India's Literary Magic
Niall Ferguson, Stephen Frears, and Wole Soyinka kick off the fifth annual Jaipur Literature Festival today. Olivia Cole reports from Asia’s premier books event.
For over a hundred years, Jaipur, the so-called "Pink City," was famously gray. It was only in 1882 that it was painted pink (the traditional color of welcome) in honor of a visit by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's consort. That sense of hospitality is apt for its literary festival, opening today. Now in its fifth year, from the start the philosophy has always been that it should welcome as many readers as possible. Some 20,000 are expected, but this is not a place with green rooms, wrist bands, or VIP areas, despite the fact that this year’s lineup is just a few starry names shy of a large constellation.
“It’s not about me meeting readers as much as an opportunity for me, as a reader and fan, to meet writers I admire,” says Geoff Dyer.
Just as the first-time visitor to Jaipur is astonished to see elephants trotting down the freeways with the cars, the first-time visitor to the Jaipur Literature Festival can expect to find his or herself cheek by jowl with their literary heroes. Co-founder William Dalrymple recalls Vikram Seth perching on the floor in the food tent when there were no chairs, and Julia Roberts (unrecognized) being told to get out of the way. His partner in creating the festival, Delhi-based publisher Namita Gokhale, has fond memories of sitting with Indian poet Gulzar on the lawns of Diggi Palace as his Oscar nomination for Slumdog Millionaire was announced. An awe-inspiring moment typical of a festival with its finger on the pulse of the lightning connection between East and West, be it in film or publishing.
“Jaipur Literature Festival is unique in that is straddles many worlds,” she says. "While hosting the best writers in English and other international languages, it also reflects the diversity and plurality of Indian literatures. We try to compose a total canvas.” Dalrymple moved to India from the U.K. in 2004. While India had long been his own subject, he was immediately struck by how the country "appeared to be at the center of the global literary hurricane: Every year, it seemed, another brilliant young Indian wunderkind would storm the bestseller list and run away with the Booker." Despite this, at literary festivals all over the globe, "all the usual Indian writers were there—everywhere, that is, except India… one tended to meet far more of what the West regards as the A-list Indian writers in English at the literary festival of Hay-on-Wye in the Welsh countryside, or Edinburgh or even Sydney, than one ever did in Bombay or Delhi."
Keen to remedy this, and sensing a genuine appetite to encounter authors reading and discussing their own work, he and Gokhale have been working together since 2006 when Hari Kunzru was one of these first major Indian novelists to appear. A year later, the program could boast of a brace of Booker winners: Kiran Desai, who had just won for The Inheritance of Loss, and Salman Rushdie, who Gokhale recalls wandered un-starrily through the lawns to the delight of his Indian fans.
Last year, 160 authors appeared—astonishing, but not as astonishing as the attendance, which had by now climbed to 20,000, meaning that in just five years Jaipur had become the biggest literary festival in Asia. This year, the tradition of the young novelist wunderkind continues with Ali Sethi, whose novel The Wish Maker, about his coming of age in Pakistan, has already attracted attention. (Sethi will be reading, and talking about writing about his childhood with Esther Freud, who used her own adventures in her debut Hideous Kinky and, more loosely, in her most recent book, Love Falls.) Other hotly tipped new writers also include Tania James, whose first novel, Atlas of Unknowns, is published this year, and award-winning poet Tishani Doshi, who will also be talking about her first novel, The Pleasure Seekers.
A festivalgoer last year, Karishma Gaur, wrote of the way in which, "there is no way that one can sum up… the pleasure of being able to hear and see and talk to the people that we’ve only known from printed prose all our lives.” Festivals make star-struck readers of all of their attendees—not least the top-billed writers themselves. “It’s not about me meeting readers as much as an opportunity for me, as a reader and fan, to meet writers I admire,” says Geoff Dyer. "Steve Coll! The great Roberto Calasso! Wow-ee!"
Dyer’s novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, won acclaim in the West. Two journeys fight for supremacy in the imagination of both “Jeff” and his readers: a love story in the chaos of Venice Biennale, and his self-negation in Varanasi, the Venice of the East. His Jeff, hanging out with his travelers, losing his mind, is the ultimate “gap-year tragedy”—the cynical term for someone that gets so inspired by their travels that they lose the plot entirely. The real Geoff, however, is excited to be returning. “I've been to India—and Rajasthan—before, but never to Jaipur. After the festival I'm going to quite a few other places I've never been to before. I'm not going to Varanasi again on this trip and I'm quite relieved. I feel I couldn't take that level of intensity."
For her part, Freud is returning to Jaipur for the first time in 25 years. “I was travelling round in India with a friend and it was one of the last places I visited. I promised myself that one day I'd come back!” Whether you are a reader or a writer, Gokhale has simple advice: "Step aside from daily life and immerse yourself in a celebration of writers, books, and ideas. Listen to the music in the evenings. Look at the moon and hear Rick Stroud talk about it.”
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Olivia Cole writes for the Spectator and the London Evening Standard. An award-winning poet, her first collection, Restricted View, will be published this fall.