One for the Books
The puffy saffron tents overflow with literati -- and the scent of manure wafting from nearby stables. Honking cars drown out the shaky sound systems amplifying panel discussions. Immortals of the pen and Bollywood idols alike jostle in long lines for meals of soupy dal and curried potatoes.
Welcome to the Jaipur Literary Festival.
Why would Nobel laureates, major literary prize winners, world-renowned historians, famous poets and critics all beat a path around the globe to a dusty Indian provincial city?
Despite widespread perceptions that reading and serious literature are going out of fashion, festivals like Jaipur -- places to mingle with well-known authors, often supplemented by musical performances and special events -- are thriving world-wide. Most of the big-league ones are held nearer to where a good many more English-language writers live: Among them are New York's six-year-old PEN American Center World Voices Festival of International Literature, with its star-studded roster supervised by noted author Salman Rushdie, and the Guardian Hay Festival staged in Wales every May since 1998. The latter has branched out into popular franchises in places such as Nairobi and Belfast and added Spanish-language festivals in Segovia, Spain, and Cartagena, Colombia.
In Asia, the artsy town of Ubud on the Indonesian island of Bali has attracted a multicultural roster of English-language and Bahasa writers since it began hosting a festival in 2004. Even more surprising, the Shanghai International Literary Festival is headed into its eighth edition, though it no longer draws the bigger names from the West that it did in its early years. Like events in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong's festival, now a decade old and called The Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival, has been growing in appeal but still tends to concentrate on local, less-established writers. And in Australia, several cities hold annual writers' festivals, again, drawing mainly on their national luminaries.
Jaipur's festival has had a meteoric rise, mirroring India's economic development. In just five years, it has grown into the most lively and prestigious conclave of authors in Asia. The 2010 edition held last month featured 220 writers and performers, up from 140 the previous year. Admission is free and attendance jumped to 35,000 from 20,000 a year earlier -- and that's only for the literature events, not the nightly entertainment.
The sudden leap could be attributed to individual factors like the global reach of Indiaphile author William Dalrymple, the festival's co-director. But the event also now stands as the symbol of a gravitational shift of the English-speaking literary world -- the growing awareness by bibliophiles and big-time editors alike that India is not just the world's third-largest market for English-language books, but, in a time of challenge from the Internet, this nation of more than a billion people has the potential to keep expanding its base of exceptional wordsmiths and energized readers.
"Writers are eager to come and engage with India now -- it's viewed as a culturally exciting place," contends chief organizer Sanjoy Roy of Teamworks, an international planning and film-production company. "Only here has a certain amount of glamour attached to writers been grafted onto traditional respect for the word," adds Vikram Chandra, a 48-year-old professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and noted author of "Love and Longing in Bombay," a collection of short stories set in Mumbai.
Now, as with a generation of celebrated overseas Indian authors such as Mr. Rushdie, Anita Desai, Rohinton Mistry and Vikram Seth, the Jaipur gathering's main challenge, in fact, may be to maintain its special appeal in the face of success.
The five-day festival is "like some huge Indian wedding," says Mr. Chandra. "Its charm is that it is always veering toward chaos." Pointedly, organizers have refused to create any VIP enclosures or status, so that ordinary schoolgirls, housewives, even rickshaw drivers -- along with plenty of Delhi literati and Mumbai's high-society set -- can rub shoulders or trade barbs with illustrious authors in the flesh.
In fact, the festival began by accident, when Mr. Dalrymple was invited in 2005 to read as part of the annual Rajasthan Heritage Festival, organized as part of preservation efforts by John Singh, a relative of the last Jaipur maharajah, and his U.K.-born wife, Faith, who founded Anokhi, Jaipur's socially conscious fashion label.
The literary festival got its official start the next year with 16 authors inattendance. "Now it's expanded like some monstrous goddess," says Ms. Singh. "One of the driving notions was to bring back the writers of the Indian diaspora," adds 45-year-old British nonfiction author Mr. Dalrymple, who penned "City of Djinns" and "The White Mughals," among others. "After all, you saw these brilliant A-list writers in Sydney, at Borders Books or a PEN conference. The only place they didn't turn up was India."
The following year, in 2007, an appearance by Mr. Rushdie, once the target of an Islamic death order for his "Satanic Verses," put Jaipur on the global literary map. That same year, Mr. Roy, the film producer, joined to add the color and music that helped create what he calls "an intangible buzz." Mr. Roy adds that his job was made easy by the host city. "Jaipur, with its palaces and forts, is seen as a place that projects all the romance and valor of India. For middle-class Indians, coming here in January, when the weather is mild, is a no-brainer."
Underpinning the festival is an alliance between Mr. Dalrymple's ample contacts and wide-ranging interests and the nationalist agenda of co-director Namita Gokhale, a 56-year-old feminist critic and editor. "William and I fight all the time -- but that's what stokes our energy," Ms. Gokhale says. Her goal, as she puts it, has been "big on making sure this is a meeting place for writers based overseas with those working here. After all," she adds, "we've got 22 languages with a long history in India, not just the English that was imposed. So, in a sense, we're two festivals coming together under one roof -- as nowhere else."
This year, Ms. Gokhale showcased Dalits, a group so far at the bottom of Indian society that they are known as "untouchables," as well as some exciting new Pakistani writers, including H.M. Naqvi. Invited for his splashy first novel "Home Boy," Mr. Naqvi says he "was especially pleased to meet Indians, from the animated denizens of Jaipur to serious-minded intellectuals...a Sikh and couple of cool Kashmiris."
"There has been a proliferation of South Asian writers in the last two, three decades," Mr. Naqvi adds, "And explicitly, implicitly, consciously or otherwise, we are all in conversation with each other."
In keeping with its aim of edginess, the festival brought in a special speaker at the last minute -- Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the controversial Somalian woman who battles against clitorectomy and Islam.
Today, the festival's budget of $520,000 is mostly funded by DSC, a closely held Indian construction company. Other sponsors include foundations and embassies.
Even as it has grown, the festival remains refreshingly uncommercialized. "It's all so open and democratic," says 56-year-old editor Tina Brown, who is also a festival adviser. She has made the pilgrimage here two years running because "Jaipur is run by writers, not businessman, so they can make quirky choices. Every day is so intellectually refreshing and draws such an amazing collection of people that you can't help stumbling onto jewels."
Yet the festival itself threatens to stumble over some of its growing pains: Among them, tents and halls too small to contain crowds, a noticeable lack of workable toilets and water dispensers and transportation and technical snafus.
Still, plans are afoot to add two more tents next year -- a new food court and larger bookstore. "The challenge in getting too big will be to keep the spontaneity," concedes Mr. Dalrymple.
With a toss of his trademark shoulder-length silver locks, Mr. Roy, the film producer, adds, "We just have to let the festival grow organically. It can't be contained, the madness of it."
—John Krich is a Bangkok-based writer.
Printed in The Wall Street Journal