Every year the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), which soon transformed from a little festival for the cognoscenti into a commercial behemoth, grows a little bigger still. But it remains a serious festival, full of first-rate writers and thinkers, not just the most famous (though there is plenty of stardust too), and most importantly it remains free.

This year’s five-day edition, which starts today, is sponsored by media company Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd. As festival producer Sanjoy Roy acknowledged when the partnership with Zee was announced, corporate support is necessary to keep the show on the road.

And what a show it is. For Indian readers, Jaipur remains a boon, an extraordinary opportunity to listen to (and get your book signed by) novelists such as Jhumpa Lahiri, Geoff Dyer, Joseph O’Neill and Jonathan Franzen. Of course, the festival ranges rather more widely and caters to more than the minority taste for the literary novel.

The intellectual reputation of speakers this year is perhaps unparalleled. Amartya Sen is giving the keynote address. He’s not the only Nobel laureate among the speakers. Cancer biologist Harold Varmus, in Jaipur to discuss his 2009 memoir The Art And Politics of Science, won the prize for medicine in 1989.

Then there’s the much anticipated appearance of feminist icon Gloria Steinem. If there’s a contemporary icon among classicists, it would probably be Mary Beard. In Jaipur to discuss, among other things, the temptations of spices, the Cambridge professor is as well known for her work on Pompeii as she is for her blog, A Don’s Life, published as a column in The Times, London. And after his star turn last year, Jaipur welcomes back Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel, whose Socratic discussions for his “Justice" course go viral on YouTube—as many as 3.5 million views for one talk.

Perhaps most intriguing, though, for mathematically inclined Indian crowds will be the appearance of Marcus du Sautoy, a professor of mathematics and successor to Richard Dawkins as Oxford University’s professor of the public understanding of science. Du Sautoy is an unusual sort of Oxford professor—profile writers for newspapers generally make note of his singular dress sense and his love of football, which ranks alongside prime numbers as an obsession.

But while international luminaries may hog the headlines, there are a number of outstanding bhasha writers to look out for too. Benyamin Daniel in particular. His 2008 Malayalam novel Aadujeevitham, translated into English in 2012 as Goat Days, is a startling, hallucinatory bit of prose in a voice not heard much in literature—that of the working-class labourer working in the heat of the Arabian Gulf in slave-like conditions for slave-like wages. The bhasha section is Gokhale’s preserve and the sessions are invariably among the most interesting at the festival.

On the sidelines of the literature festival are the concerts each evening at the Hotel Clarks Amer. This year, aside from the likes of Midival Punditz, Karsh Kale and Malian band Tinariwen, Barnett Rubin, an American political scientist, is going to rap about his career in the US state department. It sounds improbable but also great fun. A little like the JLF itself.

The Jaipur Literature Festival is on till 21 January. Timings and venues vary. Click here for details.

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