January 22, 2014 6:09 pm

Letter from the Jaipur Literature Festival

Controversy is conspicuous by its absence at Asia’s most prominent literary gathering
Jaipur Literature Festival 2014

William Dalrymple sounded mightily relieved earlier this week, as the Jaipur Literature Festival entered its penultimate day more or less free from controversy. It was quite a change from last year.

Then, the normally ebullient historian and travel writer, who co-founded Asia’s most prominent literary gathering back in 2006, wore a haunted look following a fierce public argument over caste, prompted by comments at one of the event’s talks. This conformed to a pattern, in which attending book-lovers and festival organisers alike habitually find themselves caught in uproar.

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The 2012 kerfuffle focused on Salman Rushdie, who had been due to speak but withdrew in the wake of angry protests over his novel The Satanic Verses, which is still banned in India. Three years back Dalrymple himself was the focus, after a back-and-forth spat with an Indian journalist who attacked the British writer for being a “pompous arbiter of literary merit” in his adopted homeland.

This event proved much less rancorous. “We come to Jaipur partly because it is one of India’s most conservative places, which is why the city is so beautifully preserved,” Dalrymple said. “But this conservatism creates problems for us too . . . in fact, we were beginning to fear that these fights [over free speech] might always be with us, so this year is a huge relief.”

Held amid the genteel lawns of the Diggi palace in Rajasthan’s celebrated “pink” city, the literary festival is now one of the world’s biggest, playing host to roughly a quarter of a million visitors each year. The event is free, and as a result attracts crowds that are as fresh-faced as they are large, generating an atmosphere that is both youthful and huge fun. A typical talk will boast a thousand-strong audience, dozens of whom are neatly uniformed local school children furiously taking notes for unknown future assignments – all in marked contrast to the more sedate atmosphere of its British equivalent in Hay-on-Wye.

Those attending Jaipur saw fewer actual superstars this year – Oprah headlined in 2012, generating plenty of publicity, along with much tut-tutting from the literati – but a good spread of big names, notably American writer Jonathan Franzen and Indian economist Amartya Sen. Joseph O’Neill, whose 2008 book Netherland gave birth to an entirely new fictional sub-genre – the post-9/11 cricket novel – flew in from New York as well.

The Ireland-born author found himself struck, in particular, by Jaipur’s youthful energy. “In America and Britain, the book is such a sad, obsolete piece of technology, certainly so among the young,” he said, recalling with a kind of awe the throngs that packed in to hear his opening panel, on the changing relationship between autobiography and the novel. “But to see it here is to see a form of burgeoning new business . . . it is what literature must have felt like decades ago in New York, when the book was disruptive, and exciting.”

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Jaipur’s authors often seem to treat their Indian jaunt as more holiday than work, settling in for a comfortable stay at the Rambagh palace hotel, the one-time home of Jaipur’s Maharaja. Others take vacationing more seriously still, as with Indian-American author Jhumpa Lahiri – Man Booker-shortlisted this year for The Lowland, and another big festival draw – who planned her visit alongside a family tiger-spotting trip.

Dalrymple admits that the need to tempt global literary luminaries often sees him double-up as a sort of high-end tour operator, as was the case this year with Franzen. “He never goes to festivals, but we’ve managed to make him come to Jaipur because he’s a mad bird watcher,” he said earlier this month. “We’ve organised a long and elaborate bird watching expedition for him, in the Himalayan foothills.”

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Jaipur is not without critics though, especially of its crowds. “It’s a mela,” one friend told me – a reference to the khumbh mela, an improbably vast Indian religious gathering that attracted 80m or so pilgrims last year. Others reach for tamasha, meaning “show” or “performance” but often connoting commotion or disorder. Without a defining controversy this year, however, the festival reverted to its most natural focus: a discussion of literary life in a world where west and east are bound ever-closer.

The topic was addressed most directly in an early panel on the “global novel”, featuring both Franzen and Lahiri, alongside Jim Crace – also shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2013, for Harvest – and Chinese author Xiaolu Guo. Guo was in combative mood. “I love your work, Jonathan,” she said, looking with a smile at Franzen, before going on to claim that “American literature is overrated. Massively overrated.”

Franzen took the jibe well, fretting instead over the rise of a global fiction “monoculture”, and the temptations this places on writers to hunt out suitably “universal” themes. “Isn’t part of what’s happening with globalisation that every place is getting more and more alike?” he said. “The worst way to be universal, as a writer, is to seek to be a universal author . . . you are actually going to get further from universality than if you talk about your next-door neighbour.”

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For all its internationalism, Jaipur retains just such a neighbourly air, especially for its numerous English visitors, a gaggle that this year ranged from novelists Geoff Dyer and Philip Hensher to historian Mary Beard and biographer AN Wilson. Indeed, at times, the pull of Dalrymple’s extensive British contact book gives the event an air that is as much north Oxford as north India. The same thought struck Rana Mitter, an China expert at Oxford university: “I have to admit,” he said, “that I did run into rather more of my neighbours in Jaipur than I had at first expected.”

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India goes to the polls in 2014, in what will be the largest election in human history. Yet one figure went oddly little-mentioned during Jaipur’s discussions: Narendra Modi, the tea-seller turned firebrand leader of the centre-right BJP party, who many predict will be India’s next prime minister. Modi is far from popular among liberal types, who fret that his Hindu nationalist views will inflame communal tensions and threaten civil liberties. Instead, however, attention focused on a new political force – the Aam Aadmi, or “common man” party, whose staunch criticism of corruption helped secure an improbable victory in city elections in New Delhi last month.

Many in India hope that the Aam Aadmi will now help to bring about a form of political renewal, leaving behind India’s graft-besmirched recent history. And while Jaipur’s festival gates have often been beset by protesting thugs in recent years, far more in evidence this week were supporters of the newly formed party – all wearing distinctive white peaked hats bearing the slogan: Mein hoon aam admi. Mujhe chahiye purna swaraj (“I am a common man, I want to be free to rule myself”).

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Aam Aadmi’s staunchly anti-corruption platform makes it highly critical of the many perks that mark out India’s public life. Such things are largely absent at Jaipur, although a participant did spot one depressing example on the festival’s penultimate day. A handful of local men, sitting right at the front of main stage, admitted that they had been paid by well-heeled attendees to hold the best seats – ironically for a talk in which Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel went on decry the evils of market morality.

In general, however, this thoroughly enjoyable festival sees little in the way of such queue-jumping or extra privileges for the very wealthy. Pradip Shah, a well-to-do businessman who travelled up from Mumbai, liked the result. “It’s free, there is no VIP seating, and everything runs pretty much to time,” he said. “It’d be nice if the rest of India worked like this too.”

James Crabtree is the FT’s Mumbai correspondent

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