Drugs, Booker winner, and old friends on stage

Day One at the Jaipur Literature Festival saw Paul Theroux and V S Naipaul bury the hatchet, talks on writing sober, and the youngest Booker winner speak about boring ‘great novels’

There may be no respite from the cold weather in Jaipur, but at the Jaipur Literature Festival, all was warm and well between noted novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux and Nobel Prize winner, V S Naipaul.

Foes then, friends now: V S Naipaul and Paul Theroux share the dais with Amit Chaudhuri, Farrukh Dhondy, and Hanif Kureishi at the Jaipur Literature festival
Foes then, friends now: V S Naipaul and Paul Theroux share the dais with Amit Chaudhuri, Farrukh Dhondy, and Hanif Kureishi at the Jaipur Literature festival

18 years ago, the two writers had a much publicised spat, and publicly derided each other. However, at the festival, Theroux, who wrote The Great Railway Bazaar, was on a panel to celebrate 50 years of Naipaul’s masterpiece, A House For Mr Biswas.

Farrukh Dhondy, who was chairing the session, hinted at the duo’s falling out. “But now,” he added, “their relationship is all good?” The cameras zoomed in on Naipaul and his wife Nadira, and the latter grinned and gave a thumbs-up. Now that’s burying some hatchet.

Jeet Thayil
Talking sober: Jeet Thayil and Will Self discuss freedom of speech at the Jaipur Literature Festival on Wednesday

‘I am not Charlie’
“Do you ever write sober?” The audience roared with laughter as author Jeet Thayil put forth the question to noted UK writer and journalist, Will Self, at a session on Day One of the Jaipur Literature festival. Self, known both for his satirical writing and for a 1997 scandal after taking heroin on the then UK PM’s jet, quipped, “Well, that’s something coming from somebody whose book is soaked in opiates.”

On a more serious note, Thayil went on to explore Self’s “crazy” books, one of which has a woman growing a penis and raping her husband, and a man grows a vagina behind his knee. In response, Self spoke of writing satire and its role. “The role of satire is moral revolt, otherwise satire is plain rudeness.”

Thayil then went on to discuss this view in context of the recent massacre of 12 Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in France. “In the West, freedom of speech is synonymous with being able to say ‘f**k’, ‘s**t’ and ‘piss’, which I think indicates a limited imagination. Are you doing it to build a better society? Are you finding commonalities in cultures? I think not. Most Muslims, whom this ‘satire’ is directed to, are impoverished, and I think satire should affect the comfortable; otherwise, it is just perverted and exploitative. So, I am not Charlie,” said Self.

Youngest Booker winner
One of the biggest draws of Day One at the festival was a session which brought The Luminaries author, Eleanor Catton (the youngest Booker prize winner, 2013) and Eimear McBride, whose book, A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing won the Baileys Women’s Prize last year — nine years after she wrote it.

While The Luminaries, at 832 pages, is a murder mystery written in Victorian style and based on astrology, McBride’s book won praise for being experimental, for using rather fractured language and lack of punctuation to essay her protagonist’s world.
Catton, when asked about how she managed to marry form and plot, replied, “As a young reader, I often read some ‘great novels’ which had good form and intricate plots but were boring. I wanted to see if I could achieve both and write a gripping book.”

On her part, McBride revealed that she chose to explore language the way she has in her book — in an explicit, unforgiving manner — to make the reading experience as physical as it was for the protagonist in her head.

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