For the last three years, I've attended the Jaipur Literature festival as a reader and stalker of the literatti. In the course of those years, I've seen the festival grow each year - from a gathering of readers and authors that could fit comfortably into the front lawns of the Diggi Palace for a post-session drink, into a mammoth, unwieldy beast, that has spilled over into the car park and taken over the Diggi Palace stables. In past years, famous authors and readers would comfortably mingle after the sessions - a bottom feeder (like myself) could approach Alexander McCall Smith or Wole Soyinka after the festival, enjoy a coffee with Niall Ferguson and rub shoulders with the likes of Hari Kunzru and Thomas Keneally.
This year, it was very different from the past two years. The crowd has grown exponentially. Although this is a positive sign for the state of literature in India, those of us who had come in previous years felt disgruntled by the long lines in front of toilets, the scramble for seats (and even standing space) at many sessions. Separate areas for authors and the hoi-polloi prevented the easy mingling of previous years.
Even before the festival started there was a sense of disaffection - a literary spat had broken out in the pages of OPEN magazine, where Hartosh Singh Bal, in an article titled "The Literary Raj," had claimed that the festival, run by WIlliam Dalrymple, panders to the tastes of the British Literary Establishment. Moreover, Bal was censorious of the place and importance Dalrymple occupies in the Indian Literary scene. Dalrymple (understandably irked) had responded by claiming that Bal was racist; but he also made valid points about the composition of the festival - due to the efforts and the interest of his co-director, Namita Gokhale, a number of bhasha writers attend the festival and receive recognition. (Read Bal's response to Dalrymple here.)
It can not be denied that despite such sentiments, the lion's share of attention in Jaipur goes to foreign writers and those Indian authors who write in English. But this is a complex issue - as writer and festival speaker Anjum Hasan says, "Audiences are more interested in a Kiran Desai than a Vinod Kumar Shukla, even if the latter might be more interesting." Hasan places on the onus on the reader. She adds - "Sometimes a star writer is not the best speaker, sometimes he or she is – it depends. Smaller sessions tend to be better." Hasan is making a valid point. At festivals like Jaipur, writers who are good speakers tend to perform better and make for more interesting sessions.
I often found that to be the case with Jaipur – that the smaller, more unknown sessions are the often the most rewarding. As Dalrymple claims, the festival organizers “hold our for authors we admires and resist PR Machines”. The result is I've 'discovered' authors at the festival who I've never heard of before, but have fascinating stories to tell. For example, this year, Anthony Satinn spoke about his non-fiction work Winter on the Nile, based on his discovery that Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert spent a night aboard the same cruise in Egypt. Satinn found an intriguing similarity between both figures – Florence and Flaubert are both sent to Egypt to recover from various disappointments, but have a vastly different experience of Egypt.
But not all sessions are this intriguing. As Saugata Mukherjee, Managing editor of Haper Collins, says, some panels are very "Slap-dash” - hastily put together. I had to agree – one such session, on the very first morning of the festival, featured Rana Dasgupta and Tishani Doshi. Doshi and Dasgupta read from a story, "Woodfinger" that Dasgupta had penned, a retelling of a well-known Kannadiga folktale. Dasgupta is a fine writer - but to be treated to an unedited draft of his story, where name changes and inconsistencies occurred, and which, he admitted, had been hastily completed that very morning - was trying to the patience of an audience who had just flown in from all parts of India and the world.
Another panel, featured famous Sex and The City author Candace Bushnell in conversation with Chick-Lit writer and former Miss India Contestant Ira Trivedi. Bushnell, in the bio in the festival handbook, is described as a "serious novelist," a description she earns with her incisive observations of the complexities and difficulties of a modern woman's life. However Trivedi put a series of truly cringe-worthy questions to Bushnell – she asked whether the 52 year old Bushnell had future plans of having children. She also commented on Bushnell's discussion of promiscuity in her work, saying that it was now "okay for girls to cheat." (Bushnell, thankfully, responded by saying that it was this was not what she meant.) The frivolous nature of such questions were disappointing to a great many young women in the audience, who identify strongly with Bushnell's characters and situations – it was truly a pity that the festival organizers did not find a better moderator for this session.
A few hours after the Bushnell session, an auto driver drove me back to my hotel. He told me that the festival had gone downhill - there a lot of drinking at night time, which was not in keeping with a festival that was to promote sahitya. This accusation has dogged the festival for years – in 2009, Vikram Seth came under a lot of flak in the media when he was photographed with a drink in hand. But that wasn't the main thrust of my auto-driver's complaint, he explained that so many people at the festival, particularly at the night time events, are attracted by the alcohol and the foreign crowd rather than by any love of literature. In these circumstances, “bad behavior” might easily happen.
When I put this question to Mr Dalrymple, a few days later, he agreed that the crowds are 'large' and the music events at night attract of lot of 'local riff-raff.' For 2012, he said that ticketing and expanding the venue were under discussion.
But even those measures, I think, will not bring back the sense of intimacy and reduce the festival to it's earlier size. As the festival becomes increasingly high profile, it will only grow larger. This year, an area was specially cordoned off in the evenings for authors and delegates, discouraging the easy intimacy of past years between writers and readers. There's definitely a sense of something lost. But at the same time, it is encouraging to see so many come to Jaipur and engage with literature. Tarun Tejpal, in the penultimate session, observed - "We need a life of mind in India and the festival creates this." He's right. There's no question that the Jaipur Literature Festival provides a space for important conversations about literature and society, and that this conversation often continues outside the festival. One such case in point – Dalrymple's detractor, Hartosh Singh Bal, was spotted at the festival chatting with Dalrymple himself.
A slightly different version of this article appeared in DNA on Sunday, January 30 2011