The world’s largest literature festival, held every year at Jaipur’s Diggi Palace, saw a crowd like no other in its 9th year of running. Jaipur Lit Fest 2016 housed a great many number of books and literary works by the best of authors, new releases and old publications alike. We made a list of noteworthy titles that made our reading list for this year.
1. The Lazarus Project by Aleksander Hemon – On March 2, 1908, nineteen-year-old Lazarus Averbuch, an Eastern European Jewish immigrant, was shot to death on the doorstep of the Chicago chief of police and cast as a would-be anarchist assassin.
A century later, a young Eastern European writer in Chicago named Brik becomes obsessed with Lazarus’s story. Brik enlists his friend Rora — a war photographer from Sarajevo — to join him in retracing Averbuch’s path.
Through a history of pogroms and poverty, and a prism of a present-day landscape of cheap mafiosi and even cheaper prostitutes, the stories of Averbuch and Brik become inextricably intertwined, creating a truly original, provocative, and entertaining novel that confirms Aleksandar Hemon as one of the most dynamic and essential literary voices of our time.
2. Corduroy Mansions series by Alexander McCall Smith – Corduroy Mansions is the affectionate nickname given to a genteel, crumbling mansion block in London’s vibrant Pimlico neighborhood and the home turf of a captivating collection of quirky and altogether McCall-Smithian characters. There’s the middle-aged wine merchant William, who is trying to convince his reluctant twenty-four-year-old son, Eddie, to leave the nest; and Marcia, the boutique caterer who has her sights set on William. There’s also the (justifiably) much-loathed Member of Parliament Oedipus Snark; his mother, Berthea, who’s writing his biography and hating every minute of it; and his long-suffering girlfriend, Barbara, a literary agent who would like to be his wife (but, then, she’d like to be almost anyone’s wife). There’s the vitamin evangelist, the psychoanalyst, the art student with a puzzling boyfriend and Freddie de la Hay, the Pimlico terrier who insists on wearing a seat belt and is almost certainly the only avowed vegetarian canine in London. Filled with the ins and outs of neighborliness in all its unexpected variations, Corduroy Mansions showcases the life, laughter and humanity that have become the hallmarks of Alexander McCall Smith’s work.
3. Me Laxmi, Me Hijra – Flamboyant transgender rights activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi is proud of her sexuality and claims to be “a woman who can put all other women to shame.” “Me Hijra Me Laxmi,” the new English translation of her autobiography, written by R. Raj Rao, launched at the New Delhi World Book Fair was one book she says she never imagined writing. The book is already in publication in Marathi and Gujarati. She was the first transgender person to represent Asia Pacific at the United Nations and has represented her community and India on several international platforms including the World AIDS conference in Toronto. She currently runs Astitva, an organisation for the support and development of sexual minorities. The autobiography is a narrative of her ordeal of becoming a hijra by choice, and her subsequent journey of fighting against tremendous odds for the recognition of her community.
4. The Sialkot Saga by Ashwin Sanghi – This book is the labour of my love,’ Sanghi explained as he unveiled the novel’s cover for the first time, on Day 3 of JLF. The story is a depiction of the bond between two men of different religious beliefs, set against the backdrop of the India-Pakistan partition in 1947: ‘Some will read it as a story about a feud while others as that about great friendship,’ Sanghi said. He then treated the rapt audience to a teaser extract, which hinted of an intriguing tale about a powerful secret going all the way back to the time of Mauryan Emperor Ashoka. Sanghi’s shared his insight into what makes a great thriller novel: ‘Three things make for a compelling story: the first paragraph of the book should suck you in, the last paragraph of each chapter must force you to read the next, and the last paragraph of the book should make you want to wait for the writer’s next work.’ A great novel, Sanghi added, is not one where the reader turns the pages, but where the pages turn themselves.
5. Tales of The City by Armistead Maupin – For more than three decades, Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City has blazed its own trail through popular culture—from a groundbreaking newspaper serial to a classic novel, to a television event that entranced millions around the world. The first of six novels about the denizens of the mythic apartment house at 28 Barbary Lane, Tales is both a sparkling comedy of manners and an indelible portrait of an era that changed forever the way we live. The series opens with the arrival of Mary Ann Singleton, a naive young woman from Cleveland, Ohio, who is visiting San Francisco on vacation when she impulsively decides to stay. She finds an apartment at 28 Barbary Lane, the domain of the eccentric, marijuana-growing landlady Anna Madrigal. Mary Ann becomes friends with other tenants of the building: the hippyish bisexual Mona Ramsey; heterosexual lothario Brian Hawkins; the sinister and cagey roof tenant Norman Neal Williams; and Michael Tolliver, a sweet and personable gay man known to friends as Mouse (as in Mickey Mouse).
6. Chanakya’s Chant by Ashwin Sanghi – The year is 340 BC. A hunted, haunted Brahmin youth vows revenge for the gruesome murder of his beloved father. Cold, calculating, cruel and armed with a complete absence of accepted morals, he becomes the most powerful political strategist in Bharat and succeeds in uniting a ragged country against the invasion of the army of that demigod, Alexander the Great. Pitting the weak edges of both forces against each other, he pulls off a wicked and astonishing victory and succeeds in installing Chandragupta on the throne of the mighty Mauryan empire.
History knows him as the brilliant strategist Chanakya. Satisfied—and a little bored—by his success as a kingmaker, through the simple summoning of his gifted mind, he recedes into the shadows to write his Arthashastra, the ‘science of wealth’. But history, which exults in repeating itself, revives Chanakya two and a half millennia later, in the avatar of Gangasagar Mishra, a Brahmin teacher in smalltown India who becomes puppeteer to a host of ambitious individuals—including a certain slumchild who grows up into a beautiful and powerful woman.
Modern India happens to be just as riven as ancient Bharat by class hatred, corruption and divisive politics and this landscape is Gangasagar’s feasting ground. Can this wily pandit—who preys on greed, venality and sexual deviance—bring about another miracle of a united India?
7. Swimmer Among The Stars by Kanishk Tharoor – Elephant at Sea opens this debut collection of dozen deftly wrought short stories, titled Swimmer Among the Stars, by a refreshingly profound and gifted 31-year-old writer. It starts on a humorous note when the Indian official at the embassy receives a perplexing telegram intimating him that an elephant is enroute. He even mulls the possibility of it being a code. Then it slowly suffuses a tragic and complex hue as the elephant, accompanied by its mahout, land on the unfamiliar shore. As they embark on the lonely voyage to the capital, the man and animal, two strangers in a strange land, their delicate fate distend. In the short story lending the title to the collection, Swimmer Among the Stars, “the last speaker of a language” is being interviewed by a group of ethnographers. The woman finds it strange to listen to the sounds of her mouth. “You must understand she says, my memory is preserved better than a lemon, it is difficult to remember which words are my own and which words are not.” In The Fall of an Eyelash, Forlough’s family help smuggle her out of the country, a desert, to a place which is “green and made from clean lines for safety”. She’s homesick. In this strange land, the new people admire her courage and keep asking her to repeat her story, not realising “that while an exile can escape her country, she can never escape her exile.” Slowly she learns the new customs. She discovers how wishes can come true from fallen eyelashes. The story, Kanishk says, is loosely inspired by the life of a family friend. Although it was written long before the Syrian refugee crisis, it finds a particular resonance in the present context. One of the haunting allures of Swimmer Among the Stars is that the stories are not only intricately knit, but in them the grazed walls of literary conventions fold and merge. Death and destruction recur as grim reminders that the world is always ending for someone, somewhere.
8. An Unsuitable Boy (Karan Jaohar’s biography by Poonam Saxena) – An Unsuitable Boy, co-authored by Johar and Poonam Saxena, is a frank and riveting account of the Johar’s life, including his relationship with his famous father, the film-maker Yash Johar. Johar described harrowing experiences of being bullied for his mannerisms by friends at school and in the “snooty” South Bombay colony where he lived. Having worked for over twenty years in the film industry and made many successful movies like Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, Kal Ho Na Ho, My Name is Khan and Student of the Year as well as taking home-production house Dharma Productions to new heights, Johar observed that the film industry has changed a lot: ‘It’s more detached… corporatized now, led by big ambitions. Earlier, films were a product of inter-relationships of film-makers, actors, musicians and other stake holders. Now, we are made to produce cut-throat cinema, which has no space for personal bonding.’ Johar’s first appearance at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival was a thrilling insight into the film-maker’s world. The star, who rarely gives interviews, spoke with riveting candour about his journey from a bullied young boy to one of the most successful directors in India today. We are looking forward to reading his book!
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