A Week in Culture: Jacques Testard, Editor
February 9, 2011 | by Jacques Testard
11:45 A.M. I’ve just landed in Delhi. I’m here for the Jaipur Literature Festival, starring Orhan Pamuk, J. M. Coetzee, Richard Ford, and Candace Bushnell. I haven’t been in Delhi for close to three years. The Commonwealth Games have left their mark: the new airport terminal is gigantic, crisp, and shiny. I step outside into the crowd and am greeted with silence. A few years back fifty drivers would have competed for my custom but now they wait in an orderly fashion. My father, who has lived in Delhi for close to a decade, picks me up. Our driver is a Hindu; Ganesh stickers adorn his windscreen.
3:00 P.M. I have an afternoon in the city and have decided to revisit the old town. I go to the Jama Masjid, a legacy of Delhi’s Mughal past. An auto-rickshaw drops me off a few hundred yards away, and I walk up the central walkway toward the towering minarets and white-marble domes, carefully treading my way past the crouching lepers and stray cows. The mild January weather tempers the overwhelming olfactory experience that is India. A man with hennaed hair tells me the mosque is closed for prayers. He asks me if I want to visit a haveli hidden out in Old Delhi. He says it is bigger than the Jama Masjid and has a magical tree hovering in its central courtyard. It will cost me five hundred rupees. I decline.
5:15 P.M. I’m in Khan Market at the Full Circle bookshop. Books are cheaper in India. I’m looking for David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. The girl at the till has not heard of it. She recommends Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. I decline, this time politely. I forgot how much time one spends declining in India.
8:20 P.M. My father and I visit the Nizamuddin Dargah before dinner. Nizamuddin, a thirteenth-century Sufi saint, is buried here. Millions visit every year. To get there one has to walk through a maze of alleys among scores of bearded pilgrims and rose-garland vendors. The pilgrims buy the flowers and deposit them on the holy man’s grave. Everyone wants to sell me flowers or look after my shoes while I step into the shrine. Pilgrims sit in rows singing Sufi songs. It is colorful, convivial. Children run freely, friends and families chat happily on the periphery. I imagine that churches in medieval Europe would have felt similarly chaotic. We must be the only non-Muslims. Most people don’t seem to notice us and those who do smile and hold out their hands in greeting.
10:15 A.M. We’ve just left for Jaipur. I learn the name of our driver: Ravi. He worships Rama and Hanuman, the Monkey God who can change his size at will. In the Ramayana, Hanuman grows into a giant monkey and hops from south India to Lanka in search of Rama’s wife, Sita, who was kidnapped by the evil king Ravana. Most of these deities are blue. Christianity pales by comparison.
4:30 P.M. Jaipur. I’m due to interview festival director and writer William Dalrymple some time over the next few days. He’s been accused of neocolonialism over his running of the event. I'm not chasing him for that reason, but it does mean he is particularly in the limelight this year. Many of the young Indian writers and poets at the festival have dismissed the attack, saying they "see him as one of ours."
10:30 P.M. I’m in bed trying to plow my way through Dalrymple’s latest, Nine Lives. I’m on the first life. It’s the story of a Jain nun. I read American Pastoral a few months back and can’t help but compare Prasanammati Mataji to Merry, the Swede’s daughter. “I was a very obstinate girl: whatever I wanted to do I did,” says Mataji. “I think everyone was rather amazed at my stubbornness, and my determination.” I’m determined to get through this book tonight. Testard, my surname, is French Provençal dialect for stubborn. I am not a practicing Jain.
10:30 A.M. I’m registering as a journalist at the Diggi Palace, where the festival is held. The brochure says it is “an oasis in the heart of Rajasthan’s famous Pink City of Jaipur ... surrounded by acres of beautifully manicured gardens.” It also boasts of a “frills-free toilet.” I cannot wait to use it.
11:55 A.M. Orhan Pamuk has just pontificated on “The Art of the Novel” for close to an hour in front of a large and adoring crowd. He handled the Q & A session somewhat brutally but he must have to field so many awkward questions that I’m inclined to indulge his cruel side. One elderly Indian man asks whether the philosophical aspect of love is deeper than the physical aspect. “Well, I want to say it depends on the penetration,” says the bespectacled Turk.
12:03 P.M. A middle-aged woman in a purple sari asks my father to autograph her copy of My Name is Red. My father is a sixty-year-old Frenchman with glasses. He is not Orhan Pamuk. I love you, Dad.
12:35 P.M. Jon Lee Anderson’s talk on Che Guevara is sponsored by Goldman Sachs.
5:05 P.M. Junot Diaz erupts onto the Jaipur scene: “I couldn’t think of anything weirder to Indian reality than Dominican–Jersey fiction, but I realized that white people were looking for you when they found us so we do have something in common.”
5:13 P.M. Junot makes a lot of sense. The word “author” comes from the Latin augment—to add something new by a critical insight. This should be done subversively, but without being a cretinous renegade: “The good artist is not looking to make friends.”
5:22 P.M. It’s difficult to call him anything but Junot, as opposed to, say, Mr. Amis. Unlike Mr. Amis, Junot has to contend with questions on how he became a writer despite his minority background. “Don’t ask me how race affects my writing,” he fumes. “Ask fucking Rick Moody.”
5:51 P.M. Junot’s advice to young writers: “Endure your badness, have a high tolerance for how wack you are, and you’re on your way." Apparently The New Yorker changed its style guide because of Junot Diaz. He resisted the editorial italicization of Spanish words in his fiction and that now applies across the board.
11:38. P.M. I’m sitting in an auto-rickshaw outside the Diggi Palace. I spent the evening chasing Dalrymple—unsuccessfully—drinking Indian wine, and watching hijras dancing to Rajasthani music on stage at the festival. The hijras are eunuchs who live in marginalized communities and make a living from dancing and casting spells on credulous Indians. They also show up whenever there is a wedding, a birth, a death—any major family event—and demand money. If you refuse, they get naked and cast a spell on you. When my friend Rahul was born in London close to twenty-six years ago, the hijras showed up at his grandparents’ house in Delhi two days later. They coughed up.
11:40 P.M. I’m still sitting in my auto-rickshaw. My driver claims his name is Forty, like the number. “When are we going?” I ask. “One minute Mr. Jack,” retorts Forty. He is holding a plastic cup full of a brownish liquid in one hand and a spliff in the other. “Whisky, Mr. Jack?” “No, thank you Forty." He downs what must be at least five shots of whisky, takes a huge drag of his spliff and passes it on to a nearby driver. “Let’s go, Mr. Jack.” According to my mum, Indian liquor makes you go blind.
12:05 A.M. I was supposed to be promoting my new magazine here in Jaipur, but we were delayed by illness and snow and are only going to press on our first issue tomorrow in London. My coeditor, Ben, has sent one last query: should we be putting an accent on the e of André when capitalized? ANDRE or ANDRÉ? We opt for the latter despite my (Gallic) inclination that this is Not the Correct Thing To Do. Do not start a literary magazine if these things bore you.
Jacques Testard is the cofounder of The White Review, a London-based arts and literature quarterly. Check back tomorrow for the second installment of his culture diary.