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In 2015, on the soggy lawns of Diggi Palace, as a steady trickle of rain dripped down on my freezing body, I stood enthralled as writer Alberto Manguel recounted tales of fellow Argentine Jorge Luis Borges. What I found extraordinary was that I was in a sea of equally drenched people, hanging on to every word he said.

Anyone who has attended the five-day event has probably had a similar “quintessential" Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) experience. That’s why, over a decade after its inception in 2006, as the tally of literary festivals across India continues to rise, the JLF remains “magnificent and chaotic and marvellous", says Manasi Subramaniam, senior commissioning editor, Penguin Random House India.

“The kind of energy is difficult to reproduce because it comes from the young participants and the array of conversation on topics ranging from cookery to math, ancient literature to modern writing," says Sanjoy Roy, founder and managing director of Teamwork Arts, the company that organizes the festival. 

Apart from the thrill of seeing your favourite authors in person, there’s also the exhilaration of discovering new voices at the festival. Mumbai-based writer and ad film-maker Samina Motlekar found author Siddhartha Mukherjee “before he won all the awards" as well as Vietnamese-born Australian writer Nam Le. “Watching how Mohammed Hanif would light up every panel he was on in the years that Pakistani writers attended made me want to read his works," says the five-time JLF attendee. 

Author Margaret Atwood at the 2016 edition. Photo: Hindustan Times
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Author Margaret Atwood at the 2016 edition. Photo: Hindustan Times

Surviving the JLF 

With almost 250 participants and five venues inside Diggi Palace to choose from, navigation can become an overwhelming task. The best way to make the most of the JLF is to identify maybe six-seven panels you absolutely don’t want to miss and let the rest of the day play itself out. Bag seats for those shortlisted panels. “I've known people show up for and sit through a panel before the one they actually want to attend, just to make sure they’re seated," says Samanth Subramanian, author of This Divided Island, who has been attending the festival since 2012. 

Entry is free, but there’s also the option of a delegate pass. At Rs22,000 for five days,this covers a vegetarian buffet lunch, access to a lounge, dinner, free entrance to the evening music performances held at Hotel Clarks Amer and Amer Fort, which come highly recommended. “It is worth paying for the private space to rest your feet occasionally. Also, wine at lunch is always welcome," says Motlekar. There are food stalls for general attendees, and, surprisingly, the washrooms are clean. 

The size of the crowds—reportedly 350,000 people attended in 2017— and manic pace can leave a person exhausted. There’s a shuttle service for delegates, which has to be pre-booked, that transports attendees between venues. Taking it can prove an unexpected bonus. “For the last two years, a lot of discussions that could not take place on stage took place on the bus," Motlekar recalls.

Festival-goers travelling up north should remember to carry enough warm clothes—the open-air venues can get chilly. Fashionistas attending the festival should bring their street-style A-game. Stylist Abhimanyu Singh Rathore, who has been photographing street style at the JLF since 2012, recommends solid bright colours or quirky prints to match up to the festival’s vibe. “A Jaipur skirt, block-printed kurta, stole or a kitschy patchwork bag if you are planning to purchase a lot of books," he says. 

In the recent past, the festival has courted controversy and been criticized for becoming commercial. “The crowds are increasing and so are the stores. It is becoming a mela," says Motlekar. All things considered, it’s still great fun.

Subramanian says: “For the last four years, a different friend has come to the JLF with me every year, so I have gotten to see it through their eyes. And they’ve all enjoyed it. Every time the literati yawns that the JLF is getting old, I remember my friends’ experiences. After all, that's whom the festival is for—for people who read and who attend as audiences." 

JLF 2018 highlights

Marquee speakers: Michael Ondaatje, Helen Fielding, Rupi Kaur, Hamid Karzai, Amy Tan, Michael Rezendes, Kiran Nagarkar

Hidden gems: Sujatha Gidla, Arjun Nath, Suki Kim  

Performance to watch: The Troth, a dance based on a 1915 short story, Usne Kaha Tha, by Chandradhar Sharma Guleri, at Hawa Mahal

The Zee Jaipur Literature Festival is being held till 29 January. For the complete programme, visit here

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