Every time I spend an extended period of time at a literary festival the same thing happens. It’s a little like being at summer camp. I start the week knowing no one and by the end of the week, after living in each others’ pockets for seven straight days, have become completely dependent upon a bunch of the most amazing stranger friends I’ve ever met. Then the festival ends and I leave these people behind. I swap email addresses and say my goodbyes. I get on a plane or bus or train and travel back to my regular friends and my actual family. I try to explain what I’ve just experienced. I tell anecdotes and recount conversations which make little sense out of context. I refer to people the folks at home have never met. I miss my festival friends something shocking. They -I tell myself- are the only ones who can properly understand what I’ve experienced. I feel as if am straddling two different worlds. I’ve left one place, but not quite arrived in the next place yet. It takes anything between two days and a week for this strange in-between state to wear off. It is, in some ways, comparable to jet lag, but it’s harder to explain to the 99% of the population who don’t spend half their year hanging out in strange cities with complete strangers.
I spent last week in Jaipur, India at one of the Worlds’ largest literary festivals. It was my first time in India and though several people warned me I’d be overwhelmed by the Indian culture, it still managed to defy all my expectations. Jaipur was overwhelming and wonderful and terrifying and exhilarating and inspiring and exhausting and just about every other adjective you can think of, all at once, very loudly, without respite. I arrived home late on Monday night. I was glad to be home. I’m always grateful to have a community I want to return to, and it has been nice to feel like I’m not taking my life in my hands every time I step into a moving vehicle and, delicious as the Indian food was, I’m quite happy to be eating non-lentil based meals for the foreseeable. (Never been more thankful to sink my teeth into a bog standard chicken sandwich). However, I’m missing my festival friends more than ever. A little part of me wishes to be around people who understand how disconcerting an experience like Jaipur can be. I don’t know how to say exactly what I’m feeling.
This week as I’ve walked round East Belfast in the biting cold I’ve been trying to process my week away. I think I will be mulling over it for some time to come. When people ask me how India was I say something along the lines of, “amazing and overwhelming, in equal measure,” and this does not even begin to scratch the surface of how much the last week has impacted me. I find myself recounting anecdotes as metaphors for the bigger realisations I’m not quite ready to put into words. The afternoon a tree fell on four people in the dining area. The man sat next to me at a discussion on Nordic politics, merrily chomping on a whole head of broccoli as if it were a Granny Smith. The audacity of Germaine Greer, sitting in front of several thousand Indian women, questioning the insidiousness of rape. A dozen or so A List writers crammed onto a rickety coach, careering down a mountainside in the pitch black. The man who stood at the back of one of my readings cooking chips in a deep fat frier because the event was sponsored by McCains. The moment the other writers on my panel began speaking in Hindi, leaving me unable to understand anything being said. The moment which directly followed this moment when I looked up and realised I was the only non-Indian in a room of about a hundred people, and therefore had absolutely no grounds for feeling so pissed about their choice of language.
Each of these anecdotes says something about India I’ve not yet managed to distill into an actual sentiment. The next time someone asks me about Jaipur I’d like to be able to say something profound and well-considered about how the experience had impacted me, but the whole things was so muddy and complex I haven’t been able to untangle my thoughts yet. I can only offer thin anecdotes about babysitting Ruby Wax and becoming trapped in a vibrating chair and near death taxi rides. Ask me again in a few weeks time when I’ve settled back into myself. I hope to have drawn some conclusions by then. I’d like to know exactly what sort of undoing I’ve been muddling through.
On the most basic level, I have to say that it was an incredible privilege to read my work alongside established writers from all over the world, and I made some fantastic connections, and met a bunch of incredibly interesting, warm and gracious people, (and a few complete wankers too), and Jaipur was one of the most stunning, vibrant cities I’ve ever visited, and man alive, the cocktail parties were stupendous, like Gatsby on speed. On a more complex level I’m not quite sure how to explain how small I felt surrounded by so very many people all crammed together in one city, or the low-level hum of guilt which is impossible to shake off when walking the line between incredible opulence and heartbreaking poverty, the class politics which are ever-present, the way the legacy of Colonialism constantly forced me to deconstruct my own sense of identity, the food, the noise, the elegant, elegant people, the crippling shame of realising how very little I know about writers and artists who work -incredibly successfully- outside my own Western-centric arena of experience, all the disposable plastic water bottles I drunk from and discarded over a seven day period, the sheer physical graft of maintaining a sociable facade with so many people for such a long time.
Nothing about India is simple or easy to understand. It’s a complex, excessive, intriguing kind of place and tonight, while typing these thoughts up, I find myself both desperate to return as soon as possible and keen to avoid setting foot in the place ever again. Reintegrating into the real world after a festival is never easy. I always feel a little out at sea when I get back home. But I can’t remember a time when I’ve missed my festival buddies more. It’d be a kind of cheap therapy to talk to another equally discombobulated soul right now.