The Jaipur Lit­er­a­ture Fes­ti­val is an epic and ex­traor­di­nar­ily in­clu­sive gath­er­ing, at­tract­ing vast crowds and the world’s great­est writ­ers

Harper's Bazaar (UK) - - Contents - By JULIET NI­COL­SON

The world’s big­gest, bold­est book fes­ti­val in Jaipur

For five colour-suf­fused, taboo-bust­ing, mind-ex­pand­ing, ex­hil­a­rat­ing Jan­uary days the city of Jaipur be­comes the soul-cen­tre of the world’s big­gest and most elec­tri­fy­ing cel­e­bra­tion of the writ­ten word. The Jaipur Lit­er­a­ture Fes­ti­val, held an­nu­ally at the Pink City’s mag­nif­i­cent Diggi Palace, se­duces its 400,000-strong au­di­ence with what its co-cu­ra­tor Namita Gokhale calls ‘that most in­fec­tious form of magic’, the stim­u­la­tion of thought through word. This is a cul­tural cel­e­bra­tion writ­ten huge, a bouil­l­abaisse of thoughts and ideas, a ver­bal Woodstock, a con­stel­la­tion of thinkers where poets are rock stars and play­wrights liv­ing le­gends. From No­bel lau­re­ates to lo­cal lan­guage philoso­phers, Booker Prize win­ners to debut nov­el­ists, a re­mark­able col­lec­tion of au­thors ar­rives in Ra­jasthan for a fi­esta of read­ing, de­bate, dis­cus­sion and mu­sic. The scale of the thing is ex­tra­or­di­nary. A team of 4,000 and an in­ter­na­tional press corps of hun­dreds is han­dled by the charis­matic pro­ducer San­joy Roy, his fa­mously lux­u­ri­ant head of hair enough to make Ra­pun­zel en­vi­ous. This year, 380 speak­ers from 15 In­dian and 20 in­ter­na­tional lan­guages were put up in ho­tels vary­ing from the sub­limely op­u­lent Oberoi Ra­jvi­las just out­side the city, to the de­light­ful in­ti­macy of the Samode Haveli and the wham-bam glam­our of the Ram­bagh Palace. What a gig for a writer! The in­vi­ta­tion to at­tend is a Roald Dahl-es­que golden ticket.

This jewel-like jumbo-car­ni­val was con­ceived lit­tle more than a decade ago by Wil­liam Dal­rym­ple, the travel writer and his­to­rian of In­dia, known to his col­leagues as ‘Bhayya’ mean­ing brother, or fixer. While the dis­tin­guished au­thor and pub­lisher Gokhale ful­fils the ‘Home Of­fice’ role by invit­ing the all-im­por­tant In­dian speak­ers, Dal­rym­ple at the ‘For­eign Of­fice’ is re­spon­si­ble for those vis­it­ing from abroad. Dal­rym­ple’s found­ing ge­nius lay in choos­ing not to charge a sin­gle ru­pee for en­try. The de­ci­sion to raise the money in­stead through spon­sors such as Google and Nokia means that peo­ple of ev­ery na­tion­al­ity, re­li­gion, back­ground and, above all, age, travel to Jaipur each Jan­uary. Un­like the ma­ture au­di­ences of Bri­tish lit­er­ary festivals, the huge ma­jor­ity of at­ten­dees are under 25, many sleep­ing rough at the rail­way sta­tion just to be in Jaipur dur­ing JLF week to lis­ten to and share ideas on sub­jects from di­nosaurs to the­o­ret­i­cal physics, seabirds to PG Wode­house, but­ter­flies to Ham­let. The book tent, large and de­lec­ta­ble enough to ac­com­mo­date the Har­rods food hall, re­sounds with ring­ing tills. It is a place where even lesser known writ­ers feel like mem­bers of One Direction as they will­ingly pose with ea­ger stu­dents for un­prece­dented num­bers of self­ies.

Ap­proach­ing the Diggi Palace from be­neath a half-mile of rain­bow bunting, dodg­ing lassi and peanut sales­men and a trav­el­ling milk­man on his bi­cy­cle, liq­uid-filled pewter churns swing­ing from hooks on his belt, you reach six huge open-sided pav­il­ions. Each one pro­vides seat­ing, kneel­ing, stand­ing, crouch­ing room, for sev­eral thou­sand, pro­tected from the blaz­ing In­dian sun by block­printed awnings in saf­fron and emer­ald. No seats are re­served, no VIP sta­tus granted to di­lute the all-in­clu­sive spirit. It is a style­watcher’s dream, a cat­walk of lux­u­ri­ous idio­syn­crasy. The el­e­gant art cu­ra­tor Himanshu Verma, who has been re­claim­ing the gen­der

flu­id­ity of the sari for the last 14 years, floats by in his gown of checked car­damom silk, red and gold pais­ley waist­coat and bronze pais­ley jacket. There are silken tur­bans, beaded frocks and twirly Carry On mous­taches. For­eign vis­i­tors aban­don ties, chi­nos and home­county tea dresses in favour of kur­tas, sal­war kameez and the silk du­patta that gar­lands the neck of each au­thor as they com­plete their ses­sion.

Dal­rym­ple is ev­ery­where, a bil­low­ing blue-shirted lit­er­ary guru hold­ing a pot­tery cup of chai masala, sit­ting cross-legged on the grass floor at the front, ask­ing a ques­tion from the back, crammed in with the jos­tle on the side aisles. On the stage, huge screens mag­nify the per­form­ers to Swif­tian pro­por­tions for those in dis­tant rows, am­pli­fi­ca­tion pro­vid­ing the sort of hear-a-pin-drop sound sys­tem that per­form­ers al­ways crave but sel­dom get. Lis­ten to Tom Stop­pard ral­ly­ing his crowd to re­mem­ber: ‘We are all per­form­ers or cre­ators if we al­low our­selves to be’; hear the won­drous, com­plex nov­el­ist Amy Tan speak about child­hood; the emo­tion­ally per­cep­tive Syr­ian his­to­rian Alia Malek; the Nige­rian-born, Amer­i­can-Bangladeshi Abeer Hoque; the prize-win­ning Keg­gie Carew on fa­thers; the mag­netic Matt Frei of Chan­nel 4 News; Philip Nor­man, who knows more about the Bea­tles than any­one ex­cept the Bea­tles; the in­scrutably charis­matic Afghanistan politi­cian Hamid Karzai; ex­perts on the prophets of an­cient Vedic texts; In­sta­gram poets; He­len Field­ing on her Every­woman Brid­get Jones; the jour­nal­ist Peter Ber­gen’s nerve-jan­gling de­scrip­tion of Bin Laden’s hid­ing places in the snow-filled pleats of the Afghanistan moun­tains… And who would have imag­ined that a mul­ti­tude of thou­sands would as­sem­ble in central In­dia, at­ten­tive and in­formed (for these au­di­ences are pas­sion­ate read­ers!) for a ses­sion about Vir­ginia Woolf ’s fic­tion and gay love? The JLF pro­vides an In­dian fo­rum where the of­ten un­sayable is al­lowed to be heard, and where women find a voice of their own.

Oc­ca­sion­ally the massed gath­er­ing of hu­man­ity trem­bles on the very edge of con­trol, like King’s Cross rail­way sta­tion at Fri­day evening’s rush hour. A gor­geous Bollywood star ap­pears and her fans from all over In­dia roar their greet­ing, as a pea­cock lands un­no­ticed on the an­cient wall, out­classed in daz­zle by his hu­man ri­val. And yet the jam-packed throng is re­spect­ful of each other and all re­mains as har­mo­nious as an English vil­lage church on a Sunday morn­ing.

At the end of each day, enor­mous stages at the great heritage ho­tels and the palaces are lit up for singing and dancing. One evening, cush­ioned on rasp­berry-pink silk so­fas in the open air of the Am­ber Fort, the au­di­ence fills the huge empty ter­races, in­cense drift­ing on the breeze. Briefly, I hold the trance-in­duc­ing gaze of the di­vinely voiced pop-idol Shekhar Ravjiani. ‘I feel like lov­ing you tonight,’ he mur­murs with in­de­cent al­lure, as the lan­guage of mu­sic unites us all under the shim­mer­ing stars of the vel­vety In­dian sky.

The Oberoi Ra­jvi­las, from £290 a room a night (www.oberoi­ho­tels.com).

This is a cul­tural

cel­e­bra­tion writ­ten huge, a con­stel­la­tion of thinkers where poets are rock stars

The Am­ber Fort, Jaipur

The Am­ber Fort. Be­low left: the Diggi Palace

The Ko­hi­noor Villa at the Oberoi Ra­jvi­las. Be­low: the Ram­bagh Palace

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