Columbia at the Jaipur Literature Festival

January 20, 2023

The sixteenth edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival, India’s largest annual literary festival, saw meaningful participation from the Columbia community.  Held from January 19-23, 2023, the festival featured a host of diverse creative and academically-relevant programs.

Dr. Ravina Aggarwal, who heads Columbia Global Centers | Mumbai,  shared her experience of writing her first fiction novel, Searching for the Songbird, a story about a young Mumbai boy, who is compelled to adapt to a new life in the Himalayan mountains when his mother shifts to Dehradun.  Growing up an avid reader of mystery novels, Dr. Aggarwal was inspired to write this story for a young audience that seeks to create an intimate relationship between the mountains and readers.  The novel explores interpersonal connections, and delicately touches upon social complexities of caste, gender, and environmental damage.  

The environment was also the central focus of a panel featuring Sudeep Sen, writer, literary editor, and Columbia School of Journalism alumnus ('89), who discussed his anthology of poems, Anthropocene: Climate Change, Contagion, Consolidation.  The panel touched upon dystopian themes facing the world as it hurtles towards climate disaster.  Mr. Sen read select versus that highlighted the intersection of the climate change crisis with the pandemic.  Delving into aesthetic choices he had made to capture the urgency of these realities, he noted, “We always think about climate change from a geopolitical and geographical point of view that is external to human beings.  However, we never think of the climate inside the human body – our physiology, our thought processes, and the impact that bad climate can have.  If we begin to address the internal climate individually, we can collectively solve the large-scale problems.”

Nature continued to feature in a program moderated by Anish Gawande, Columbia College alumnus ('18) and Rhodes scholar, who was in conversation with Janice Pariat, the 2013 Sahitya Akademi Young Writer awardee, on her latest novel, Everything the Light Touches.  As a novel that traces the transformational journey of four individuals connected through their love for ecology, it takes the form of prose and poetry and engages with fiction and non-fiction.  Mr. Gawande probed into the themes of the book that touched upon boundaries, on how they are fixed, on movement within categories, and on the political imperative of breaking such boundaries.  Addressing the implicit scientific notions that the book explores, he remarked, “This book is part of an emerging set of narratives that are preoccupied with not just an attitude towards nature as one of wonder and awe but rather as an uncertain path that one traverses to think through plants rather than of plants.”

A fourth member of the Columbia community, Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, Pulitzer prize-winning author and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, engaged in a riveting conversation about his latest book, The Song of the Cell, with William Dalrymple, historian and festival director.  The book closely examines the cell as a basic autonomous unit that makes up all organisms and explores what it means to be human.  It delves into the genetic modification of cells, highlighting the therapeutic benefits and need for safety and effectiveness of treatment but also the ethical implications and protocols of informed consent and freedom of choice that need to be considered seriously.  

The Jaipur Literature Festival offered a culturally vibrant, international, and diverse platform that had participation from large audiences.  It created an atmosphere that encouraged critical conversations and reflection and offered an excellent opportunity for showcasing academic and creative publications.