eyed, uncompromising journalism, dissent and the importance of speaking out against fascism and the subversion of democratic rights. And Kumar is definitely the person to do it.

Kashmir: Of Barbed Wires and Almond Blossoms (January 26, 5:15pm–6:15pm, Mughal Tent)

“Before they lay barbed wire/ across our tongues/ let’s sing of almond blossoms” writes Kashmiri poet Asiya Zahoor in her poem Lightness of Being in a Heavily Militarised Zone. It’s been more than five months since the abrogation of Article 370, since a communication clampdown in the region, since political leaders were detained, even as reports of gross human rights violations come from Kashmir. Zahoor is joined on the panel by Manoj Joshi and Amitabh Mattoo.

ALSO READ: ‘One Must Sing Before Tongues Are Tied’: Asiya Zahoor On Art And Survival In Kashmir Post Article 370

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper (January 27, 3.45pm–4.45pm, Front Lawn)

In her extraordinary book, Hallie Ruebnhold, winner of the Baillie Gifford Prize, sets the record straight about the five victims of the most infamous serial killer known to the modern world—Jack the Ripper. Contrary to the misogynistic colour with which they’ve been historically painted, Rubenhold fleshes out five women who led lives of destitution, failed by society, only to have them cruelly snuffed out. The author will be in conversation with journalist Bee Rowlatt.

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