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Magical literary tour in Jaipur

books Updated: Jan 21, 2011 06:54 IST

William Dalrymple, Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Today opens in Jaipur the biggest and liveliest festival of literature east of the Suez. It is also, we believe, the largest free literature festival in the world.

Over the next five days, some of the world’s very greatest writers, including two Nobel Laureates, Orhan Pamuk and JM Coetzee, will descend on Jaipur’s Diggi Palace for a magical and extraordinary event that has been memorably described by Newsweek editor Tina Brown as “the greatest literary show on earth,” and by the New York Times as “the official annual celebration of the vibrant and resurgent South Asian literary scene”.

From humble beginnings as a single reading attended by a handful of people on the fringe of the Jaipur Virasat Festival in 2004, to the first Lit Fest in 2006, with one international star —British-Kashmiri writer Hari Kunzru, kidnapped on his way to visit his girlfriend in New Zealand —our book festival has uncurled from India’s great sea of stories like some creature from Puranic Myth, growing in size and stature year after year.

In 2008, the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival became an independent festival standing on its own feet. In 2009, we tripled the size of the festival and invited 160 authors; to our astonishment 20,000 people turned up to hear them. This year we are hosting 223 speakers from around 20 different countries, as well as 86 performers and a bagpiper from Bikaner.

No one knows how many book enthusiasts may turn up. But we’re expecting around 50,000, and we’ve nearly doubled the capacity just in case. We have always had two missions: to bring Jaipur to the world, and the world to Jaipur. This year our international stars range from our two Nobel Prize winners to the writer of Sex and the City, Candace Bushnell.

We’ve got Richard Ford, Junot Diaz and Jay McInerney coming from the United States, Martin Amis, Irvine Welsh and AC Grayling from Britain, Chimamanda Adiche from N¡geria, Nam Le from Vietnam/Australia and Ahdaf Soueif from Egypt/Britain. Yet for all the international reach of the festival, one of our principal missions has always been to highlight Indian authors who write in India’s 22 non-English national languages, 122 regional languages and 1,726 mother tongues, writers whose names are sometimes unknown outside their linguistic homelands.

This year we’re hosting events in 12 Indian languages. Sessions like ‘Hindi blogging’, ‘Urdu: An endangered legacy’ and ‘Tamil pulp fiction’ examine the changing nature of literary heritage.  Gulzar, Javed Akhtar and Prasoon Joshi cross over from Bollywood with their poetry and lyrics.

Some sessions will focus on writing from India’s troubled North-East where anger and pain has provoked much dazzling literary articulation. The same is true of Kashmir. New and marginalised voices continue to find a platform. The festival has always showcased oral traditions and this year Ghafruddin Mewati will perform from the 17th century Mewati Mahabharata repetiore.

Yet if this festival works, and is as popular as it has become, it is, we think, because we are a lot of fun. The nuclear fission of some of the planet’s most formidable minds in conversation, is balanced by our mela atmosphere: the buildings are festooned with toranas and buntings, we erect brightly coloured tents, there are always thousands of enthusiasts milling around, we let off fireworks at night and after 6.30 the writers have to shut up and give the stage over to music and dancing.

This year, for the first time, we have music from Natacha Atlas, Transglobal  Underground, Sain Zahour and the Mian Mir qawals, arguably the greatest Sufi musicians in Pakistan.

As my favourite crit last year put it: “It’s settled. The Jaipur Literature Festival is officially the Woodstock, Live 8 and Ibiza of world literature, with an ambience that can best be described as James Joyce-meets Monsoon Wedding... [the authors] were all treated somewhere between Bono doing an air dive and Salman Khan taking off his shirt at an autorickshaw driver’s convention.”

On the way, the festival has been the product of a great deal of love and hard work. Faith Singh founded the Jaipur Virasat Foundation, the inspirational crucible from which this festival was formed. Our pioneering directors, Pramod KG, Mita Kapur and Eleanor O’Keefe, started the festival on its path to greatness.

HS and Surina Narula of DSC saved us financially when we nearly went down in the autumn of 2007, and have supported us ever since. Imtiaz Alam, our unflagging PR, who suffered a stroke this week, our executive producer Sheuli Sethi,  and everyone at Sanjoy Roy’s Teamwork  Productions labour through the night to overcome the morass of logistical horrors that come between an invitation from the two directors popping into the inbox of a writer, to the author arriving safely home again.

Above all, my co-director Namita Gokhale, roots this festival in the soil of this land with her profound passion for the literature of this country and her determination to make this above all a celebration on the literature, oral and written, of India.

One thing we have always insisted on is that the festival is completely free and open to all. Anyone can turn up, and one of the things people like best about Jaipur is that we are completely egalitarian: there are no reserved spaces for VIPs, no roped green zone for our authors — they mingle with the crowds and eat with them on a first-come, first-served basis.

The show opens today. We welcome any bookworm who likes to hear about literature and wants to see how writers work and talk. We don’t issue passes or tickets or reservations. Just roll up and join us.