Encountering Change on the Way to M.I. Road

Or Why I Love the Jaipur Lit Fest

I recognized her before she caught my eye. In jeans, turtle neck, track suit jacket, and loose ponytail, she was unlike most of the young women I’d seen over the last five days at the Diggi Palace festival site. In trendy clothes with smartphones and long flowing locks, the young women at the Jaipur Literature Festival were the very model of the modern teenage girl, both at home and in India.

Looking a little confused, she stopped me a few blocks from the Diggi Palace to ask where I was going. Thinking perhaps she was looking for accompaniment, either on foot or by rickshaw, I told her I was walking to M. I. Road.

Instead, I discovered that she was trying to find her bus, which had been interrupted by festival traffic. I smiled at her naiveté—it hadn’t occurred to her that I would know nothing about local buses in Jaipur.

“I remember you,” I said. “You’re the one who asked about castes in the cities.”

“You were at JLF!” she exclaimed, and I smiled again as I wondered where else she thought I might be coming from. Her teenaged naiveté combined with her lack of a designer handbag, was charming.

At the session in question, on “Writing the Metropolis,” the Hindi author on the panel used more than his share of the time as a platform to forward his argument that cities are infinitely better than villages, which—as far as I could gather—should be destroyed, or perhaps just be abandoned. Much of the discussion was in Hindi, but the gist of the argument was that in villages, the caste system prevails, and in cities opportunities abound.

This young woman, a ball of frenetic energy, stood up for one of the last questions to ask this professor of Hindi at Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi what the heck he was talking about . . .

“I live in the city, and all I get from my mother is caste, caste, caste, all day long.”

This discussion had dominated the session, taking time away from the other panelists, such as Anosh Irani and Jeet Thayil, and I could see slight joy in those panelists’ faces when this fiery young girl spoke up. The answer was a little unsatisfying, and the session was already over-time, and there were still some men in the audience who just had to voice their statements masquerading as questions (always my cue to leave a session).

Six speakers on stage in Google sponsored tent.

The panel in question, flanked by Jeet Thayil on the left and Anosh Irani on the right.


When she realized I had been at that session, she whipped out her autograph book to show me how one of the panelists (perhaps Jeet Thayil himself) had inscribed “Think Differently.”

She was positively giddy about it, but still rather agitated and despondent about the notion, clearly unsure of what to say about it all.

“He’s not wrong, you know,” I said, referring to the pontificator, “it’s just not that simple.”

“All over the world and throughout history, cities have been equalizers and centres of change and opportunity. But they are also full of poor people—people who get left behind by the opportunity—and cities can be incredibly lonely and isolating places.”

I didn’t get to finish the symmetry of the argument, that small towns and villages tend to maintain the old ways and exert social conformity on their members, but that they provide a sense of community and belonging and have their own unique brand of tolerance, accepting the foibles and eccentricities of their residents.

I didn’t get to finish the argument because she was too full of exasperation and nervous chatter to listen to the rest.

She wanted me to know that she wasn’t going to be in trouble for coming to the lit fest, it was just that her family, and friends, didn’t understand why she wanted to come. And as she was about to launch into a lament about her peers, who clearly didn’t meet the expectations of this great mind waiting to break free of the restraints of girlhood, I stopped her.

Poking her shoulder in a slow, exaggerated way, I smiled and said “But you don’t think that way, and neither will your children—that’s how it works.”

“Change takes time. Even in the West, we don’t think the same way that our parents and grandparents did.”

After I shared an example or two, she took an exaggerated breath and sighed. It felt like the first breath she’d taken since we’d met.

“Okay,” she said with a somewhat satisfied smile and a bit of head waggle. “I get it.”

We chatted more about the festival and about where I was from and where I was going, and we exchanged emails. All the while, she kept an eye out for her missing bus.

Noticing her concern, I asked if she might have the money for a rickshaw. She scoffed and rambled on, in her passionate, animated cadence about her mother only paying for school, and schoolbooks. I heard the typical voice of a poor maligned teenager, whose parents don’t conform to the cool-parent paradigm. And I smiled to myself, knowing how much better off she would be in the end, without the cool clothes or the latest phone, and with a mother who cared enough about her daughter to put an emphasis on her education.

I stopped her again: “Well, that’s a good thing to save your money for—your mom’s right.”

She bobbed her head in her frenetic way, still looking over my shoulder for her bus.

It was getting dark (my own window for getting to M.I. Road on foot was shrinking), and I wanted to offer her 100Rs so she could get a rickshaw home—the same way my older sister still gives me, a 34-year-old woman with a house and an RRSP, cab fare to get home after I babysit my niece.

But I sensed she would refuse it and that the offer, being completely out of context, would only embarrass her. Instead, I had to trust that this strong, earnest, astute 16-year-old girl would make her way home safely in her own hometown, just like I would have at her age.

The more I think about her, the more I’m struck by how much she was like me. Not outwardly, of course. In fact, her demeanor would probably have gotten on my nerves had she been my classmate. But she’s what I might have been, were I not surrounded by the positive reinforcement of my family, my teachers, even my peers, and perhaps most importantly, my society.

Luckily, she has far more moxy than I ever did.

I imagine I’ll see her again at JLF, but instead of challenging the panel from the cheap seats, she’ll be sharing that moxy as a panelist.

The festival asked us to tweet #whyIloveJLF. This encounter definitely fits the bill—with all the talk of women in India (post–Delhi attack), here was a living, breathing example of the change that is coming, that will come, perhaps sooner than we think.