A version of this story appeared in Mint Lounge on Jan 8, 2011
“About fourteen,” is William Dalrymple’s amused census of attendance at the first Jaipur Literature Festival in 2006. Then a small part of the Jaipur Virasat Foundation’s larger cultural programme called the Jaipur Festival, it ran on volunteer enthusiasm and love. “Our first international guest was Hari Kunzru,” Dalrymple, the festival’s co-director, remembered in his opening remarks last year. “We caught hold of him because he was en route to New Zealand to meet his girlfriend at the time.”
The number of people who heard Dalrymple’s address last year was nowhere close to fourteen. Over five days of the Jaipur ‘litfest,’ as it’s fondly abbreviated by fans, about 35,000 people flocked to the small, exquisite environs of the Diggi Palace Hotel. This year, Dalrymple says, attendance seems set to rise further. “The weather forecast predicts it’ll be colder than usual,” he offers. “So it probably won’t be a completely unmanageable number. Maybe about 50,000.”
How did a boutique literary conference, barely five years old, become what is now acknowledged to be the biggest festival of its kind in the Asia-Pacific? And how did it happen in Jaipur, a city whose tourist delights are generally considered more about forts and elephants than intellectual ferment?
Taking a look at the names the festival has drawn in the last five years may be a clue. From Wole Soyinka to Orhan Pamuk (who visits again this year), Steve Coll to Tina Brown, and Vikram Seth to Vikram Chandra, the collective roll-call is practically a who’s who of literary celebrity.
This year, Seth and Pamuk will return, along with some notable first-timers: JM Coetzee, Junot Diaz, Martin Amis and Irvine Welsh. To call them headliners in a festival noted for its egalitarianism – they will have to wait in the same lunch queues as their audience – may be inaccurate. Others making their appearance at the festival for the first time include Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Leila Aboulela, Ahdaf Soueif, and Etgar Keret.
And the festival’s offer of equal facetime for Indian regional language (or bhasha) writers is cause for some of the biggest hits at the festival itself. They may not be the primary reason for attendees from New York or Mumbai to fly in, but they are a reason to stay: where else would you see Malayalam novelist K Satchidandan shoot the breeze with Gulzar?
“Jaipur is a cosmopolitan city, so there’s a great local response to other Indian languages, too,” says Namita Gokhale, the festival’s co-director. “Its large Bangla population turned up in full force to the Bengali readings we did two years ago.” Last year, their organized readings in Sindhi were, she affirms, packed to the rafters.
For Ram Pratap Singh, scion of the royal inhabitants of Diggi and the current owner of the estate that includes the Diggi Palace Hotel, it had much to do with public-spiritedness. “We’ve worked over the years, starting with INTAC and Rajiv Gandhi, and have a long association with John and Faith Singh (of the Virasat Foundation). As one of Jaipur’s oldest families, we take an interest in our city.” And so Diggi House (the hotel, with its 70-odd rooms, forms about a quarter of the property), elegant, centrally located, fit for kings and international celebrity writers alike, became the focal point of a tide in the affairs of Jaipur.
“It’s great weather, great food, lots of thinking, reading people – everyone who comes here is on common ground,” explains Ritu Singh, who owns the popular Flow Café on the palace grounds. “Flow’s a bit slow for the rest of the year in comparison,” she laughs. But for those five days in January, her martini shakers start at 9 in the morning and stay until 4am. Singh says friends bus themselves in to help, waiting tables, mixing drinks, mingling with guests.
That informal camaraderie still forms the bulwark of the Jaipur experience. While over 200 people have been working for the last four months to prepare Diggi Palace for the festival, Ram Pratap Singh says that the key to the experience is still how laidback and unobtrusive its infrastructure is. “We’ve had Salman Rushdie here, and managed to allay the government’s fears about security.” Gun-toting guards are not their style.
“There’s nothing sarkari about it,” Dalrymple agrees. “It’s a product of the best sort of amateur love and enthusiasm, rather than greed, or a governmental sense of duty. “We’re fortunate that Namita’s enthisuasms and mine complement each other, and cover a wide range.”
And so the festival does. This year, it expands to cover other parts of the Diggi estate – including the royal stables. (Another change: unlike past years, these will not be occupied by their equine tenants this year. Past attendees will remember the distinct fragrance of horse, wafting through the fest’s baithak area while panelists talk about Soviet history and the art of criticism). On the festival’s various stages, just under 200 writers will discuss their preoccupations, themselves and each other in front of rapt audiences.
Why do they flock here? Bill Cinton famously called the pre-eminent Hay-on-Wye festival ‘A Woodstock of the mind’. By contrast, says Dalrymple, Jaipur is more about the feel of a gigantic Indian wedding. “The music and dance performances in the evenings just add to the feeling. Look, it’s late January. In the rest of the world, that’s miserable,” he laughs. “Jaipur is not a hard sell.”
“Jaipur has been a great way for new, unpublished writers to get a sense of what the public part of the job--speaking, engaging in debates--might entail, as well as for new writers to get a sense of the publishing scene in general,” says critic and writer Nilanjana Roy. Still, the best experiences at literary festivals happen to readers, she says, or writers who like engaging with their vast public.
What about publishers, who, as Roy says, go to Jaipur will full schedules chalked up? “It's a good platform for the writers they already have on their list, and it offers a chance to listen to, read and assess writers, especially those from outside Delhi,” she explains.
”But unlike Frankfurt, this is not a trade fair, where the focus is on signing contracts and making rights deals. It's probably the wrong time and place to try and get them to read your unpublished manuscript.”
Namita Gokhale, co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival, on the Indianness of an international festival. Excerpts from a conversation:
How do you balance the festival’s Indian aspects with its international profile?
International response has been gratifying, but it’s a primarily Indian fest for us. Writers appreciate the chance to be a part of a diverse programme, to interact with people from all over the world.
One of the things we do is create a dialogue between Indian English and Indian bhasha languages, where often there’s been a degree of resentment at not being treated the same way.
The earlier tendency was to look for acknowledgment from the UK or US – now here are equal stages on which new voices can find a public as well as presence.
You can see, for example, writing about Dalit literature, which didn’t get a lot of attention before.
How does the festival construct dialogue between Indian writers across languages?
Indians are a bilingual people: speaking in multiple languages is not a problem for us. At the festival, too, you can see we’re still working out our own bilingual challenges.
We recognize that translation is not just a physical act but also subtext; there has to be humility on both sides, there can’t be a dominant bias.
Last year, two days before the festival we did a ‘Translating Bharat’ workshop, which had fabulous outreach. This year, the session ‘Translating Classics’ will be very much a part of this.
Do international publishers respond to writing in regional languages?
French, Spanish, and Italian publishers look for a completely different register from what English-language publishers do. At Jaipur, we form a literary community which manages to make space for all these people, some of whom come every year. You have book lovers, academics, students for whom to encounter these writers is a big deal. It’s a group that feels a sense of involvement and ownership. There’s a vitality to it. This fest isn’t about linen suits.
The fest itself is an act of informal translation – not physical, or textual, but a multilingual act. As someone said to me, “The Jaipur lit fest is like installation art” – very temporary installations that lead to future acts of translation.
A South Asian Pulitzer
The DSC South Asian literature Prize, which will be given out for the first time at the festival, anticipates a watershed in South Asian publishing. The prize will award US$ 50,000 to one winning work of fiction by a writer writing about South Asia and its diasporas. Intriguingly, eligibility rules have no nationality requirement.
Nilanjana Roy, who is part of this year’s jury, says, “It's difficult and challenging to define the South Asian novel, but it's more fun than having to go through author's passports to see if they qualify.”
The Prize, which is open to translations, instantly broadens the range of subcontinental writing that achieves international attention. Its administrators may well see the DSC prize as the subcontinent’s equivalent of the American Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award for fiction.
“If the DSC can get two things right--a consistently high standard of judging, and a consistently fair and wide selection of books from South Asia--this has the potential,” Roy says.
This year’s DSC Prize shortlist:
Amit Chaudhuri: The Immortals
Musharraf Ali Farooqi: The Story of a Widow
Tania James: The Atlas of Unknowns
Manju Kapur: The Immigrant
Neel Mukherjee: A Life Apart
HM Naqvi: Home Boy