Review: JLF Belfast 2019

In 2011 I had travelled to Jaipur Literary Festival, THE JLF in Jaipur. It was a gigantic affair with all the glamour that the beautiful pink city could muster. Held in the Diggi Palace, and in shamianas that are so very colourful, the ‘greatest literary show on Earth’ which is patronised by a million booklovers from India and all over the world would be tough to beat. I was hooked but living in Glasgow meant it would not be easy to attend again. So it was wonderful to know that the organisers are now bringing this literary festival to many parts of the world. Last month, I was fortunate to be at the JLF in Belfast.

Just look at the welcome! The Lyric Theatre had been transformed into a mini Kerala. The vibrant colours of the volunteers accompanied by music from the Kerala Drummers from Belfast were a feast for the eyes and ears. We were adorned with a lovely bracelet and led on to the first event: a wonderful rendition of traditional Irish music from the Glengormley School of Traditional Music.

William Dalrymple and Navtej Sarna offered an insightful, humorous and important history behind Kohinoor: The World’s Most Infamous Diamond. The book by Dalrymple and Anand on the same topic may be well known, but in this talk Sarna and Dalrymple laid bare the mystery of this diamond from its discovery in the alluvial delta of Golconda in South India and how it was fought over by various rulers from India to Persia to Afghanistan, and outlined its journey to its final home in the Tower of London. The crucial fact that the 193 carat diamond was cut to a mere 93 as it was not ‘sparkly’ enough when it was exhibited was a sad piece of its history meticulously researched by both writers.

Like all literary festivals there are only a few events that I could attend. The line-up of writers was awesome. Being Both: Puzzles of Identity was a rich smorgasbord of writers with Salil Thirpathi, Paul Mc Veigh, Lucy Caldwell and Shannon Yee discussing the issue of identity. They spoke not just of class, LGBQT and caste but the deepening polarisation since Brexit which made for an interesting session. 

Lunch with Asma Khan of Darjeeling Express was brilliant. She gave a wee talk on her new book Indian Kitchen as we tucked into a delicious Indian lunch at the Lyric Theatre bar and café. The bookshop had such a rich array of books that the credit card had to be outed after all; breaking my promise not to buy books till I finish reading the ones piled up. 

Foremothers: Women and Freedom with the inimitable Namita Gokhale the co-organiser of The JLF, along with other writers was superb. The importance of recording stories of women who have forged the way for our empowerment was the one thing I took away from this inspiring talk. This was reflected in a later event Myths and Memory. The travel session with Pico Iyer Ruth Padel, Sarna, Khan and the final event ‘Autumn Light’ brought my day to a close. 

I may have only attended one day of the festival due to prior commitments but meeting the writers as they signed books, listening to their words and the friendly Northern Irish welcome left my mind buzzing with ideas.

Leela Soma was born in Madras, India and now lives in Glasgow. Her poems and short stories have been published in a number of anthologies, publications. She has published two novels, ‘Twice Born’  (You Right On 2008), ‘Bombay Baby’ (Dahlia Publishing 2011), A short story collection ‘Boxed In’ (Pot Hole Press2018) and two collections of poetry ‘From Madras to Milngavie’ (2006) ‘Tartan & Turmeric’ (2018). She has served on the Scottish Writer’s Centre Committee and is now in East Dunbartonshire Arts & Culture Committee.  Some of her work reflects her dual heritage of India and Scotland.