Jaipur Diary – The Final Fifth Day

In Conversation with Ashok Vajpeyi

Notes from the Jaipur Literature Festival.

[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]

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His language sits lightly on his shoulders. As one of the few Hindi writers in the fifth Jaipur Literature Festival, Delhi-based poet and cultural critic Ashok Vajpeyi gently rebuffed a few men who came complaining that the festival has largely ignored the national language. “But I’m not feeling ignored,” the longhaired poet said. “If others feel that way, they must better orgnaise a festival of such scale than crib about it.”

Pointing out at the surrounding crowd of foreigners, the former vice-chancellor of the Indira Gandhi International Hindi University said, “You don’t see many Hindi lovers here because Hindi speaking society doesn’t show interest in literature. Tell me why there are hardly any Jaipur’s Hindi literature lovers coming here when the entry is free?” Without sounding bitter, Mr Vajpeyi said, “It’s the Hindi media that has failed to support the contemporary Hindi literature which is of world class standard.”

Dismissing the tendency to compartmentalize writers in their languages, Mr Vajpeyi said, “Good writer is a good writer. If Salman Rushdie had written in Swahili instead of English, he would still be considered a genius.”

This 69-year-old poet and columnist himself has transcended the language boundaries. A lover of vocal Indian classical music, mr Vajpeyi has written the text of photographer Raghu Rai’s new book on 13 musicians – in English. In fact, when he talks, he is likely to quote William Butler Yeats (English), Mirza Ghalib (Urdu), Kabir (Hindi), Bulle Shah (Punjabi), Kalidasa (Sanskrit) in one single sentence.

No wonder then that Mr Vajpeyi, an alumnus of Delhi’s St Stephen’s College, is at home in English as he is in Hindi. The proof lies in his 3-bedroom house in the city’s Vasundhra Enclave. His personal library of 15,000 books include Hindi writers such as Yatin Mishra, Vyomesh Shukla, Muktiboadh, Krishna Sobti, Suryakant Tripathi Nirala and Premchand, as well as foreign authors such as TS Eliot, James Joyce and Pablo Neruda. Not computer friendly, Mr Vajpeyi writes on typewriter. “I don’t write daily,” he said while talking to The Delhi Walla. “Though I read everyday.”

In the session that he co-chaired with his one-time teacher, author Krishna Baldev Vaid, Mr Vajpeyi worked like a smooth operator to mesmerize his audience. “Poetry writing is not considered a good thing in Hindi society,” he said amid laughter. In an hour-long tête-à-tête, he was amusing and ironic. He moved the crowd while talking of the difficult relationship he had with his father. “I always thought my father never understood me,” he said. “Thirty years after his death I wrote a poem on him and realized that I never understood my father.”

After the session ended, a Vajpeyi reader tried to gift him an Osho calendar which he politely refused saying he doesn’t believe in any God or godman. “There’s a Jewish proverb which says that cry before God and laugh before men,” he said. “Since I don’t believe in God, I do a little bit of crying in my poetries.”

Click here to reach the complete compilation of the Jaipur Diary