Some writers thrive in the company of other writers. Not me. I enjoy the company of writers; some of my best friends are writers. But the act of writing—the process of putting pen to paper, words on a blank screen—has always had something of an unconscious element to it, and I’ve never benefited from the inevitable conversations about the craft of writing, the cruelty of editors, or (especially) the impending demise of our “business.” Conversations about writing make me self-conscious; they are the surest path to writer’s block.
So it was with some trepidation, even a little anxiety, that I found myself in an airplane last week, on my way from home in Pondicherry, India, to the Jaipur Literature Festival. I had never been to a literary festival before. Now I was going to be at the mother of all festivals—“the greatest literary show on earth” (as it has been described by Tina Brown), in a country that Oprah Winfrey (a speaker at this year’s festival) even more expansively described as “the greatest show on earth.”
My anxiety was heightened, too, by the buildup to the festival. Even before the furor over Salman Rushdie’s planned attendance, which pushed the festival onto the front pages of virtually every paper in the country, anticipation had been mounting over the crowds expected to descend onto the 200-year-old Diggi Palace, a marvelous spread of green lawns and elaborately painted Mughal halls, and the venue for the festival since its inception. Jaipur has grown dramatically from its humble origins. Some 60,000 people, many of them Bollywood stars and socialites from Mumbai and New Delhi, attended last year. This time, I read, it was possible that the audience would number more than 100,000.
Jaipur was cold when I landed on a Friday evening. The airport swarmed with well-dressed, beautiful people, exemplars of India’s new urban prosperity. Temperatures descended into the forties that night; the next morning, I found myself needing the same winter clothes I’d worn on a recent Christmas visit to New York.
The crowds, however, were undeterred: they poured into Diggi Palace on Saturday, and then they inundated it on Sunday. The police erected metal barricades outside the grounds, nervously holding back floods of Oprah gawkers. There was a frenzied vibe in the air, a terrifying fervor that I have only ever encountered at the most holy pilgrimage sites. I couldn’t keep my mind off the often-fatal stampedes that regularly mar pilgrimages; my heart was pounding when, waving my speaker’s badge, I finally pushed my way through the security cordon.
But then, walking the grounds, resolutely avoiding the chaotic Oprah show, I started thinking: Wouldn’t it actually be amazing, wouldn’t it in a bizarre way say something magnificent about this country, if there were a stampede at a literary festival? For that, at its core, despite the hordes, despite the socialites and their Prada bags and gold jewelry, is what Jaipur remains: a festival about books and literature, a destination for people who resolutely—and miraculously—still care about ideas.
It took me a while to realize this. The crowds were intense, their outfits distracting. But at some point, I started seeing them in a more flattering light, even as a kind of blessing. Modern India can be an anti-intellectual place. It’s a country obsessed with money and wealth, with the hard challenges of building skyscrapers and highways and shopping malls; there’s little time for the softness of literature or ideas. Many of the people at Jaipur were no doubt drawn to the smattering of celebrities—Oprah, various Bollywood stars—on the list of speakers. But many, too, were there with an open mind, eager to discover new voices; and even those who came only for the carnival (the young men I heard eagerly searching for “Opera,” for instance) often found themselves involuntarily exposed to new books or authors, as if being ambushed by ideas.
There was, in fact, a wonderful serendipity to the place, a quality of intellectual discovery and chance encounters with interesting people that reminded me of my student days. Diggi Palace felt like a college campus—full of newness and potential (and, yes, the possibility of an invitation to late-night, boozy parties). Walking around, I heard so many people talk about stumbling into sessions on topics they’d never thought of before, about readings by authors whose books they now intended to buy.
Some veterans of the festival scoffed; they said that Jaipur had lost its original spirit, that the number of chance encounters and conversations were being diluted by the crowds. That may have been true. But I still found it charming—and more than a little exhilarating—to bump into Michael Ondaatje checking email on his Blackberry, or Tom Stoppard taking a cigarette break. Exiled (mostly by choice, partly by the crush) from the Oprah venue, I wandered into a discussion between Simon Sebag Montefiore and Sari Nusseibeh on the city of Jerusalem. I left the session with new travel plans, having discovered two new authors. Later, I bought their books. Surely, I’ve been thinking since coming back home, that’s the way a literary festival is supposed to work?
By Monday, the crowds had thinned a bit. It was easier to navigate the corridors of Diggi Palace, the lines at the festival bookstore were less daunting. I found myself absorbed at lunch in a conversation about Thai and Burmese politics with the Burmese historian and former U.N. official Thant Myint-U, and later, after lunch, I had tea with the Palestinian writer and activist Raja Shehadeh. I bumped into Ondaatje again, who told me had a grandson named Akash.
Anticipation was building on the grounds about whether Salman Rushdie would make a planned video appearance the next day. On Tuesday, the organizers announced that they had been forced to cancel the appearance due to threats of violence. I watched the announcement on television. Like so many in the audience—like so many across the country—I fought back tears. I watched a panel discussion consider whether there were any silver linings to the unfolding tragedy.
What happened with Rushdie was undeniably a tragedy. It was a travesty and, as Rushdie himself put it, a “farce.” But even as I fought my tears—tears for myself, tears for my country—I felt like I had already found at least one silver lining: watching the audience at Diggi Palace, the thousands of faces of men and women, some of them angry, some of them also crying, I couldn’t help taking at least some consolation from the fact that so many people even cared.