(Published in the Business Standard, January 3, 2010)
Perhaps the only way to understand the Jaipur Literature Festival is to think of a traditional mehfil crossed with a darbar. Over six years, the JLF has grown from a sleepy, intimate local festival held on the lawns of the eccentric Diggi Palace to Asia’s largest literary festival, packed with authors and celebrities (the two sometimes, but not always, overlap) from around the world.
Here’s a quick look at what to expect between the 21st and the 25th, and at some of the questions that the JLF raises:
1) The Visitors: Jaipur insists it doesn’t have stars, but every year brings a raft of celebrity writers from India and elsewhere—Rushdie, Hanif Kureishi, Wole Soyinka, UR Anathamurthy and Simon Schama have shown up at the Diggi Palace in past years. JM Coetzee, the South African writer and Nobel laureate, is expected; so are Orhan Pamuk and perhaps Martin Amis.
I’m looking forward to Richard Ford, Jim Crace, Jung Chang and Ahdaf Soueif; also Patrick French, James Kelman and Irvine Welsh, the latter notorious for his adrenaline-spiked readings, are also expected. Among the younger writers, keep an eye out for the brilliant Junot Diaz, for Nam Le, author of The Boat, and for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
2) The Home Team: Along with Vikram Seth and Kiran Desai, expect to meet some of Asia’s most interesting writers. Bant Singh, the Dalit singer, is an iconic figure of resistance in Punjab; the agricultural labourer is now an activist celebrated for his poetry of protest, and has survived a vicious attack on him in 2006 after he sought justice for the rape of his daughter. His session should carry on the JLF tradition of encouraging voices of protest, from Bama to Om Prakash Valmiki, in earlier years.
Among the list of Indian writers in English, keep an eye out for Rana Dasgupta, whose Solo was one of the most rewarding novels of 2009, graphic novelist and artist Sarnath Banerjee and “cancer biographer” Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of The Emperor of Maladies. A focus on Kashmiri writers and Urdu writing looks promising, and make space on the programme for activists like Aruna Roy and water maven Anupam Misra.
3) The Sideshows: In line with Margaret Drabble’s complaints that Hay-on-Wye had become less intimate and more crowded with celebrities, the JLF is very different from its first, quietly literary avatar. Old hands complain, with some justice, that the music performances every evening and “star” writers of the Chetan Bhagat variety have turned Jaipur into a tamasha. As one of my friends from the fashion world discovered to her delight last year, it’s possible to be at the Jaipur Literature Festival and have a grand old time without attending a single session on writing or reading.
This year packs in a ton of stuff: a small showcase on children’s writings, the announcement of the winner of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, performances by some of Asia’s best musicians and performance poets. As with Hay, and increasingly, Edinburgh, it’s up to the individual festival-goer to craft his or her programme. Go for just the music and to hang out with the Beautiful People at the bar behind the speaker’s venues, and Jaipur will be just another extended party; choose your sessions carefully and this could be the feast of ideas it was originally meant to be.
4) The Celeb Factor: Is the JLF all about the celebrity writers, as more than one media columnist has suggested? The problem with this perception is that it doesn’t match the experience on the ground. A recent piece talks about how the importance of the festival lies in the big names that it draws from the world of Western publishing, and to some extent, that’s true—people will queue up this year to listen to Coetzee, as they had in previous years to hear John Berendt on Venice and Savannah or Anne Applebaum’s impassioned discussion of gulags. But what the criticism omits is that the breathless focus on just the McEwans and the Rushdies is entirely a media creation.
For those who’ve been to several years of the festival, some of the best sessions have had massive audience support, but little press: the debate between Dilip Simeon and Nandini Sundar last year on the Maoist insurgency, for instance, or Anupam Misra’s spellbinding talk on the drying up of Indian rivers, or Sheen Kaaf Nizam’s standing-room-only poetry reading.
That’s another thing the media doesn’t report. There was the year the slam poets rocked Jaipur, with Jason doing his beatbox thing while poet Jeet Thayil unleashed his blues side, the year Gulzar and Javed Akhtar held an overflowing audience captive, the year that Tenzin Tsundue read his protest poems on Tibet. If there’s any group of writers the Jaipur Literature Festival belongs to, it’s not the celebrities—it’s always been the poets, in the end.
(The festival schedule is up here.)