Half a million people attended last week’s literary festival in Jaipur, India. Half a million! There was anti-Muslim debate, a famous author described Trump as America’s “dick pic”, and police roamed around in camel-coloured berets. Sam Gaskin reports.
In Jaipur’s historic pink city, people pick their way through narrow lanes littered with Nestea paper cups drained of chai, the spent cigarette packs of those undeterred by their depictions of mouth cancer, and thick pats dumped by cows chewing on damn near anything — from wooden kite reels to strings of abandoned marigolds. A rocky five-minute auto-rickshaw ride away is one of the world’s premiere cultural happenings.
Vikram Chandra, the author of Sacred Games, a crime novel now being filmed as India’s first original Netflix series, turned me on to the festival when I interviewed him back in 2011. In Jaipur, he told me he’d gone to school in Ajmer, a couple of hours away, in the 1970s. “At that time Rajasthan really felt like the backend of nowhere,” he said. “It felt like you were stuck in the middle of the desert. If somebody had told me that a few years from now there’s gonna be world famous writers congregating in Jaipur I would have said you’re insane.”
And the Jaipur Literature Festival did begin humbly. Hurriedly recounting a story he’s told a hundred times before before moving on to his next obligation, William Dalrymple rubbed at the outside corner of his right eyebrow — an outlet for his inextinguishable energy — and told me that the first literary event he arranged in Jaipur was attended by just 20 people, 16 of whom, he says, were “Japanese tourists lost on their way to Amer”. The festival, which is co-directed by Dalrymple and Indian author Namita Gokhale, has since grown into something distinctly un-lit-fest-like.
From January 19 to 23 an estimated 500,000 people, many of them in their teens and twenties, attended talks by hundreds of authors on five stages strewn across the grounds of the 160-year-old Diggi Palace Hotel. The event has become a Rajasthani Glastonbury — polyphonic, chaotic and overcrowded — but with a saber-sharp edge of debate, dissent and controversy.
Salman Rushdie was infamously prevented from attending even via video link in 2012 by Islamic fundamentalists who promised any amount of violence to stop the author of The Satanic Versesbeing heard. Unsanctioned by the festival, four authors went ahead and read excerpts of the book, which is still banned in India.
This year’s festival again delivered its share of scandals. In a session not included in the festival’s programme, Bangladeshi exile Taslima Nasrin — like Rushdie, the target of a fatwa — spoke out against Islamic intolerance. Islamic intolerants protested her attendance.
Another bone of contention was the inclusion of a session by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu nationalist organisation behind India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. The RSS has been described as an extremist organisation, a paramilitary group, and criticised for anti-Muslim violence.
“We struggle to get right-wing authors but we do think it’s right that they should be here too,” Dalrymple said. “Two of our authors dropped out in inviting the RSS, which I understand and sympathise with, but I do think the point of free speech is you have to engage with voices that you disagree with. It’s not just liberals tolerating their own views.”
American writers at the festival were asked, inevitably, about their own anti-Muslim menace, President Trump, whose inauguration took place during the festival. New Yorker music critic Alex Ross stayed up all night rewriting his remarks to focus on the connections between despots and music. And Paul Beatty, who won the Man Booker last year for his relentless race relations tragicomedy The Sellout, described Donald Trump as “America’s dick pic. It’s out there. Some people are proud of it.”
Beatty said he would find a good place “to watch the atomic mushroom cloud“ of the Trump inauguration, a seat on the “Enola Gay”.
Concurrent with the women’s marches that took place in response to Trump’s election, several sessions at Jaipur focused on women in a part of the world where they are notoriously mistreated. (Urmi Bhattacheryya, a Delhi-based reporter for The Quint I met at the festival, last year interviewed a five year old rape victim.)
In a discussion called “Manelists, Misogyny and Mansplaining”, panelists fielded questions from young Indian women complaining that “My mother is the most anti-feminist presence in my life” and, post-Trump, “My father says why do you expect me to be progressive when half the world is not?”
And speaking to Mei Fong, the author of One Child, on China’s history of forced abortions and sterilisations, moderator Suhasini Haidar made a comparison to Indian Prime Minister Modi’s surprise decision to demonetise 1,000 and 500 rupee notes.
“Many of us are complaining about the state reaching into our ATMs. This is the state putting its hands into our wombs,” Haidar said.
“And scrotums,” Fong added.
Fong told how she was unable to find a publisher for One Child in Chinese after the People’s Republic cracked down on publishing houses in Hong Kong, abducting individuals and forcing confessions. Instead, she hired a translator and made an ebook available for free online. When I told her that I saw an intermediate age school kid in full uniform showing off a copy of her book to his friends, she said, “I’m not sure it’s good reading for 11 year olds!”
North Korean defector Hyeonseo Lee, she of the 7-million-view TED Talk, also spoke out against China, where I live. China continues to capture and repatriate North Korean defectors knowing they’ll be subject to torture or even execution. In her words, “The Chinese government is doing a big favour for our dictator, even today”.
Lee attended the Beijing Bookworm Literary Festival last year at significant personal risk — China doesn’t recognise the South Korean citizenship given to North Korean defectors, meaning she had no guarantee she’d be able to leave the country. Shanghai and Beijing’s biggest literary festivals have both been cancelled in recent years, officially because of difficulties finding sponsors, though rumour has it their troubles stem from China’s discomfort with sessions like Lee’s.
The Jaipur Literature Festival, by contrast, is not hurting for government support. The chief minister of Rajasthan helped launch this year’s event, police in khakis and camel-coloured berets were there in support, and state-backed culture and literature festivals that seek to replicate its success have sprung up around India.
“I think the organisers of this thing have done a major cultural service because this idea of festivals has spread across India and now there’s some incredible number, like 90 literary festivals,” Chandra said. “I get invitations to — in my very snobbish urban attitude — the backwaters of India where people are organising literary festivals, which means everyone is taking part in this ferment.
“One could argue I think quite convincingly that this is a necessary part of the whole economic revival. What we have here is a bourgeoning new bourgeoisie that is trying to figure itself out and one of the ways that it has of doing this is encountering culture. In India and I think particularly at this festival, because we’ve been talking so much about sanskrit and tradition, it’s also a way of reinvestigating the past and seeing what that means in terms of where we’re going.”
Despite fulfilling these functions, the Jaipur Literature Festival gets criticised for its popularity, a problem most lit tests would love to have. One comment I heard repeatedly was that the event has been overrun by scenesters from Delhi. Another was that speakers at the festival include not just novelists, poets and journalists but less literary celebrities who draw bigger crowds. Past participants include Oprah and the Dalai Lama.
“We don’t have them unless they have a book out,” Dalrymple said. “We had [cricketer] Dravid last year and he was the biggest event. [Yogi] Sadhguru and [actor] Rishi Kapoor were the biggest this year. And our plan next year is we might move those sorts of events to an adjacent venue, particularly during the weekend when it can get very crowded.”
(Sadhguru is the author of a self-help book called Inner Engineering: A Yogi’s Guide to Joy, a title that encapsulates his effort to link traditional and contemporary wisdom, something also evidenced by his sports sandals.)
But the event’s popularity is due not just to the attendance of celebrities, nor its inclusion of critical and contentious voices. The most powerful, radical thing about it is that it’s free.
Media company ZEE is the title sponsor but many of the 176 individual sessions have their own sponsors. Dove, for instance backed a series entitled “Real Women”. Fighting for corporate sponsorship is difficult, Dalrymple said, “but it means our audience is huge and incredibly young and vibrant.”
In spite of its reputation for controversy and past threats of violence, the festival’s atmosphere is overwhelmingly upbeat, almost giddy. There’s a feeling being there, torpedoing expression in crumbling towers and colourful marquees, that you’ve gotten away with something.
“Go down to the railway station and you’ll find so many kids there sleeping rough,” Dalrymple said. “They’ve come from Assam or Tamil Nadu and they can’t even afford a hostel but they’ve come here to see the fucking writers.”