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I almost didn’t make it to the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF). I went to the wrong terminal for my early morning flight and by the time I made it to the right one, an uncooperative airline declared it was too late. The gate was closed.

Even though I had more than half-an-hour to spare before the scheduled take-off. The organisers, although sympathetic, were unable to make alternate arrangements, nor would it have been easy for them to change my first session, scheduled for 1:00 PM on March 10th.

There was no time to feel bad or waste energy regretting what could not now be helped. I decided to Uber it to Jaipur. Surprisingly, a ride was available almost immediately. I rushed to the parking lot, quite far away from the terminal building, dragging my suitcase.

The driver was ready and happy to have an intercity customer. Within moments, we were on the road. According to Google maps, I would make it to the venue with a few minutes to spare.

But nothing in India is either easy or straightforward. First, we had to stop for CNG. Then, my driver was chased down by bank recovery agents for allegedly failing to pay his last instalment on his car. This happened, incredibly, not once but twice! The first time, I kept quiet. The obstructors were fobbed off with tea-money and some sweet words.

When I intervened

According to my driver, he had already paid, but the bank had not updated his statement. I had no way to verify the truth. But the second time, when were intercepted after entering Rajasthan, I felt that I could not afford the delay. I decided to intervene.

I told the agents that they had better take it up with the driver after I reached Jaipur. I was in a hurry, I had missed a flight, and I had a session at 1:00. When that didn’t convince them, I asked for the recovery agent’s identification. He had none. I said, “You are not the police. You can’t stop cars on the highway like this. If you don’t let us go, I’ll call the Police Commissioner.” That was a little more persuasive.

Soon we were back on the road to Jaipur. To save time, I changed in the car. My driver said, “You seem to have worked very hard to get where you have arrived.” I laughed and replied, “But I am also very foolish. I missed my flight by going to the wrong terminal.”

He said sympathetically, “Sir, it happens to the best of us. We were destined to meet. How else would I have had the chance to serve you?” He’d already earned his tip with this bit of whimsy and homespun philosophy.

The day was to be historically significant for other reasons too. Election results in four states were expected in the afternoon. As we hurtled on, the “rujhan” or trends were blaring on the driver’s smartphone, on which he had switched on a major TV channel on full volume. The BJP was leading everywhere except Punjab.

By the time my session was done in the afternoon, it was all over, done and dusted. Once again, the results were not entirely as predicted. The ruling party, bagging 255 out of 403 seats in Uttar Pradesh had stormed, or should I say bulldozed, back into power, overcoming traditional anti-incumbency — the only party to be returned to power in the state in two consecutive elections in over 35 years.

BJP's spectacular comeback

In neighbouring Uttarakhand, though its sitting Chief Minister had lost, the BJP bagged 47 out of 70 seats. With 32 out of 60 in Manipur, and 20 out of 40 in Goa, the nationalist party had fared much better than expected or predicted.

Only Punjab had gone in a totally different direction, with the Aam Admi Party, led by Arvind Kejriwal and Bhagwant Mann getting 92 out of 117 seats and scripting a new record for their party in India’s border state and breadbasket.

But at JLF hardly anyone talked about the elections results. The new normal had already been signalled by several commentaries and op-eds, some by those present at the festival. Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP were here to stay. What is more, Yogi Adityanath had emerged as the second most popular and powerful leader both in the party and the country.

The opposition was in a disarray, with the Congress practically decimated and AAP emerging to the forefront, though quite far behind, as the new challenger.

What both parties, the BJP and AAP, had in common was even more significant — a clean administration and reduced corruption. It was not as if ideology was unimportant, but good governance was even more so. That augured well for India’s democracy.

For me, personally, JLF was significant because I had two new books that were launched at this hub of literature. The first, Identity’s Last Secret, is a combination of poetry, philosophy, criticism, and original paintings. It was many years in the making and actually maps my own personal and artistic journey.

The second, JNU: Nationalism and India’s Uncivil War is about how my university became a battleground between contending ideologies and meanings of what it means to be Indian.

After a gap of two years, it was good to meet authors, publishers, and readers, to listen to and talk of literature, to respect and cherish words and wordsmiths, to celebrate what makes us human — through poetry, music, dance, crafts, food.

The debates and discussions were the sidelights. The actual juice of the festival was simply the gathering, the congregating, and the celebrations.

Literature mattered. Despite the changed venue and reduced footfalls, it was good to be back at JLF after the global Covid-19 pandemic.