Book Box: JLF Diaries

Jan 21, 2023 06:14 PM IST

Friends, family, book clubs and school groups, get together with authors to discuss stories from science, history, economics, literature, travel and so on.

Dear Reader,

Usha Uthup at JLF. PREMIUM
Usha Uthup at JLF.

We are sitting on the eighth floor, in a rooftop bar, overlooking the city of Jaipur. The day has been sunny, but it’s turned chilly now and we choose a table by a glowing coal-filled sigri heater.

The talk is about a Kanjeevaram sari-clad nightclub singer.

She told us stories from her life. When she was ten years old, she began helping her elder brothers win kite flying competitions by making the best manjha coating kite flying thread with cooked rice, glue and glass powder. It gave me the confidence that I could be successful in whatever I put my mind to, Usha Uthup confided, as we clustered around the singer and her biographer Srishti Shah, on the lawns of the Jaipur Literary Festival.

Usha Uthup.
Usha Uthup.

Usha Uthup showed us her shoes, her trademark sneakers that she wears with her silk sarees, and sang Skyfall and Bulleya, magically transforming a sedate crowd into dancers.

This was on Thursday, the first day of the Jaipur Literary Festival. Friday has been as colourful and even more crowded. Sitting at the table on the eighth floor we order food and drink and discuss our favourite sessions of the day.

‘The one about the mushrooms – how fascinating to hear scientist Merlin Sheldrake author of Entangled Minds: How Fungi Make Our World, Change our Minds and Shape Our Futures. He looks so intense, you can totally imagine him as this eccentric scientist. You can totally picture him in his childhood experiences of burrowing amongst decay and from there going on to Panama to study fungi.’

‘Mine was the session with Javed Akhtar, Oh my God, what stories, and how he tells them – didn’t you love the one about the house and (the movie) Hathi Mere Sathi?’

‘Mine was the biography of John Donne with Katherine Rundell, what an amazing storyteller she is.’

And so on.

In a sense, we are an unusual group at this table on the eighth floor. We have our daughters with us and our friends have their parents — the youngest in the group is 20 years and the oldest is 84. We have a professor of history, a retired civil servant, a marketing man, a healthcare consultant, and a student of economics. But this is the JLF magic. Everywhere, there are groups like ours, with Friends, family, book clubs and school groups, get together with authors, to discuss stories from all over the world, from science, history, economics, literature, travel etc.

Ravish Kumar.
Ravish Kumar.

Earlier today, we heard TV anchor Ravish Kumar talk about the fear of the State, moving on to listening to a Nobel prizewinning author from Tanzania. We discussed democracy, poetry, Tocqueville’s Paradox and the structure of a cell.

I now have a very exciting reading list. Here are my top three to-be -readto-be-read books.

Book 1 of 3: A Poem a Day by Gulzar


Here is a poet who has reached the pinnacle. And now he is giving back to the society of poets, by translating 279 poets from 34 languages in India capturing Indian culture and poetry. What a wonderful volume of Indian poetry where Haldar Nag, a tribal poet from Orissa and India’s best-known poet, Gulzar, stand together as fellow poets.

Book 2 of 3: The Song of the Cell by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Siddhartha Mukherjee.
Siddhartha Mukherjee.

Science Writer Siddharth Mukherjee is back with the third in his biology trilogy. He mixes memoir, science and the history of science, into an enthralling and informative mix. I loved his last book Gene and am looking forward to reading this latest one.

Book 3 of 3: Nomads

There has always been a conflict between the nomadic and the settled lifestyles, and Anthony Sattin investigates why, in what sounds like an enthralling history of nomads. Nomadic cultures are poorer, they can’t gather the kind of wealth settlers do, they are also less hierarchal, says Sattin. This history book also covers a wide geography including Africa and looks at nomadic tribes in India as well.

Back on the eighth floor, we hear the sounds of music drifting in from the lawns below. It’s past eight pm and time for the music band Peter Cat to start playing. These musical evenings have traditionally been the end of a day filled with books, and this band comes highly recommended. ‘They’re going to be touring with Red Hot Chili Peppers in the US, later this year’, someone says.

Time Table.
Time Table.

Before we leave, we trade notes on what sessions we are heading for the next day – is it to be The Great game of Tech Morality at the Front Lawns tomorrow or Age of Vice in Charbagh?

With this, it’s back to the books. Next week, I return with more books news from JLF, including the many conversations around democracy, so relevant as we celebrate our republic day.

Until then, Happy Reading.

Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at

The views expressed are personal

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