About 14,” 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. “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 14. Over five days of the Jaipur “litfest”, as it is abbreviated by fans, around 35,000 people flocked to the small, exquisite environs of the Hotel Diggi Palace. This year, Dalrymple says, attendance seems set to rise further at the festival starting 21 January. “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 attractions are thought to rank more in the order of forts and elephants than intellectual ferment?
A look at the names the festival has drawn in the last five years may provide a clue. From Wole Soyinka to Orhan Pamuk, Steve Coll to Tina Brown, and Vikram Seth to Vikram Chandra, the collective roll-call is practically a who’s who of literary celebrities.
This year, Seth and Pamuk will return, along with some notable first-timers: J.M. Coetzee, Junot Diaz, Martin Amis and Irvine Welsh. To call them headliners in a festival noted for egalitarianism—they will have to wait in the same lunch queues as their audience—may be inaccurate. Other writers making their Jaipur debut include Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Leila Aboulela, Ahdaf Soueif and Etgar Keret.
The festival’s offer of equal face-time for Indian regional language (or bhasha) writers results in some of its most popular events. 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. Satchidanandan 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 for the Bengali readings we did two years ago. It was the same with last year’s Sindhi readings.”
Lit glit: (clockwise from above) The front lawns of the Diggi Palace hotel (photo: Mayank Austen Soofi/Hindustan Times) ; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (photo: Shaun Curry / AFP) and Martin Amis will make their first appearances at the festival this year(photo: Random House/Bloomberg)
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 has much to do with public spiritedness. “Our work started years ago, with Intach (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) and Rajiv Gandhi, and we 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.”
“It’s 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.” For those five days in January, however, 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 and 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 the key to the experience is still its laid-back and unobtrusive infrastructure. “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 enthusiasm and mine complement each other, and cover a wide range.”
And so does the festival. Space constraints, which caused event venues to overflow regularly, were a concern last year. This year, the programme 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. Past attendees will remember the distinct fragrance of horse wafting through the fest’s baithak area, while panellists talked 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 come here? Former US president Bill Cinton famously called the pre-eminent Hay-on-Wye festival “a Woodstock of the mind”. By contrast, says Dalrymple, Jaipur has more of the sense 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.”
Critic and writer Nilanjana Roy says, “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.” Yet, she believes, the best experiences at literary festivals happen to readers or writers who like engaging with their vast public.
What about publishers who, as Roy says, go to Jaipur with full schedules chalked out? “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.”
The Jaipur Literature Festival is on from 21-25 January.
Found in translation
Namita Gokhale, co-director of the festival, on its Indian aspect
Namita Gokhale has been co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival over the last five years, and organizes its “Indian parts”. This is not confined to her selection of bhasha writers and panels: The Jaipur festival is global in its themes, concerns and audience, but its approach is Indian. Edited excerpts from an interview:
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 a 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.
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 and students for whom to encounter these writers is a big deal.
South Asia’s Pulitzer
The DSC Prize will be one of subcontinental publishing’s high points this year
The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, which will be given for the first time at this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival, anticipates a watershed in South Asian publishing.
The prize will award $50,000 (around Rs22 lakh) to one winning work of fiction about South Asia and its diasporas. Intriguingly, eligibility rules have no requirement for nationality. Jury member Nilanjana Roy says, “It’s difficult and challenging to define the South Asian novel, but it’s more fun than having to go through authors’ passports to see if they qualify.”
The DSC prize, which is open also to translations, instantly broadens the range of subcontinental writing that can achieve 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.
This year’s DSC Prize shortlist:
• Amit Chaudhuri’s ‘The Immortals’
• Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s ‘The Story of a Widow’
• Tania James’ ‘The Atlas of Unknowns’
• Manju Kapur’s ‘The Immigrant’
• Neel Mukherjee’s ‘A Life Apart’
• H.M. Naqvi’s ‘Home Boy’