The Greatest Literary Show on Earth

Now in its third year, the Jaipur Literature Festival brings the voices of India and Pakistan together in peace.

Shailendra Pandey / Tehelka

Every January, the ancient city of Jaipur, India, celebrates the written word in a literary festival co-founded by Indian writer Namita Gokhale and William Dalrymple, the British travel writer and historian, that easily places first in Asia for cultural cachet and star power. It's hard to believe that the festival is only three years old, given the crackle and buzz around its events and personalities—Salman Rushdie chose the occasion for his first public appearance after the fatwa. And this year too, through five sun-drenched mornings and vivid, musical evenings in the dignified old Diggi Palace, the festival made headlines across India.

"I've been to so many literary festivals, from Shanghai to Bogota, and this one is definitely the least dry, the most carnival-like", said travel writer Pico Iyer. "Where else would you go from Shakespeare to contemporary politics to V.S. Naipaul and then Sufi music—each in such a full-bodied way? The music definitely had a cleansing, clarifying quality after that clash of ideas, like a sorbet in the middle of a rich meal.”

"Where else would you go from Shakespeare to contemporary politics to V.S. Naipaul and then Sufi musi?"

The guest list this year included international boldface names like Iyer, Simon Schama, Michael Wood, and others with Indian roots, like Vikram Seth, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, and Shashi Tharoor. An additional 160 writers, celebrated and obscure, as well as readers, scholars, socialites, journalists, and publishers joined uniformed preteens from the local schools and general milling humanity at the event. The organizers insisted that this remain utterly democratic, a strictly “no ropes, no tickets, no passes” kind of affair. As festival co-director Namita Gokhale put it, the fact that a young writer from Assam could find herself hanging out with a literary agent over dinner in the lawns, was what gave the event its peculiar electricity.

The festival kicked off with the dearly beloved, but rarely heard Vikram Seth reading from his work and talking of his own writerly life. He described the 11 years it took not to finish his economics PhD at Stanford—the feeling that there was “something more than what I was doing,” the epiphanic encounter with Pushkin's Eugene Onegin and the tremendous foolhardiness of The Golden Gate (his California verse-novel). When asked about writing A Suitable Boy, the big fat book that “gouged out his thirties,” Seth replied that he was “happy just to write…this interminable novel that no one would buy, translate, review or stock or read.”

“The world is not against you, it is only indifferent to you,” he said to aspiring writers, describing the slog to get a book published. He mused later, why kill trees unless writing that book is absolutely essential to your soul?

Far from being a bloodless book-chat affair, the Jaipur festival was a stew of all sorts, from CEO-philosopher Nandan Nilekani to Bollywood songwriter and poet Gulzar to actor Amitabh Bachchan.

But the undoubted apogee of the festival was the young Pakistani platoon. In 1997, when The New Yorker profiled ten young South Asian writers to watch, six were Indian, three were of Indian origin, and one was Sri Lankan. It was a shocker—Pakistan was glaringly absent, “as though it was a barren desert to India's cultural fecundity,” as co-director William Dalrymple put it.

But the last few years have seen an incredible efflorescence of Pakistani writing in English. In a session titled "Moonlight's Children," Nadeem Aslam and Daniyal Mueenuddin mused on the tremendous changes in Pakistan and how that causes a sort of “premature nostalgia,” and the urge to commit it all to print, to pin down a precious, disappearing world. In Aslam's words, it's like “writing very fast with a quill whose other end is on fire.'”

Aslam, in fact, was quite the stage scorcher, as he spoke of his journey as a 14 year old from an Urdu school in Pakistan, to England where he barely spoke the language, and then later, reading everyone from Tolstoy to John Berger, Chekhov to DeLillo with the ferocity and immersion of someone discovering a new world. His earliest and deepest influences were Urdu, but he said that writing in Urdu would be, “like trying to swim in an empty swimming pool.”

A later session featured Mohammed Hanif, author of the highly buzzed A Case of Exploding Mangoes, who fielded prickly questions with a sideways humor. When asked if, given the current meltdown, he thought that “Pakistan would have been better off without Partition?” he shot back, “I don't know, what do you think? Do you think India would have been better off?”

This lens on Pakistan was planned way before the Mumbai attacks, but at this moment, even as political dialogue between India and Pakistan has deteriorated alarmingly, it seemed more important than even to stick with the plan.

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The closing debate focused on a decidedly nonfestive subject—the war on terror and clash of civilizations—perhaps fitting in a town that had only recently been rocked by terrorist bombings. Simon Schama objected to the way the two phrases were thoughtlessly smashed together, and urged that the war between tolerance and theocratic coercion was profoundly pressing for writers—if we compromise, these "joyous, magnificent, multivocal expressions would not be allowed to happen."

There was also an interesting panel on Tehelka, the scrappy, independent-minded magazine that has broken some of the biggest investigative stories in India, and pitted itself against the political and corporate machine to devastating effect.

Ultimately, the wonder of the Jaipur Literature Festival was the way it reached for an international panorama, and remained grounded in the sandy soil it was set in. Like it or not, global literary flows are still largely determined by the critical avant garde in elite universities and big cities, and received back by Delhi and Lahore and Dhaka. But festivals like this break the loops somewhat, they are ongoing acts of cultural translation. And after all, as Salman Rushdie inimitably put it, “mélange, hodgepodge, a bit of this and bit of that is how newness enters the world.”

Amulya Gopalakrishnan writes for the Indian Express.