For a country too often associated with poverty and bad news, the annual Jaipur literature festival is a matter of national pride. Not only because it is officially the world’s largest such gathering, but also because it has earned its place on the global literary map, even with a serious reading public still emerging in India.

Where else in the world could you listen to Weijian Shan, author of Out of the Gobi, recall his childhood during China’s cultural revolution, when Mao urged students to beat their teachers to death? Or learn how the late war correspondent Marie Colvin had to drink Colonel Gaddafi’s guards under the table in order to secure an interview with him? Or hear biographer Benjamin Moser talk about Susan Sontag’s lifelong shame at being gay?

Where else, in between absorbing such literary joys, could you eat a masala dosa in the dappled sunlight under an old banyan tree watching a soft breeze make the coloured bunting dance over the lawns of the Diggi Palace?

Last year, half a million people came to Jaipur for the five-day event, prompting co-founder and historian William Dalrymple to say at Thursday’s opening: “At a time when people say the love for literature is dying, we are proof that it isn’t.”

The festival’s organisers invariably pull off an amazing line-up: among those taking part this year are Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee, Howard Jacobson, Paul Muldoon, Simon Schama, Leila Slimani, Shashi Tharoor, Nicholas Coleridge, Forrest Gander, Asne Seierstadand Lemn Sisssay.

The organisers have also highlighted little-known or neglected areas of literature – books by Dalits and by Indian women, poetry, regional writing – providing a platform that simply wasn’t available before. That high-profile literary agents attend only makes it more meaningful.

It has become fashionable to knock the festival for being ruined by its own success. Some of the gripes are understandable. The teeming crowds, particularly at weekends, have made for scenes you might see on an Indian train platform. The determination to be democratic and allow anyone to come in for free has proved problematic – if only from a security perspective.

Some feel commercialism has gradually crept in, with too many stalls selling merchandise, others complain of writers being corralled away from the hoi polloi in their lounges when they had once mingled and eaten among the crowds. In the queues for delicious masala chai served in clay cups, visitors had been able to chat to famous authors. Vikram Seth was once spotted sitting on the ground because there was no free seat.

The commercialisation continues. Stalls selling trinkets and clothes now begin on the road that leads to Diggi Palace, rather than inside the venue. The crowds are as big as ever. While weekdays are very pleasant, at the weekend the place turns into a literary version of the Kumbh Mela pilgrimage: the swarming crowds are such that your feet don’t touch the ground as you are carried along. The intimacy of the early years has gone; the festival is now a truly titanic affair.

But whatever barbs are thrown at the event, it remains the greatest literary show on Earth. In five days there are more than 200 sessions, authors from 20 countries and literature in more than 25 languages.

It’s all too rare that India does an event well, never mind an event marked on the international cultural calendar. Jaipur is superbly organised, with excellently curated music and a warm, good-natured atmosphere.

“The festival has carved out a place for itself in the world. Everyone is in awe of it,” said Rajasthan’s chief minister Ashok Gehlot this week.

People from all over the world converge on the event – “I can’t cope with the rest of the year until I’ve had my Jaipur fix,” one person was overheard to remark – and its freshness is no doubt a factor. Like serious reading itself among the Indian public, it is a work in progress. Homes in the country rarely contain books, and a volume that sells 8,000 copies is regarded as a bestseller. The most popular genre remains the self-help book.

Rajasthan’s deputy chief minister Sachin Pilot addresses the audience on the inaugural day of the Jaipur Literature Festival on 23 January.



Sachin Pilot, Rajasthan’s deputy chief minister, addresses the audience on the inaugural day of the Jaipur literature festival Photograph: Prabhakar Sharma/Hindustan Times/Rex/Shutterstock

That’s why there is none of the jaded cynicism or “seen it all” ennui of western literary audiences. People here are eager and enthusiastic. Indians, particularly in small towns, are starved of culture and long for knowledge and ideas. So prestigious is the Jaipur “brand” that it has inspired literary festivals in cities and even small towns all over India, from Kerala in the south to Nainital in the north.

Of course, the nouveau riche from Delhi also come to Jaipur “to be seen” at a highbrow event and win some intellectual brownie points. They talk loudly, eat, drink, take selfies, and go home without attending a single session.

It is also the annual haunt of young men from Jaipur, who turn up in leather jackets with slicked-back hair, showing off their girlfriends (or hoping to find one). And, of course, for many other local people, it is a chance to people-watch and rub shoulders with the elite and perhaps even glimpse a Bollywood star.

But does any of this matter when you are comfortably seated inside one of the colourful tents, the effulgence of the sun making the colours glow, listening to the finest of minds? No. It’s simply magic.



Source link