To Jaipur, where I help direct the annual literature festival. Eight years ago I gave a reading in Diggi Palace, a beautiful courtyard house on the edge of the old city. Fourteen people turned up. Of these, 10 were Japanese tourists who’d got lost looking for somewhere else. The following year there was just about a big enough crowd to fill the arcaded Durbar Hall in the centre of the palace. Four hundred people came in 2007, when the presence of Salman Rushdie, Kiran Desai and Suketu Mehta drew in the heavyweight Delhi and Mumbai literati for the first time. Last year, we had 120,000 footfalls, and this year we crossed 200,000 over five days. To our amazement, I and fellow director Namita Gokhale now find ourselves running the biggest literary festival in Asia-Pacific.
Stranger still, Jaipur has inspired a whole galaxy of other literary south Asian festivals: not only the 30 that have sprung up around India but two in Pakistan, two in Bangladesh, one each in Sri Lanka and Nepal and now even a new one in Myanmar. What set off this baffling but rather fabulous literary chain reaction? Partly, it is the sheer beauty of Jaipur, and of our wonderful venue, which is bedecked with brightly coloured Mughal tents through which parakeets swoop and peacocks call. Plus, very few authors turn down an invitation to come to the winter sun of Jaipur in January. But at least some of it is because people know that when they come here they will have a lot of fun – one of our rules is that the writers have to shut up at 7pm, then it’s Rajasthani music and dancing until three in the morning. It results, according to Time Out, in “an ambience that can best be described as James Joyce meets Monsoon Wedding”.
Our most popular author this year was, perhaps inevitably, the Dalai Lama, who spoke on the front lawns of the palace to a 10,000-strong crowd sitting in very un-Indian pindrop silence. Other personal favourites included a wonderful comic duel on the subject of the Jewish novel between the novelists Gary Shteyngart and Howard Jacobson, which ended with Shteyngart revealing: “I have a secret I’ve never told anyone. I didn’t write my last two novels – I outsourced them to India.”
But perhaps the pithiest one-liner of the festival belonged to Faramerz Dabhoiwala, Oxford don and author of The Origins of Sex, a history of the 18th-century sexual revolution, who received a standing ovation when he ended his lecture by quoting John Wilkes’ memorable couplet: “Life can little more supply/than just a few good fucks and then we die.”
Not everyone is delighted by such sallies. A less happy consequence of our success is the attention we have begun to receive from some Indian politicians. Jaipur is now a big media event, with 700 journalists accredited, and local pressure groups have realised that, by attacking us or our speakers, they can have their glorious minute in the media sun. As the novelist Manu Joseph noted, in a panel on freedom of expression: “I am from a country that is desperate to be offended.”
Two years ago, we managed to hit the headlines when Vikram Seth quaffed claret on stage at 11 in the morning, just as the chief minister of Rajasthan was launching a campaign to make the state teetotal. Last year, we had the saga of Salman Rushdie’s cancelled visit, after government intelligence – publicly challenged by Rushdie – warned that a team of hired assassins was on its way.
This year the Hindu far right protested about the presence of Pakistani writers and musicians, while various Muslim groups wanted us to disinvite Jeet Thayil, who last year read out a passage of The Satanic Verses in support of Salman Rushdie. Then Dalit (formerly “Untouchable”) parties took offence at comments by the eminent sociologist Ashis Nandy, reported out of context, and tried to have both him and our producer Sanjoy Roy arrested. The episode was beyond absurd. Nandy has fought for Dalit rights and the festival has championed Dalit literature: one year we even made it our special theme.
At the height of this year’s nonsense, a court order was issued banning Roy from leaving the city and, at the festival’s end, I and my co-director had to hot-foot it out of Rajasthan following rumours of dawn raids on our hotel. One commentator suggested that, next year, rather than our traditional opening cricket match of an Authors XI v the Rajasthan Royals, we should hold a match pitching an Extremists XI v the Rajasthan Fundamentalists. He could have a point.
From Jaipur to Yangon, and the first Irrawaddy Literary Festival. In contrast to India, the greatest democracy of Asia, where freedom of expression is now threatened by attention-seeking small-time politicians, the long-time pariah Myanmar now hosts a festival whose patron is none other than leader of the opposition and Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Having successfully avoided arrest in Jaipur, two days later I found myself onstage with the Lady at a session entitled “Desert Island Books”. She said she would take Victor Hugo, George Eliot and Hilary Mantel to her desert island but revealed that she liked to keep a pile of Georges Simenon novels by her bedside, partly to keep up her French, but also because “Inspector Maigret is fond of his food and fond of his wife, and I think he has his priorities right”.
But, she said, she preferred poetry to novels and had spent several hours each day during her house arrest memorising poetry. “I hope that our nation will be a place worth writing poetry about,” she said. When I chose Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts as my book, the Lady revealed she had taken five of his travel books on her last camping trip. Is there another world leader who would even have heard Paddy’s name? Once the Lady takes charge, Myanmar will be in safe and reassuringly literate hands.
William Dalrymple’s new book, ‘Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan’ (Bloomsbury, £25) is out