The following is a guest entry from Mark Austin, a visiting professor of multimedia at the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media in Bangalore.
The wide avenues and fragrant gardens of Jaipur are thronged year-round with painted elephants, garlanded camels, caparisoned horses, holy cows and cheeky monkeys. And for five days each January, lions and lionesses prowl the precincts of a picturesque palace in the Pink City, the capital of India’s Rajasthan State.
Literary lions and lionesses, that is; staking out philosophical territory, gnawing on belletristic issues and devouring questions thrown to them by their mostly adoring audiences at the 150-year-old Diggi Palace. Publishing doyenne Tina Brown dubbed the annual Jaipur Literature Festival ‘the greatest literary show on Earth,’ and it seems a fair claim given the 60,000 visitors who rolled up to the fifth edition of the free festival this year, and given the marquee names—Amis, Coetzee, Desai, Pamuk and Seth, to name a few—it attracted.
The run-up to the festival—the largest in the Asia-Pacific—was overshadowed by a silly row that blew up when Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor of OPEN magazine, wrote an ad hominem attack on the festival and its Scottish co-founder and co-director, the historian and travel writer William Dalrymple, whom Bal described in an article titled ‘The Literary Raj,’ as the ‘pompous arbiter of literary merit in India.’ Indian authors, meanwhile, were ‘peripheral to the enterprise,’ in Bal’s view.
A quick glance at the festival programme showed what a head-scratchingly obtuse assertion that was: Of the approximately 225 featured speakers at Jaipur, two-thirds were Indian, and Bengali, Hindi, Kannada, Marathi, Punjabi and Tamil seemed as commonly spoken in the sessions as English, bearing out Dalrymple’s description of the festival, in a fierce letter he wrote to OPEN in response to Bal’s article, as ‘joyously multi-vocal.’
Festival Co-Director Namita Gokhale said she thought Dalrymple was ‘foolish’ to take Bal’s bait, and Dalrymple told me it had been ‘a political mistake’ to do so as the spat ‘became the story of the festival’s first day’ in articles written in the Indian press—by reporters who in many cases didn’t attend.
‘They made it out to be an entirely British-run operation,’ Dalrymple lamented. (Eight of the festival’s 11 executives are Indian.) An actual, as opposed to invented, problem the festival suffered this year was severe overcrowding.
‘We’ve been swamped,’ festival producer Sanjoy Roy conceded, observing that ‘success is always a problem to maintain and contain.’
The organizers had doubled capacity from last year, Roy said, adding space, tents and other facilities, but had underestimated the ‘exponential growth’ in the number of visitors.
So would he consider charging an entrance fee next year?
‘Absolutely not,’ Roy said. He told me a touching tale illustrating why he, personally, is determined that the festival will remain free: A homeless man and his son had somehow finagled their way into a hospitality courtyard reserved for speakers, delegates and press, where they were soon buttonholed, in Roy’s presence.
‘The man told me: “I’m too poor to send my son to school, or even to buy him a book. But I thought that if I brought him here, he could hear stories that would open his mind,”’ Roy said.
He let the pair stay.
Meanwhile, one highlight of the festival for me was the conversation between best-selling Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell and his countryman and fellow author Zac O’Yeah. Talking of Euripides’ Medea, Mankell said, ‘If that isn’t a crime story, I don’t know what is.’ Using the mirror of crime, he continued, ‘is a very good way of telling an important story about the reality we live in.’
Another high point was a session titled ‘Memoirs,’ that featured five memoirists—Martin Amis, Kai Bird, Namita Devidayal and William Fiennes—in conversation with Jerry Pinto. Amis, who looks a good two-and-a-half inches taller in the flesh than the five-feet-four he’s dismissed as being, displayed the disconcerting habit of mumbling to himself before and during the session. At first I thought he was talking using a hands-free phone headset, then I worried that perhaps he’d lost his marbles. But when Amis’s turn to speak came, his erudition, eloquence and wry wit were in full flow.
My favourite moment, however, had to be meeting James Kelman and shaking the hand that penned How Late It Was, How Late, a masterpiece of Beckettian existential drama rendered in Kelman’s trademark demotic Scots that won the 1994 Booker Prize. That has to be one of the biggest selling points the Jaipur Literature Festival has in comparison with its longer-lived, snootier rivals: the chance for readers to meet and talk with their literary heroes.
Mark Austin is visiting professor of multimedia at the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media in Bangalore. He worked for 13 years in Tokyo as a staff writer at The Daily Yomiuri and has written for newspapers and magazines including The Independent, The Irish Times, Scotland on Sunday and Newsweek Japan. You can follow him on Twitter @augustlightning.