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01.19.11

A Passage to Literature!

Welcome to Jaipur for the coolest and most inspired literary festival in the world. Festival founder William Dalrymple writes in Newsweek about how it all got started—and how it’s become a destination.

The British satirical magazine Private Eye recently ran a cartoon showing two survivors of a shipwreck watching their liner sink from a desert island, shaded by a single, drooping palm tree. One says to the other: “Well, I suppose the first thing to do is to start a literary festival.” The cartoonist had a point: Literary festivals now seem almost as globally contagious as SARS.

But it certainly didn’t seem that way in 2004, when I moved my family back to India from London. Shortly after the move, I was invited to do a reading at an annual music festival in Jaipur, in the northwestern state of Rajasthan, four hours’ drive from our new home in Delhi. That reading took place somewhere at the rear of Jaipur University in a room that no one was able to find. Only about 14 people turned up, most of whom appeared to be Japanese tourists who had lost their way.

That evening, I suggested to the event’s organizer that maybe something could be done to start a small book festival around the existing music festival. It seemed odd to me that India, which sent so many writers to festivals around the world, seemed to have so few literary events of its own. Wherever I appeared at book festivals around the globe, all the usual celebrated Indian writers were there. But one tended to meet way more A-list Indian writers in English at the literary festival of Hay-on-Wye, in the Welsh countryside, or even Sydney, than one ever did in Mumbai or Delhi.

Jaipur, the capital of the desert state of Rajasthan, is one of the world’s most beautiful cities, with rich literary and cultural traditions of its own, as well as the most wonderfully benign late-January climate. My heart always lifts as I leave fog-bound Delhi and head onto the Jaipur highway. Within a couple of hours you break through the pollution and find yourself in sunlit mustard fields. A couple of hours more and you are amid camel carts and brightly colored Rajasthani turbans. By the end of the journey, you are driving past the bastions and terraces of Amber Fort, the lake palace of Jai Mahal, the pink city walls, and the lines of courtyard houses or havelis. It seemed the perfect venue for a festival.

Our stars range from Nobel Prize winners Orhan Pamuk and J.M. Coetzee to the writer of Sex and the City, Candace Bushnell. We’ve got Richard Ford and Jay McInerney coming from the States, Martin Amis, Irvine Welsh, and Rory Stewart from London.

Two years later, the literature festival finally opened. We thought we had 18 authors—all Indian residents, though “two failed to show up,” as my co-director, Namita Gokhale, remembers. Since that unpromising start, Jaipur has transformed itself from an event into a phenomenon, growing like some monstrous creature from Indian myth. Last year, our fifth festival, 210 authors from 15 countries spoke to crowds of more than 35,000 people. In a few short years we’ve suddenly found ourselves running the largest literary festival in the entire Asia-Pacific region, and the biggest free festival of literature in the world. This year we expect well over 50,000 people, to hear 250 authors pitching up from around 30 different countries.

For all the festival’s international reach, one of our missions is to highlight those Indian authors who write in India’s 22 non-English national languages, 122 regional languages, and 1,726 mother tongues—writers whose names are still totally unknown outside their homeland. A few years ago Salman Rushdie wrote, “The ironic proposition that India’s best writing since independence may have been done in the language of the departed imperialists is simply too much for some folks to bear.” This caused a furor in a country where many write in Hindi, Malayalam, and Bengali, and whose Indian-language publishing industry is far larger than its English one.

Partly the offense comes from the fact that so very many of India’s best-known international authors—not just Rushdie, but Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth, V.S. Naipaul, and Rohinton Mistry—have long lived abroad, unlike, say, the Latin American authors of the 1970s and ’80s who wrote in Spanish and Portuguese and lived in Latin America. British writer Hanif Kureishi recently told an Indian magazine he could no longer be bothered with Indian literature penned in English by Indians who have moved abroad. “There’s a lot of pretty girls who go to American universities and write about their mums and dads,” he said. “I think the whole thing has become really boring now.”

The quality or authenticity of great literature is never determined by a writer’s home address; after all, Joyce wrote Ulysses in Trieste. But this is an issue Indian readers feel strongly about and partly because of this, many of the most popular events at the festival involve writers working in vernacular tongues, who are perceived by local audiences, rightly or wrongly, as being more deeply rooted in the Indian soil. Two years ago, for example, we hosted a writer I was not familiar with—Anupam Mishra—whose work has never been translated into English, but whose nonfiction book on traditional methods of water-harvesting turned out to have sold more than a million copies in Hindi. Last year Namita programmed a whole raft of Dalit or “untouchable” writers from across India. I was skeptical that we needed quite as many as 30 Dalit poets to make the point, but I couldn’t have been more wrong: The Dalit sessions were the most crowded and exciting of the festival.

One of the things people like best about Jaipur is that we are completely egalitarian. There are no reserved spaces for grandees, no roped enclosure for our authors; they mingle with the crowds and eat with them on a first-come, first-served basis. In as hierarchical a country as India, this is rather radical. Last year, there was a flurry of press when an Australian volunteer usher rather peremptorily asked two beautiful young women to move out of the aisle as they were blocking an exit, apparently unaware that the women in question were Julia Roberts and the adored Bollywood goddess Nandita Das. To their great credit, both women moved immediately and without complaint.

Behind us, invisible yet omnipresent, we have the mighty engine of the Indian economy, growing at 9 percent a year, and the rapidly expanding publishing scene and fast-growing book market that this has engendered. According to The New York Times, we have become the official annual celebration of this vibrant South Asian literary scene. Yet, in the end, I think Jaipur works because we are a lot of fun. The buildings are festooned with ribbons, we set off fireworks at night, and after 6:30 the writers have to shut up and give the stage over to music and dancing.

The show opens on the 21st of January, and this year our stars range from Nobel Prize winners Orhan Pamuk and J.M. Coetzee to the writer of Sex and the City, Candace Bushnell. We’ve got Richard Ford and Jay McInerney coming from the States, Martin Amis, Irvine Welsh, and Rory Stewart from London—and 200 writers from all over India and the Indian diaspora. We don’t issue passes or tickets or reservations: Just roll up and join us.

The Jaipur Literature Festival ( jaipurliteraturefestival.org) runs from Jan. 21 to Jan. 25 in Diggi Palace. All events are free and no booking is required.

William Dalrymple is the author of seven acclaimed works of history and travel, including, most recently, Nine Lives. He divides his time between New Delhi and London, and is a contributor to The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, and The Guardian.