India never ceases to both fascinate and amaze me. Thirty five percent of the population may be illiterate and a sizeable section of the remainder still struggle to read. Yet, tens of thousands crammed into the Jaipur Literature Festival, their respect for the written word and their curiosity and regard for authors as evident as their delight in sharing the company of the famous and the celebrated.
I’m not sure if there are many other countries where this would happen. I doubt if Britain, America or any major European nation would respond to a literature festival with such enthusiasm and self-evident enjoyment. And it certainly would not feel like a popular carnival. It would be far more sober and serious and perhaps even pretentious. The crowds in Jaipur ensured that our literature festival was as much a tamasha as anything else.
Of course the critical question is: were the thousands in Jaipur drawn by the books or attracted by the stardom? Before I answer that question ponder over this. Isn’t it beguiling that
JM Coetzee — and most of us can’t even pronounce his name — or Orhan Pamuk, leave aside Chimamanda Adichie and Alex Von Tunzelmann, should fill venues to bursting, with no room left in the aisles and hordes still standing outside hoping to hear echoes of what was being said inside? Even if they were only there to stare, to revel in rubbed-off celebrity, it’s incredible enough. Actually, it’s almost unbelievable.
But, in fact, the audience was attentive, thoughtful, responsive, critically appreciative and intent on absorbing each idea or thought it could grasp. What cannot be denied is that a very large number had come to listen and learn. They sat in total silence for a whole hour listening intently as Coetzee read. They were moved, literally to tears, when Izzeldin Abuelaish recounted his family’s tragic plight at the hands of the Israeli army. And they enthusiastically questioned Von Tunzelmann’s account of Independence and Partition. In fact, where in the world would a historian speak to 500-600 packed into a tent like sardines in a tin?
However, I can’t also deny that several were there for the glamour. This becomes obvious when you find yourself stopped by a breathless gaggle — it could be men, women or school kids — clamouring for an autograph only to be asked, after you’ve signed countless scruffy scraps of paper, “and who are you, sir?”
Yet I would add that it’s the innocent and transparent joy of those who like to hang around the famous and, often, sidle up for photographs or ask for messages to be inscribed on old and occasionally soiled programmes, that makes this acceptable, understandable and easily forgivable. Indeed, it can be thrilling. Even infectious. I have no doubt if I’d spotted Coetzee I would have spent hours queuing for an autograph on my tattered copy of Disgrace!
So what does this tell us about India? Of course, we chase fame and glamour but we also throng around writers and intellectuals and eagerly turn up for literary discussions or readings. Even when we don’t fully understand or cannot easily follow, we’re happy to let the flow of words and wisdom wash over us. I’d say it’s like a dip in the Ganges. It leaves us feeling enriched, improved and full of merit.
Holy water may not be sufficient to wash away our sins but, surely, literature and authors can only uplift our minds. Do you disagree?
The views expressed by the author are personal