2011 Jaipur Lit Fest Day 1: The earnestness of art, mathematical chimps, and the literature of cancer

Day 1 of the Jaipur Literature Festival (http://www.jaipurliteraturefestival.org) is over. It was my first ever day at the festival, and I had an enormously good time. Thanks to Supriya for suggesting it.

I used the word "enormous" intentionally. The place is packed. There are four main stages, plus assorted vendor stalls, cafés, common areas, etc. Sometimes it seems too enormous for Diggi Palace, but it's like going to see a concert where the energy of the performance is complemented by the energy of the crowd moving in and around itself--a kind of static electricity from all of the rubbing shoulders.

Night 1 at the Jaipur Literature Festival

My favorite panel of the day was the Emperor of Maladies panel with Siddhartha Mukherjee and Katherine Russell Rich. The title of the panel comes from Mr. Mukherjee's book, The Emperor of Maladies, a history--a biography, even--of cancer. And Ms. Rich was there talking about her 1999 book, The Red Devil, a story of her own history with cancer.

So, yes, my favorite panel was on the topic of cancer--a dismal-sounding subject indeed. But the focus wasn't that dismal. It wasn't what I would call entertaining, though. It was engaging. Ms. Rich has never gotten rid of cancer. Eighteen years later she still deals with its recurrence, and she makes her way slowly through the crowd during the day. For good or for ill, that's the most compelling part of the story. That's what makes her, in my opinion, a good role model. On one hand you have a Lance Armstrong, who recovers to become King of the World. On the other hand you have someone who survives but still has to live with the day-to-day problems. That seems more real, or at least more applicable. Suresh S., a Jaipur native, said to me after the panel that he is going to recommend the book to a family member dealing with cancer.

Mr. Mukherjee's presentation was also good--I'm more likely even to go read The Emperor of Maladies than The Red Devil--but I'll focus on Ms. Rich. I saw her for the first time in Boston in 2008, when she was on tour for her latest book, Dreaming in Hindi, which I assumed she was in India to present. Obviously she wasn't. I found her later and asked a few questions about it. Listen: I don't like bothering authors or musicians or performing people of whatever kind after the show. My baseline assumption is that they're getting hassled enough as it is, so maybe I should give them a break. Besides, they're not going to be very congenial or thoughtful when harried anyway.

She was warm nonetheless--me and my preoccupations, etc. I asked her if Nand, a wise character and mentor (I referred to him as a sort of "Yoda," because I'm a dork) in the memoir, had read Dreaming in Hindi yet. She said that he had, and developed a greater respect for her because of it. He's not just anybody. He's an eminent Rajasthani poet. His deeper respect was a valuable thing to earn. I enjoyed the book also, so I was pleased for her. We talked a bit also about her break to come to India--she spent a year in Udaipur learning Hindi--and my own. I did a fabulously timid job talking about writing on running in India--see previous paragraph about baseline hassle--so I'll try to explain more passionately about what all I'm doing. I'm here in India because I think I can write. I'm here on the front edge, on the precipice of doing the thing, so maybe it's time to own up to it. I am, after all, at a literature festival surrounded by authors who stopped thinking they had an idea and actually crafted the idea into something real. She also asked what I was going to become when I returned home. I didn't have an answer for that. Like so many other experiences here: something to think about.

I got to see Junot Díaz in action. I made sure to say that like I'm really familiar with him. I'm not. I am aware of him as a name only--he's a Pulitzer Prize winner. He teaches at MIT, so I'm discovering, in India, a notable writer who essentially lives down the street from me at home. Yeah. Pay attention, etc. So I can't tell you about his work. And I'm typing this damned thing by mobile phone, so I'm not going to look it up either. I can tell you that he was terribly funny and entertaining, but also lapsed into extended moments of earnestness where he explained his approach and experience with the art of literature.

"We read books as individuals, but understand them as a collective. [...] Reading a novel is an invitation to form a community."

"America's entire relationship with art is like... 'Wait, you're still here?' "

And so on. Junot Díaz just jumped onto my to-read list and clawed his way toward the top.

I stepped into Alex Bellos' presentation, Alex's Adventures in Numberland, quite arbitrarily. I didn't have a program yet. I wanted to get out of the sun. I stepped in and discovered it was a book and presentation about math. Well, what the hell? I guess that's a nice way for an engineer like me to get acquainted with the festival.

It was entertaining. It was way better than just a time pass. There were videos of chimpanzees demonstrating not only their trained understanding of the cardinality and ordinality of numbers--amount and order, I learned, are the two qualities that make numbers numbers--but that they could recognize and remember them faster than humans. There were pictures of Japanese schoolkids using abacuses (abaci?) both to compute and compete. Mr. Bellos mentioned that there is no research that shows using an abacus improves mathematical cognition. None. But, as he shows, the abacus makes it fun, and the students excel at it. That made me think. Math is a slog for me--no fun at all. I took calculus, etc., because I needed the credits to get into and pass out of engineering. I'm now curious what it would be like to learn math or learn about the history of math as someone who wants to learn it, not someone who has to learn it.

And on and on. It is, like so many other occurrences in India, an awful lot to deal with at once. It is simultaneously fun and informative--a heady combo indeed.