Saturday, January 21, 10.30 am:
Good morning and hello from the very last row of a hall at JLF, where we're half listening to the great David Armitage delineate the shifting meanings of revolution and civil war and half distracted by the lingering smell of sulphur in the air. It lingers after the divided-house panel of the previous evening, in which two senior RSS members discussed their organisation's vibrant cultural vision (rooted in an RSS founding text, 'Bunch Of Thoughts' by MS Golwalkar) with journalist Pragya Tiwari, who's writing a book about what makes the RSS so popular, among other things. Conversation at parties last night was dominated by mumbles from supporters and detractors alike: alas, few headlines were generated by the RSS repeating what everyone knows they think. Or thinks they know they think.
Your diarist was mid-air at the time, re-reading Alex Ross' The Rest Is Noise, a magnificent history of classical music in the 20th century, struck by the words of the great composer Richard Strauss who exclaimed, "At last! A Reich Chancellor who understands art!" when the dreamy, poetic leader of the Nazi Party assumed power in Germany. We hope to bring you news from his panel later this weekend. Stay tuned! Understand art!
Chatter in the delegate lounge (and audiences) is still tuned to the grumbling low-grade frequency of "not enough star power." It hasn't notably made an impact on crowds: in fact, this diarist has been witness to possibly the first ever catfight to have broken out in the otherwise well-behaved, well-organised security queues. At panels about Sanskrit, Brexit, atheism and capitalism, crowds have gone from standing-room-only to bursting-at-the-seams. It's just our luck to have bumped into Meru Gokhale, who glared at us in rebuke for this bagatelle. (We'll still be calling you every week, Meru.)
Notable absences include author Raghu Karnad, who sources say was spotted in the audience of last evening's RSS panel, but who quit the festival soon after. Journalist Akshaya Mukul, author of an award-winning book about Gita Press and the formation of modern Hindu culture, was also absent: he was instead a discussant at an undoubtedly fiery talk with journalists Hartosh Singh Bal and Josy Joseph, also notably excluded from this year's line-up. A writer tells us that the festival called Mr Mukul a fortnight ago, inviting him to be "a guest of JLF" -- not a speaker --but we haven't been able to find anyone in this throng who will confirm or deny it for us.
At one of the festival's most enjoyable sessions, on memoir and memoir-writing, with a crew of extraordinary writers. We're especially delighted to see the author of last year's A Handbook For My Lover, Delhi-based arts journalist Rosalyn D'Mello, as a late addition to the festivities. D'Mello's Facebook post announcing her plans to stay away from JLF this year because the organisers had ignored her book for two years running caused a minor kerfuffle in literary circles: many writers chimed in to support her for her stance, and confessed they too had felt snubbed. (Many others took screenshots and circulated them in pearl-clutching delight on nasty private WhatsApp groups.) All ended happily, however, when festival director William Dalrymple noticed the post and offered to make amends for missing D'Mello's "important work" in initial planning. D'Mello, whose book is about the erotics of her relationship with a man thirty years older, was joined by Bee Rowlatt, who retraced the footsteps of Mary Wollstonecraft in an extraordinary journey; Lee Heyon-seo, who escaped North Korea and then retraced her own footsteps to rescue others; and Emma Sky, who signed up to help rebuld Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
10 pm (but really Sunday, noon):
Never mix cheap gin and good wine, dear reader, or you too will be writing your live updates the morning after. Apologies. We were otherwise occupied in the Midsummer Night's Dream-like environs of the Rajmahal Palace (perversely cold, of course). Here, about five hundred people, most dressed to the nines, gathered to celebrate Penguin India's 30th birthday party. (The original guest list had 120 names on it, so some fantasy inflation was certainly at work.)
We won't bore you with notes on the conversation, which only differed from the average Delhi dinner party in that everyone was talking about what they'd said on their panels that day, as opposed to what they'd said on Twitter. The best-dressed person at the ball, in a 1975 midnight-blue number with a train, was the New York Times' India chief, Ellen Barry, who wore her mother's dress to the party. The person who looked most like he belonged in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream was the puckish Suhel Seth, whose presence on a panel about manels and mansplaining is the last remaining controversy of the festival.
The person most conspicious by his absence was the actor Dominic West (Hector Madden of The Hour), whose good looks and genteel celebrity have caused him to be mobbed over the last couple of days at the festival. West, we hear, is here to cheer on his schoolmates Alex Watson, noted Sanskritist and professor of Indian philosophy; and the fascinating Jim Mallinson, whose hippie dreadlocks acquire both merit and propriety once you learn that he is an ordained and celebrated mahant of a yogi order, in addition to being a professor of Sanskrit at SOAS London. Ahem? More like aham.
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