New Delhi: India’s biggest literature festival begins this week in the historic “Pink City” of Jaipur in a celebration of the runaway success of Indian English writing.
Many leading lights of India’s literary diaspora such as Vikram Seth and Pico Iyer as well as other authors from around the world are taking part in the festival launched four years ago by best-selling British author William Dalrymple.
The five-day event, which prides itself on being the “most democratic” book festival in the world with free entry for all comers and no special treatment for VIPs, starts on Wednesday.
“I think we’re the only major free literature festival in the world -- you don’t have to wangle any passes,” said Dalrymple.
“The VIPs mingle with the crowds so a reader can just accost an author and ask why he made his plot work out in a certain way,” he said.
“Authors are at their readers’ mercy -- there are no velvet ropes to keep readers away,” said Dalrymple, whose historical books about India and travel works have won him wide acclaim.
The festival, which relies on corporate and other donations, has grown from just 16 authors in 2005 to 116 this year.
The “democratic” nature of the event makes it somewhat chaotic as people jostle for seats to hear authors discuss their works but Dalrymple said he would have it no other way.
The festival takes place in the Diggi Palace in Jaipur, called the “Pink City” because of the colour of its buildings.
The palace is a green oasis in the desert city, featuring vast lawns on which many of the “interactive” sessions with writers are held.
The festival reaches out not only to Indian-origin authors but also to others from the subcontinent including this year “a crop of hugely talented young Pakistani writers” such as Mohammed Hanif, author of the critically acclaimed novel “A Case of Exploding Mangoes”.
With the deadly Islamist militant attacks on Mumbai souring ties between India and Pakistan, festival organisers hope to take a lead in keeping cultural ties alive between the two countries.
“We felt it was vital to continue the cultural dialogue between Pakistan and India. You can say once that stops the fanatics have won,” Dalrymple said.
“We’re hoping this event can provide a bit of bridge between the countries.”
Other headliners at the festival will be Bollywood song-and-dance legend Amitabh Bachchan who is attending the festival to launch his biography “Bachchanalia”.
Also expected to pull in the crowds is diplomat-turned-novelist Vikas Swarup, whose novel inspired the hit film “Slumdog Millionaire” about a poor boy’s rise to fortune as an unlikely contestant on an Indian version of hit television game show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire”.
The success of India’s English-language writers who regularly win international awards might have come as a surprise to India’s post-colonial rulers who wanted to promote writing in Indian native tongues to foster national unity.
A bid to impose Hindi, mostly spoken in the north, as India’s main language failed as those elsewhere objected, and English has remained a key “link language” in multi-cultural India.
Non-Indian writers coming to the festival include high-profile British magazine and website editor Tina Brown and prize-winning writer Patrick French.
“Why would anyone turn down an invitation to come to the sunshine and a Rajasthani palace when faced by gloomy grey skies after Christmas?” Dalrymple said.