Like pretty much nobody else I know, I spent January 2006 through January 2009 not going to the Jaipur Literature Festival. Only expert idiots do this; the rest of you should not try it at home. This year I redeemed myself by spending the whole week there, and I’m here to tell you that the collective intelligence and creativity on display in Jaipur is second only to my regret at having denied myself the pleasure for four years.
The great strength of the festival, besides its ability to pull in over 140 authors and an estimated 27,000 audience members this year, is its democratic attitude. It may be the case that not everyone deserving can be put onstage or invited to moderate, but if you choke up either as a participant or as a delegate or as someone who walked in off the street (because you can, it’s free), you’ll be treated exactly like the world-famous author next to you. You might stand in line for lunch ahead of Tina Brown, or share a table with Wole Soyinka, or find Roberto Calasso sitting on the floor at your feet at some session because all the chairs are taken. It is truly informal.
Its other great strength is the ability to stitch up unraveling hems. When speakers can’t make their sessions on time, or at all—because their flight got cancelled, or fog hindered their car journey or the Government of India wouldn’t give them a visa without a school-leaving certificate—other people pitch in and throw a pretty good panel together. The session-goer will still get something fun in the end.
If there’s a problem, it is that of surfeit. When you’ve got top calibre people from the polymath Niall Ferguson to the razor-sharp Anne Enright to the incredibly funny Geoff Dyer and Alexander McCall Smith, and when every time slot is running three or four simultaneous events, you have to make unhappy choices, but often it is better than having no choice, because if a session turns out not to be your thing, you can just wander off to another one.
If there’s anything better than putting a face to someone whose books you’ve loved for years, it must be being introduced to the work of people you’ve never read, or never even heard of. The secret weapon of the programme this year, an absolute coup, was the security-veiled appearance Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the bête noire of Islamism, whose explosive session reinforced a much-needed defence of dissent and criticism in India.
If there is delight, it is listening to Calasso divide people into “those for whom the gods happen and those for whom they don’t”; hearing Claire Tomalin describe the art of biography as “like lace-making, creating a narrative around the holes”; watching Andrew O’Hagan say that “it is not the unexamined life that is not worth living, it is the unimagined one”.
And if there is a delight after that it is the drinks and musical entertainment of the evening in the lawns—because if there’s a cost, it is exhaustion. Six hours of food for thought every day leaves your head pooped to say the least; at the end of five such days my emaciated brain synapses were crawling to the edges of my ears with their tiny tongues lolling, croaking “Water… water…” (though they seemed quite satisfied with a bit of booze).
On top of all that we now have a new literary prize—the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, a US$50,000 incentive to uncap your pen.
All in all the Jaipur Literature Festival is a wild ride because, as Man Booker-winner Anne Enright said, “Writers are not tame creatures.” At least I know what I’m doing next January.