No literary conclave would be complete without a writers’ spat of great passion and little consequence, and this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival had its even before it opened. Earlier this month Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor of the magazine Open, launched a broadside against the festival’s founder and driving force, British author William Dalrymple ( Nine Lives, The Last Mughal). In just a few years the sprawling Jaipur fest has become Asia’s largest cultural event, featuring over 250 authors. Yet Bal argued the event only matters “because of the writers from Britain it attracts.” The festival, he wrote, “works not because it is a literary enterprise, but because it ties us to the British literary establishment”—exemplified, first and foremost, by Dalrymple himself.
“The idea that you are not legitimate until someone else legitimates you,” Nam Le said, “is perhaps the most universal thing that writers share.”
The jolly and energetic Dalrymple, who moved back to India, where he had been a foreign correspondent, in 2004, fired back immediately, lambasting Bal’s screed as racist cant akin to “ pouring shit through an immigrant’s letterbox.” Leave aside the subsequent rebuttals and good-humored challenges to one another’s manhood. Bal’s theme was taken up, wittingly or not, by a whole string of Indian authors during the first days of the festival. Why, they asked, when clearly the Indian publishing industry was vibrant enough to sustain an event expected to draw 50,000 visitors this year alone, do we still crave the affirmation of the West?
While there seems something dutiful about the lament (as about the whole faux-controversy), Jaipur is indeed a strange beast. Now in its sixth year, the affair has become a gargantuan mela—a Hindi word that literally means “fair,” but on the typically oversized scale of everything in India. The top-notch Western talent that Dalrymple draws is unquestionably attracted by the locale: Jaipur is the exotic India of brochures, all stone forts and minor palaces turned into boutique hotels. Events are held on the sprawling grounds of the Diggi Palace, under great Mughal-style tents decorated with colorful streamers. And the heaving Indian crowds that literally spilled out of the tent flaps this weekend were no doubt drawn to the event’s international cachet—whether they were bejeweled Delhi memsahibs, or the painfully earnest schoolchildren who shyly asked any Westerner, however unimportant, for their autograph.
Yet those crowds were also intently focused on the hour-long panels in a way that any attendee of gabfests whose pulsating heart is normally the cocktail lounge would find astonishing. Events with sincere titles like “Why Books Matter” and “Reporting the Occupation” drew hundreds of rapt listeners. Audience members could ask earnest, unselfconscious questions like whether e-books were real books without blushing. South African Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee held an audience of over 1,000 people spellbound as he a read an entire short story, without a single cell phone trilling.
Authors seemed to respond. Mischievous Nobelist Orhan Pamuk was the star of the first days of the festival (which runs through January 25), bantering with audiences and moderators alike. (“Perhaps you could ask a short question, to give us something to grab onto,” he chided one interlocutor after a meandering soliloquy about globalization and fiction.) Profane Junot Diaz (“My father was an asshole”) was electric onstage, impatient and funny. Bollywood lyricists/poets Gulzar and Javed Akhtar drew such a large crowd for their poetry that they extended their recital for another hour.
Most refreshing was the general lack of self-congratulation, even among the most accomplished writers. Washington Post correspondent David Finkel ( The Good Soldiers) silenced the whoops of support for Wikileaks among his clearly left-of-center crowd with a sobering tale of what the group’s breakthrough revelation—a grainy video showing a US Apache gunning down a pair of Reuters journalists in Iraq—looked like from among the troops on the ground that day. His fellow panelist, wunderkind British author and now Tory MP Rory Stewart, took up the theme, lamenting the lazy thinking that consigned most of Afghanistan to the category of “ungoverned space ... as if it were one of those mobile-phone white spots on the map,” when at ground level the extent of complex local power structures became abundantly clear. “There is an almost surreal gap between the rhetoric used to describe these societies and the reality of those societies,” he reminded the crowd.
Of course, Stewart—an impossibly suave 38-year-old who’s already written two books, walked across Afghanistan, served as an occupation administrator in Iraq, and won a spot in the House of Commons—could well epitomize the Raj nostalgia that Bal’s essay targeted. (If so, he’s a dying breed: as Stewart pointed out, in 1806 some 65 British MPs had spent most of their careers in India; he’s one of the few now with extensive international experience.) But something about the crush of Jaipur—lamented this year by several participants of past festivals, which were, of course, more intimate—enforces a welcome humility on audience and author alike. Everyone waits in the same lines for ladlefuls of biryani and saag paneer; everyone mingles at the same tables and crowded outdoor cafe, whether British, Indian, or other.
The writers on a panel entitled “Out of the West”—expats of Turkish, Indian, Vietnamese, Nigerian, and Sudanese descent—had perhaps the most charming ripostes to all the allegations of exoticism and self-loathing. US authors like Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx are never accused of producing an exoticized Americana for non-US audiences, Booker Prizewinner Kiran Desai noted archly, so why should non-Western authors be charged with the reverse? Vietnamese-Australian writer Nam Le was even blunter: “The idea that you are not legitimate until someone else legitimates you,” he said with a smile, a soft afternoon light streaming through the green-yellow-and-saffron bunting above, “is perhaps the most universal thing that writers share.”
Nisid Hajari is Managing Editor of Newsweek. He is writing a history of the Partition of India and Pakistan, to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.