Jaipur’s open and free literary extravaganza attracts 200,000

John Elliott

ANWilson with Reza Aslan and Willie Dalrymple Jaipur’s open and free literary extravaganza attracts 200,000India’s annual Jaipur Literature Festival, which finished two days ago, is different things to different people. With a total of over 200,000 footfalls and nearly 20,000 people registering for the first time each day, it is an enormous free-wheeling extravaganza of debate, humour and conversation. It has grown from just a few hundred people when it began in 2006 and has inspired the creation of 40 or 50 other smaller festivals around the country and elsewhere.

Foreign authors say it is one of the best of the international festivals. People from Delhi’s and Mumbai’s social circuit like it because they can parade with, or close to, famous literary and other names and talk about it afterwards. The vast mass of people simply enjoy the discussions and cosmopolitan tamasha in the faded glory of Diggi Palace and its grounds, while thousands of students collect autographs and have themselves photographed with anyone who might be significant.

Xiaolu Guo, a Chinese novelist and filmmaker, produced perhaps the best illustration of the festival’s image when she said, during a debate on Who Rules the World, that China could learn from the way that “everyone here is equal, everyone has the right to listen and to get information”. If China did that, she said, it would be a better country. Pinpointing how the festival differs from many others around the world, she commented that “not everyone here is elite – you are normal people!”. The unanimous view of course was that it would be a bad idea if China even tried to rule the world, but Guo’s remark underlined what an open and free (you only pay for food) event this lit fest has become.

Among the other sessions I attended was a strong debate over the real story of Jesus – or the quite different stories of Jesus the Jewish evangelist and Jesus the Christ, as asserted by Reza Aslan, the Iranian author of a new book,  Zealot – The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.  A.N.Wilson (right in the picture above),  a British writer and author of Jesus, disagreed about the validity of such distinctions and said that the history of Jesus was “educated speculation”.

In a stimulating session, two moderately indiscreet former diplomats – Hussain Haqqani, once Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, and Robert Blackwill, who was US ambassador to India – more or less agreed that both the US and Pakistan had mucked up their relationship over the years. I missed Adrian Levy, a British journalist, explaining how he and Cathy Scott-Clark did some incredibly detailed reporting on the 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai’s Taj Hotel and other targets and produced the recently published book, The Siege. I shall watch that on the festival’s on-line videos.

In a gentler session on the final day, when heavy rain drove many events indoors, Richard Holmes, a British author and biographer, read from Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner. He said that students still regard the poem relevant today, partly because they see the mariner’s killing of the albatross as symbolic of “man damaging nature” and the destruction of the environment.

There was much else – nearly 200 sessions in total over five days with musical evenings, book launches. Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, a literary consultant, has tracked the growth of literary festivals since the Jaipur lit fest started in an article here.  I’ve looked up some of my earlier posts on the festival – I’ve only missed one.  In January 2010, just 15,000 people arrived in the first three days, which meant a total of not much more than 20,000 – double 2009 when there were only 10,000.  That was dramatic growth, which has now fortunately slowed – this week’s total of over 200,000 is enough for any festival. But do come next year – there will be plenty of space to squeeze in a few more people!

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