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Julie Al-Zoub
07 Nov 2016

Masala Chai and Magic Moments

Cinderella arrived at the ball in a golden carriage. I arrived at the Writers Ball in a rickety rickshaw but I felt privileged to be attending the ball which for me was one of the highlights of the Jaipur Literature Festival. I stumbled out of the rickshaw sporting a wild windswept hairdo and a pair of laddered tights. Fortunately all eyes were on the star of the show. With her elaborate makeup and sparkling jhool, an elephant was definitely the belle of the ball.

Stepping out onto the lawn at Le Meridian was like walking into a fairytale. Thousands of sparkling gold tea lights glistened in the darkness. Elaborately laid tables were lit by theatrical candelabra reminding me of Lumiere from ‘Beauty and the Beast’. I half expected the candelabra to burst into a chorus of ‘Be our guest’. The al fresco dance floor was alive with writers who had abandoned their pens for the evening, donned their dancing shoes and were polishing up their Bollywood moves to Rajasthani music.

The writers ball was a fitting finale for the JLF 2016 which had been packed with magical moments from start to finish. The JLF opening ceremony had been a fusion of drumming, horn blowing and the lighting of lamps to celebrate knowledge and love. Bollywood superstar Kajol brought a glimpse of glamour to the festival and Stephen Fry took lots of selfies. There honestly was never a dull moment at the JLF. I had been up close and personal (well almost) with many of my literary heroes, absorbed the thoughts of some of the world’s most creative minds and developed an addiction to masala chai.

Masala chai will always evoke memories of the JLF where I started each morning with a cup of masala chai on the lawn at Diggi Palace. Men wearing bright turbans, diamond earrings and huge smiles ladled the steaming chai from copper urns into cute kulhads (clay pots). Morning chai was one of my favourite times of day at JLF. A moment to feel grateful for being here, to appreciate the smaller details and to absorb some of the positive energy.

The stars who shone the brightest at JLF were not the youngest. Margaret Atwood, who is 77, attracted a huge crowd and drew hearty laughter and applause in her keynote speech when she joked ‘To be invited here I must be very important or very old and I think it’s the latter’. Ruskin Bond, the oldest speaker at 82, was clearly adored by the army of schoolchildren who turned up at his session holding banners declaring ‘Sir, we love you’.

Which sessions did I enjoy the most?  All the sessions I attended were enlightening, inspiring or entertaining in their own unique way. I attended sessions during which I learnt more about transgender issues, emphasised with women’s struggles in the Middle East and had any romantic notions of life as a war journalist shattered.

‘A Booker Bookshelf’ invoked a feeling of awe in me as it brought together three contenders for the Booker Prize 2015. Marlon James who won the honour with his novel  ‘A Brief History of Seven killings’ was on stage with Sunjeev Sahota and Anuradha Roy, who were also in the running. The trio talked about their plots, characters and motivation then answered questions from the audience. The question I would have loved to have asked was how Sunjeev and Anuradha honestly felt about being pipped to the post by Marlon.

One session which really moved me was ‘Being Mortal’. In this session surgeon Atul Gawande challenged attitudes to aging and dying and he shared details of his own father’s end of life experience. In his book ‘Being Mortal,’ Atul sensitively explores how and why we should be focusing on a good life right up to the very end rather than preparing for a good death.

It was heart warming to witness incredibly young authors given a voice at The JLF and confidently speaking in their ‘Taking Flight ‘session. Schoolkids who had already had work published spoke articulately about their writing achievements and their aspirations for the future.

Art added a fun visual element to the festival. I had fallen in love with Ujan Dutta’s colourful child like depictions of India which were showcased on the JLF website. His characters perfectly portrayed the spirit of the JLF and brought life to boards and signs around Diggi Palace. Ujan’s little people were complimented by an installation of larger than life sculptures representing characters from literature including Red Riding Hood, Anna Karenina and Napoleon. Hundreds of sting puppets with staring black eyes hung from every nook and cranny reminding us that ‘This is Jaipur’.

The JLF and Diggi Palace really do go together as well as peas and carrots. I can’t imagine the festival taking place anywhere else. Diggi Palace is the home of Rajasthani royals – Thakur Ram Pratap Singh Diggi and his delightful wife Jyotika. Every year the Diggi’s donate their home as the venue for the JLF. I spoke to the royal couple several times and they are charming hosts who treat JLF attendees as their own special guests. Jyotika oversees the catering and brings in fifty local cooks to serve up traditional Rajasthani dishes for delegates

The JLF had been a magical literary bubble which I didn’t want to burst. For some strange reason I sensed that my connection with JLF would continue. I had no idea why I was feeling this way or how this could possibly happen without the intervention of a little magic.

Life returned to normal. Sometimes I would brew myself a cup of masala chai, sit in the garden and take a trip down memory lane back to the Jaipur Literature Festival. A few weeks ago after returning from one such sentimental journey; I received an email from Teamwork Arts inviting me to apply for their blogging initiative. I am ecstatic to have been accepted into the Teamwork Arts blogging team.

Tags: Food, JLF, Tea