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On the JLF fringes

By Anoothi Vishal

A bunch of determined protestors offended by a book-that-shall-not-be-named stalled proceedings at the Jaipur fest; others, denied access to overcrowded sessions, sought their festive fix in laal maans and kachoris

Like someone sensible tweeted, the Jaipur Literature Festival should just drop its middle name and be true to what it really is: A festival; full of noise, food, booze, consumption and people dressed up in all their finery as any true-to-type Indian festival is these days, in our recession-defying, money-having-moved-east moment under the sun. Despite the mega bytes and displays of impotent anger on his behalf, it was not Rushdie, after all, who was the star of the show. Oprah was. Despite winning the DSC prize for literature for his debut work, Chinaman author Shehan Karunatilaka hardly created any buzz. The $ 50,000 prize money did. And despite this being a supposedly literary venue, choking with self-importance, no one really wanted any books signed, forget read. They just wanted the glory of a “cultured” thappa that seemingly comes from attending this jamboree.

And as socialities and schoolkids, grandparents, parents, and in at least one instance, even a month-old baby, rubbed shoulders with the media, critics, authors, wannabe authors, networkers, and plain bored souls wanting a bit of an outing on a weekend, one thing became clear: The Diggi Palace Hotel has become much too small a venue for such a mass of humanity. It is, of course, a mystery to those of us witness to all the antics how could a bunch of “protestors” offended by a book written almost 20 years ago (and which they hadn’t even read), manage to enter the venue. Considering that even valid card-holders were barred from entering and roads were blocked to prevent added influx into the venue, in danger of imploding, it should have been impossible for these hyper-sensitive men to even reach the august venue, forget making any threats. But that’s another story.

This post, considering it is on food and travel expressly, will focus on other things: Such as kachoris, laal maans and lassi, worthy sideshows to the megashow. With each cup of coffee inside the venue costing several long minutes wasted in queues and sessions held in impossibly tiny venues outside which a sea of those who hadn’t managed to scramble inside waited without the benefit of big screens and televised proceedings, the only thing to do in Jaipur during the JLF, was, of course, to lunch and dine and snack. Each restaurant and street stall that we visited during the time in the city was full of festival-crashers.

At Lakshmi Mishtan Bhandar, the famous kachori-sweets-and-chaat shop, tables were put out in a small small, back-of-the-house room annexed to the main restaurant to accommodate the extra crowd. Of course, should you have chosen to sit there, like we did, you would have abdicated any right to reasonable service. A solitary waiter went around taking orders and arrived with a single kachori after 30 minutes to be shared by a table. It was a smart strategy as he served up lunch to all patrons in tiny bits and pieces punctuated by long intervals of kitchen scrambling no doubt. In the end, we even had to beg for the bill, so that we could be free to attend the evening literary sessions over Sula, priced, per glass, lower than in Delhi restaurants.

At the Penguin party that evening, the scale was equally astonishing. As unlimited snacks, cheese, Glenfiddich and wine did the rounds, who cared about books and authors? In suitable high spirits, no one minded eating biryani (and strangely kulche) from soup bowls and pretty little gulab jamuns from soup spoons (though, it does look inelegant, doing so).

At Niro’s, the next afternoon, being an early bird that arrived in haste, post-Oprah, had its advantage. We found a table amidst all those who hadn’t been in fact able to reach JLF thanks to blocked roads and who had decided to settle for lunch instead. Niro’s speciality has always been laal maans, the fiery, slow-cooked mutton special to Rajput cuisine. But perhaps keeping the sensitive literary stomachs in mind and to cater to all the international travelers on special literary tour packages or Dilliwallas who had turned up to spend their Sundays well, the recipe had been “tweaked”. Out went the chillies, in went tomatoes (that bane of restaurant food in India) so that the end gravy was more sweet than chilli.

Having missed a polo match a couple of hours later (another fringe event on the JLF sidelines) thanks to shopping at Gulabschand (and tall kulhads of lassi) we decided to settle for an elegant tea service at Rambagh. Camomile was all it took to soothe fraying literary nerves. The protesters should have tried it. And the politicians too.

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