Life | Designer Totes And Angry Laureates

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Designer Totes And Angry Laureates
Text by Madhu Jain
Published: Volume 19, Issue 3, March, 2011

Money can buy most anything, including the semblance of class, but it can’t buy you the increasingly coveted mantle of the intellectual, discovers Madhu Jain, reporting from the Jaipur Literature Festival

The dandy with a slight sneer and a way with words did one cursory round of the robustly festooned Diggi Palace on the second day of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) before loftily pronouncing: “Once you see a Louis Vuitton bag that’s it.”

That’s it? Now whatever did my snobby friend whose not-so-secret desire is to write a novel and who likes to hang around writers – especially the ones lionised by The London Review of Books, The Guardian, The New York Times, or The Hindu -- mean by that? Does he hope that constant proximity to authors will somehow transfer their talent and skills to him, through osmosis, perhaps?

Mind you, I can usually tell my Pradas from my Versaces; or from the increasingly-ubiquitous-in-India Louis Vuittons. But I failed to spot any LVs after Mr Snob’s remark, so casually dropped en passant. Until, that is, a well-heeled, globe-trotter friend pointed out a few women carrying them – like badges of courage.

Interestingly, these were the less in-your-face and rather mousy-looking bags with little brown squares instead of those chirpy pink and white monograms designed by the enigmatic ageing enfant terrible of the art world, Takashi Murakami. Any self-respecting Vuitton-ite would know that. But, alas, I am not among the privileged-gentsia.

Gate-crashing riff-raff
But I digress. My writer-groupie friend obviously thought that the presence of the branded socialites from Delhi, Mumbai and NRIs (the migratory birds from London, or from mansions on its outskirts, who flock to India each winter to party and shop and party) was diluting the intellectual atmosphere of the Litfest.

These women certainly did not look the book-devouring kind. I could think of other things or people they might be devouring. The sort who would frown at a woman who would deign to enter Delhi’s rapidly-elitising Khan Market in a handloom sari.

A friend was at a loss for words the other day when an acquaintance of hers told her that she must really be courageous to go to one of the capital’s favourite daytime watering holes for the glitterati (and for the men and women who lunch) in a sari. Never mind the pair of ill-fitting trousers that made her rather generously proportioned derriere look quite out of control.

In his rather tartly tongue-and-cheek wrap-up of the JLF in a national daily a journalist with a satiric pen wrote about a young and beautiful and rich Page 3 perennial, famous for being young and beautiful and rich, who on first entering the grounds of Diggi Palace exclaimed, “Oh God, all the riff-raff’s here!”

The lady wasn’t the only one. I must have overheard a dozen men and women bitterly complain about the hordes of non PLU’s (a couple of them even used the word riff-raff for them) who had ‘crashed’ their way into the book party. Conservative estimates put the crowd at 50,000. It was almost as if those who sit in the gold class of multiplexes suddenly find front benchers next to them. Eating popcorn in sync with them.

Frankly, I think that one of the redeeming features of the festival (never mind the chaos and some of the ill-conceived panel discussions) is the opportunity it gives to any and everyone to listen to a few of the best minds at work these days. Who knows how many of the school children attending the panel discussions or talks would be inspired to fall in love with books or become writers.

Enter the Laureates
Of course, this doesn’t mean that the machinations of hierarchy weren’t busy at work. But all that was behind the scenes. Apparently, the celebrated novelist Martin Amis almost left in a huff. It seems he was quite miffed when he found out that the two Nobel Laureates, Orhan Pamuk and J.M. Coetzee, were put up in the Ram Bagh Palace and a few other writers were staying in Samode Palace while he had been given a regular, functional five-star hotel without any royal flourishes. Eventually, one heard that he was moved to the Samode Palace. After all, this is the city of the barra and chota peg rajas. And Mr Amis is kind of literary royalty: his father was novelist Kingsley Amis and Amis the younger has an impressive body of work behind him as well as celebrity status on both sides of the Atlantic.

So, Mr Amis stayed on. But the young Page 3 lady must have beat a hasty retreat, like some of the other Beautiful People whose one moment of existential crisis this winter was to decide whether they should ‘do’ the Art Summit or the JLF. The two events happened to coincide. And, they had to choose the one which would give them more intellectual brownie points.

What more could they dine out on? Would Anish Kapoor, the new messiah temporarily on the block, talking about his work, the eggheads of the art world from overseas and India engaged in lofty discourse about the state of contemporary art or just the chatter about how many crores a Bharti Kher or a Souza went for, give them more food for conversation than listening to the galaxy of literary luminaries that included a couple of Nobel Laureates, Booker Prize winners and an assortment of chic-lit and lad-lit sorts?

It is far from enough these days to be rich and pretty and flaunt all the au courant brands and drop boldface names with calibrated casualness. You now also have to flaunt your brain muscle, to show off the little grey cells and your erudite reading. After all, there are too many people out there with oodles of money trespassing on your once-exclusive terrain.

Money can buy most anything, including the semblance of class, but it can’t buy you the increasingly coveted mantle of the intellectual. You have to work harder for that. No wonder opening evenings of art exhibitions and book launches, poetry readings and of course the India Art Summit and the JLF are brimming over with socialites of both sexes.

But just that won’t do: once again too many of the Beautiful Young and no-longer-young People are on to it. The way to go is to open a museum of your own — it’s already happening. Or, write your memoirs.

But just one last word of warning: writers need a lot of time-out – alone. During one of the panel discussions towards the end of the JLF, Martin Amis said that a writer really needs to be alone for long stretches of time. It was time for him to head back to London.

So, those now wanting to write a meaningful book, step out of the social whirlpool and lock yourselves in your rooms. And throw away the keys.

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