Okay, I am happy to admit it up-front: before I was invited to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival – JLF – (note: not ‘literary’, not ‘writers’) in India I had never even heard of it. I assumed that it was probably some modest local event, spiced up a little by bringing in some foreign authors to add a bit of breadth. The reality was shocking in exposing my limited and pathetically Western perspective. The Festival has just concluded and I am compelled to try and provide some glimpse of what an extraordinary experience this was.
First, some numbers. The JLF is the largest book festival in the world, by a long way. Just under 400 authors from all over the world flew in the five days, and over 500,000 visitors attended! But what was instantly striking to anyone who has been to literary festival in most parts of the world was the age of the audiences: most were in the late teens and early twenties (elsewhere, the typical age is in the 50-60s). And anyone can come because a ‘participant’ ticket costs only about US$7 for the entire event. (Ensuring access is just one of the really impressive components to the festival.) And these people are devouring books. The Indian market is the only place in the world where sales continue to grow, making well over a billion dollars (US) last year. India also produces lots of writers who write lots of books. In 2018, around 38,000 titles were published. But I guess with over a billion people..
But what I really want to describe is the festival itself. It is held in the sprawling grounds of the Diggi Palace, a delightful and rather ‘Marigold Hotel’ place that radiates eccentric character. Six stages are set up in existing venues or under huge marquees done out in outrageous colours and designs. These range in size from the relatively intimate to massive, catering for the less well-known to the global superstars (such as Jeffrey Archer and Alexander McCall Smith)(two authors at polar opposites in terms of personality and, shall we say, ego). Although writers such as these were able to talk about their latest books (and themselves), what was so stimulating was the many panel sessions where people who you would not expect to see together discussed some serious and important topics.
Undoubtedly, one of the most riveting discussions involved Germain Greer, Reni Eddo-Lodge (Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race) and Mary Beard talking about ‘Women and Power’ (one of the Woman Uninterrupted series). Or ‘Do Liberals Stifle Debate’. Or ‘Is Rape Culture Changing in India?’ I hope you can see my point. The writers mostly took to these discussions with vigour and passion, providing one of the most engaging and challenging – and uplifting – experiences of my life. I would encourage anyone to go (but JLF also has smaller versions in Boulder, New York and Houston).
Darryl Jones is the author of The Birds at My Table: Why We Feed Birds and Why It Matters.