Talk: Jaipur Literature Festival 2016 Special

Tank _summer 16_jaipur _1The Hawa Mahal, or Palace of the Winds. 

At first glance, Jaipur, of all Indian cities, seems a strange place to hold a literature festival. At the edge of the Rajasthani desert, it is a city known more for the luxurious remnants of its grand history and the Rajput warrior dynasties that shaped it, than for any great literary heritage. Yet the Jaipur Literature Festival has become the biggest free literary festival in the world. And it’s getting bigger: visitor numbers were up 40% this year. Held in the gardens of the Hotel Diggi Palace every January, the festival welcomes authors, both international – Margaret Atwood, Thomas Piketty and Stephen Fry – and Indian – Shashi Tharoor, Salil Tripathi and Tara Gandhi Bhattacharjee – and an audience much younger, more engaged and distinctly less tweedy than the average Hay-goer. For William Dalrymple, the festival’s founder, this is all part of Jaipur’s remit. “We’re very consciously multilingual,” he explains. “We have two jobs really: showcasing world literature to India and bringing Indian literature to the world.”

And Jaipur has a prodigious international profile. As Dalrymple puts it, “As far as getting the star authors now, everyone wants to come. That’s no longer a struggle.” The festival is, of course, infamous for its luxurious parties. Architectural marvels like the Rambagh Palace or the Amer Fort provide a backdrop for what must be the most decadent events that the publishing world has to offer. Yet while the Diggi Palace and Jaipur’s other remarkable forts and pavilions may provide the festival with remarkable surroundings, they do not soften its desire to be politically engaged. As any visitor will acknowledge looking through the vast programme; it is not often you can enjoy talks as excitingly eclectic, all in one place. This year’s festival included sessions on subjects as wide-ranging as the global novel, Partition, detention in Guantánamo, hijra (transgender) rights and early Indian sacred architecture.  

Tank _summer 16_jaipur _2Scenes from the Jaipur Literature Festival; left, the entrance to the Diggi Palace gardens. Right, between sessions. 

The mix of international and Indian writers constantly brings new perspectives and shakes up received opinion. At a session entitled “Coming Out”, for example, Armistead Maupin and Colm Tóibín, gay luminaries, spoke of the fun they were having staying in Jaipur’s most luxurious palace with their husbands, only for their bubble of optimism to be quickly burst by fellow panellist R. Raj Rao, an Indian LGBT activist, who reminded them that gay sex remains illegal in India and that the situation under the current government is, in fact, worsening.

The current political situation and a rise in Hindu nationalism perhaps gave the festival an added urgency. Since Penguin India withdrew and pulped the Indian edition of Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, in February 2014, censorship in the publishing industry has been an issue of concern. The May 2014 election of Hindu nationalist BJP president Narendra Modi, has likewise galvanised anxiety among liberals across the country. “I think that freedom of speech is a fight in many parts of the world, including India,” says Dalrymple. “It’s an ongoing struggle, and I think that a writer’s job is to present both sides of a subject, for freedom of speech to be maintained.”  

Tank _summer 16_jaipur _3Left, a rickshaw on the streets of the city. Right, a guard at the Albert Hall Museum.

On 17 January, just three days before the festival opened, Rohith Vemula, a lower-caste Dalit PhD student, killed himself after being labelled “anti-national” by upper-caste Hindu nationalists who control many universities. This again highlighted the oppression still experienced by many lower-caste people in India. While, on 25 January, a court in Mumbai pressed charges of criminal contempt against Arundhati Roy for an article she had written. All of which made the debate on the last afternoon of the festival, “Should freedom of speech be conditional?”, all the more pertinent. Particularly when one panellist was controversial Bollywood actor, Anupham Kher, famous for his support of the government and slogans like, “Beat the literati with shoes”. And particularly when it did not take long for the debate to degenerate into a shouting match as, egged on by Kher, large segments of the audience began chanting, “Modi! Modi! Modi!” That these shouts interrupted us as we tried to fix an interview with TV star, celebrity and hijra activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi perfectly encapsulated the stranger sides of the festival.

After the chants had died down and the guests and participants had gone home, the Jaipur Literature Festival felt like a perfect location from which to get a snapshot of both Modi’s India and the vibrancy of international and national writing. As Dalrymple said at a press conference towards the end of the festival, “What’s so lovely is that we’re bringing this stuff here for free and anyone can walk in – whether they’re from a village, whether they’ve got their private jet from San Francisco, they can just sit down on the grass and absorb such incredible variety and quality.” § 

Tank _summer 16_jaipur _4Left, an astrological measuring tool at the Jantar Mantar. Right, view of the Jantar Mantar.

Tank _summer 16_jaipur _5Left, a visitor shades himself from the sun during an event. Right, at the City Palace. Interviews: Thomas Roueché / Photography: Sohrab Golsorkhi-Ainslie