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Such stuff as fiction is made of

By Rudra Rakshit and Lora Tomas

21 March 2013

A look into the other stories circulating behind one of the world's most famous literary festivals.
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A worker, who has just finished packing earthen chai cups, stops and poses for a portrait. His working hours at the festival stretch from seven in the morning to eight in the evening.

A worker, who has just finished packing earthen chai cups, stops and poses for a portrait. His working hours at the festival stretch from seven in the morning to eight in the evening.

Slipping elusively through throngs of visitors and invitees, imbibing the charged intellectual atmosphere at the “greatest literary show on Earth”, were the invisible cleaners, housekeepers and other staff employed to maintain the venue for the duration of the fiesta. On closer observation, they could be seen looming in the background of almost every cadre. Their presence – in many ways saturated with the qualities of absence – was something that caught our eyes, and later the lens of our camera. We decided to shift the focus solely onto them and shed some light on the silhouette figures at the Jaipur Literature Festival.

On the last day of the festival, we took a turn into one of those narrow passageways between the tents and stalls. Five men – some of them already familiar to us – were squatting on rolled-up tarpaulins, taking turns to clean the toilets, empty the garbage bins, or whatever the urgency of the moment required. In the meantime, they were chatting, smoking and sharing food; ten tiffin-boxes were hanging off the branches of a nearby tree, their smooth metallic surfaces reflecting the scant light in the narrow passage. As soon as they noticed us, we were offered a seat and some homemade chapattis.

Conversations took off instantly. They started telling us about their lives, villages, work and the festival. They said they would love to hear more talks and readings in Hindi or even Rajasthani. They expressed a desire to understand more of what was being said, especially to listen to all of the stories. Then we asked them about the stories they knew, or the things that had happened to them. A man sitting in the group started fidgeting. His eyes lit up as he smiled and told us that he had a tale for us. Taking a drag on a bidi that was being passed around, he started narrating in Rajasthani:

There was a young man in my village called Sheikh Silly, because he was somewhat foolish. One day he told his mother, “Ma, I am going off to work today. I will chop some wood in the forest and bring it back”. “Alright, I will arrange some food for you”, she said, and packed four rotis and four onions, wrapping them in a white cloth. He took the food and went into the forest, and after hours of chopping wood felt hungry. Sheikh Silly pondered on where he wanted to eat and decided to sit by a well that was nearby.

Upon reaching the old well, he unwrapped the cloth and started arranging the rotis and the onions – one next to the other. “Should I eat one, two, three, or all four of them?” he thought out loud. On hearing this dilemma, a jinn popped out of the well. “What is this all about?” roared the jinn from behind Sheikh Silly’s back. Startled by the jinn, he turned around; not knowing what to say, he repeated his confusion.

The jinn, who was married and had two children, said to Sheikh Silly, “My wife, my two children and I will eat this meal. If you sacrifice this meal for us, I will grant you a wish”. Sheikh Silly started thinking about all that he could ask for, but was interrupted by the jinn. “Take gold, jewellery or anything else. I can make you rich and wise.” So Sheikh Silly gave the rotis to the jinn and went back to his village as a rich and knowledgeable man.

Back home the villagers were curious and jealous. They demanded some answers from Sheikh Silly. They wanted to know how he had become so wealthy in a day. He told the villagers everything that took place in the forest. The next day, the ‘knowledgeable’ Sheikh Silly went back into the forest with five rotis. He sat down by the same well and asked, “Should I eat one, two, three, four, or all five of them?” The jinn sprang out of the well and asked him fumingly, “Who is the fifth roti for? We are a family of four! I will have the fifth one for you! It’s your own greed that will consume you.” And the jinn gulped him down.

Then the man sitting next to him, with oily hair neatly parted on the side, handed over a snack he was eating to the one on his left. Wiping his hands on his jeans, he exclaimed, “I have a better one!” “What is it?” the others asked. “Listen!” And he began to tell the tale of the churel:

A few years back, some workers and stonecutters were employed at a construction site around Jaipur. There was a major mishap. A lot of the employees, both men and women, were killed during rock blasting. It is believed that the workers’ ghosts inhabit the forest around the site, where my also family stays. Two years ago, my wife and I were visiting my parents. One night, we were sitting on the terrace of the old family house. Our conversation was interrupted when I heard a cham-cham sound, the kind ghungroos [musical anklets] make.

At that moment, the shadow of a churel fell upon us. Before I blacked out, I could discern her black-clad silhouette and her half-veiled face. Her one uncovered eye was burning a hole in my stomach. I was feeling intoxicated, like in a state of trance, and couldn’t stand up. I could not tell what had happened to me and saw that my wife had also fallen on the ground. When we woke up, we ran down to tell my mother about the whole experience. All she had to say was, “Don’t do anything, just stay quiet and go to sleep”. When we woke up the next morning, everything felt normal. Later that day, some of the neighbours were telling us how they’ve been seeing the churel passing through the village every night – usually around midnight – before disappearing into the forest again.

An ominous silence descended upon us. For a moment we had forgotten where we were – in a shadowy passageway in the middle of a busy literary festival. Then, a clean-shaven man in his twenties raised his hand and said in a deep, clear voice, “If I tell you a true love story, and you like it, will you put it up on Youtube?” We were still laughing as he started narrating the first lines of Arun aur Sandhya ki Luv Story:

We met a year back at my cousin’s wedding. We spoke for a short while, but soon I realised I kept talking to her for hours in my head, even after she had left. She lives in Nagpur with her parents. I want to tell her that I really love her, and could do anything for her [he spreads his arms out and shouts]. This is how much I love her. But let me tell you another story. Before this one, I loved another girl. Her name was Sandhya. My name is Arun. So the title of this other story could be Arun aur Sandhya ki Luv Story. She was 19, and somehow her parents got to know about us. They didn’t approve of us being together, so they locked her up in the house and threatened me never to come by their house again. There was nothing she could do. One day, she doused herself in kerosene, and burnt herself to death. From then on, she had been haunting me every now and then. But it hasn’t happened for a long time.

A faint smile formed around his eyes as he fondly remembered those days, but the revelry was soon interrupted by the appearance of a tall, stern man in a safari suit, known to the men as the supervisor. One of the men jumped to his feet and asked him if he could leave earlier that day; his daughter’s birthday celebration was taking place that evening at a nearby village. His co-workers were also invited. The supervisor agreed, although his face still held the same stern expression.

Grabbing their mops, buckets and bins, everyone was soon out of sight after mumbling their quick goodbyes. We rushed towards the front lawns. A reading I wanted to attend was about to start in a few minutes. Nirupama Dutt, among others, was reading verses by Lal Singh Dil – a chaiwalla, cook, fruit picker, revolutionary, and poet. As I was meandering my way through the crowd to get closer to the stage, I wondered which of the roles listed above he would have assumed if he was there at the festival. Would he read out his verses on stage and then make chai for everyone, and thus start a revolution?

My mind wandered back to ghosts, love and longing, and jinns. I remembered reading somewhere that the word jinn does not only denote spirits, but can stand for anything concealed or hidden – whether through time, darkness, or social status – only to be resurrected in fiction, since they are after all of the same fabric. Once the audience settled down and the readings started, the storytellers receded into the background of my mind, their figures became blurry and then evaporated completely. A few lines spoken by Shakespeare’s Prospero came to haunt me:

These our actors,
(As I foretold you) were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air,
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces…

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