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Come ye all to Asia’s biggest literature fest

Something rather remarkable has happened at Jaipur. The DSC Jaipur Literature Festival has grown like some creature from the Puranic myths, writes William Dalrymple.

jaipur Updated: Jan 21, 2010 09:11 IST

In January in 2004, I was invited to give a reading in Jaipur at a new festival of music and dance that had just started in the Pink City. The reading took place in a small room at the back of the university. No one was able to find it and the event was sparsely attended —maybe 30 people, largely elderly aunties, turned up to hear it.

That evening, I suggested to the organiser, Faith Singh, that maybe something could be done to start a small literary festival around her Jaipur Heritage Festival, just as Edinburgh had its Book Festival running alongside the main Edinburgh International Festival.

Two years later, the festival finally kicked off with 18 authors. All were Indian-residents, “and two failed to show up,” remembers my co-director, Namita Gokhale, who has done more than anyone else to make that idea a reality.

Since then, something rather remarkable has happened at Jaipur. The DSC Jaipur Literature Festival has grown like some creature from the Puranic myths, so that last year, on our fourth festival, no less than 140 authors from 15 countries spoke to crowds of over 20,000 people. In a few short years we’ve suddenly found ourselves running the largest literary festival in Asia, and the biggest free festival of literature in the world. Tina Brown of the New Yorker, who visited for the first time, dubbed us “the greatest literary show on earth”.

This year we have no less than 193 authors pitching up from around 30 different countries. No one knows how many punters will turn up.

Several things combine to make Jaipur different from — and a lot more fun than — any other book festival. First of all, it really is a festival. The buildings are festooned with streamers, there are always thousands of people milling around, we let off fireworks at night and after 6.30 pm, the writers have to shut up and give the stage over to music and dancing until the early hours of each morning.

Second, it is completely free. Anyone can turn up. It is an exuberant, joyful, crazy fiesta bursting with writers, readers, students from Delhi, unpublished poets from Bihar, Bombay socialites, Bengali political activists, diaspora returnees from New York and London, autograph-seeking schoolchildren — last year even Julia Roberts and her new baby.

In the course of things, inevitably, we’ve run into a few controversies.

Last year everything was thrown into confusion by the terrorist attacks in Mumbai before Christmas.

One of our themes was to highlight the emergence of a group of talented young writers in Pakistan such as Mohsin Hamid and Kamila Shamsie.

But after 26/11, many figures on the centre-left as well as the right argued for a sporting and cultural boycott of Pakistan, while on the extreme right, Raj Thackeray called for all Mumbai bookshops that stocked Pakistani books to be attacked — leading the police to advise booksellers there to withdraw Pakistani writers, which many did.

We, however, took a view that that books, films, art, music and literature are what gives South Asians an identity, joy and momentum.

Once you start pulling the plug on writers and artists, the fanatics have won. We held our ground, and in the end our Pakistani authors were the stars of the show.

In a standing room only session titled ‘Moonlight’s Children’, Nadeem Aslam and Daniyal Mueenuddin talked about the wave of terrorism engulfing Pakistan and how it caused a sort of “premature nostalgia... writing very fast,” said Aslam, “with a quill whose other end is on fire”.

We also try to highlight those Indian authors who write in some of India’s 22 national languages, 122 regional languages and 1,726 mother tongues.

Many of the most popular events in the festival are in these bhasha tongues’.

Two years ago, for example, we hosted Anupam Mishra whose work has never been translated into English or any non-Indian language, but whose non-fiction book on traditional methods of water harvesting has sold more than a million copies in Hindi.

So this year among our international stars like Wole Soyinka, Hanif Kureishi, Roddy Doyle, Louis de Bernieres, Vikram Chandra, Amit Chaudhuri, Anne Enright, Michael Frayn, Claire Tomalin and Niall Ferguson — we’re importing a Nobel laureate, a winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize, two Booker winners and five winners of the Pulitzer Prize as well as leading writers from the world of history, biography, literary criticism and travel — we are also hosting Nirmala Putul, a poet whose tribe is in Chattisgarh, Sister Jesme, a defrocked nun from Kerala whose recent book Amen lifted the lid on the sexual and psychological abuse she says is rampant in the Catholic Church in India, and a whole raft of dalit writers such as like Kancha Ilaiah, Bama and OP Valmiki, whose writing highlights the raw power of pain, anger and affirmation.

The show opens today, and we welcome any book lover willing to make the pilgrimage to Jaipur to share in the joys of communication and creativity, debate and argument, intellectual stimulation and, above all, the pleasure of ideas.

You don’t need passes or tickets: just turn up, listen, join in and become part of something extraordinary.