The first thing that hit most first-timers at the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival was the insouciant, ubiquitous fine desert sand that owns everything in the Pink City; the second thing was the hacking fug of cigarette smoke the closer you got to the vast gates of the one-and-a-half-century-old Diggi Palace, the venue of the JLF. Once you waded through these two aerial swamps that had the stopping power of mud, you came face to face with, in series, 1) louche cops in wrinkled khakis; 2) riotous buntings and festoons that did some harm to the sandstone aesthetics of Diggi Palace (and to the simple pleasures of literature); 3) stalls set up by very un-literary festival bankrollers such as Kingfisher Airlines, by ethnic clothes and bric-a-brac sellers and by a few – a very few – magazines with some literary yearnings; and 4) a gaggle of open shamianas that would go on to host, between them, 220 speakers from around 20 countries, both speakers and countries of varying distinction.
Among them: Nobel Prize-winner Orhan Pamuk, very self-assured and sharply impatient with both questioners who had “observations” to offer instead of questions and with younger, contemporary, future-aimed moderators who challenged the entrenched idea of writerly West-non-West dichotomy; another Nobel laureate and double-Booker Prize-winner J.M. Coetzee, a gentle, septuagenarian soul with such little vocal inflexion that his reading of one of his own stories had the audience sidling away sheepishly for a bit of sideline gossip and a smoke; Chimamanda Adichie, who had a gorgeous but impermanent verbal and physical presence; Sudanese writer Leila Aboulela, better known for her themes of transplantation than for her writing; bestselling Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif, whose founding of PalFest (the Palestinian Festival of Literature) makes her a compatriot of sorts of William Dalrymple, a Brit expat best known for his biography of Delhi, City of Djinns, and White Mughals and one of the founders of the JLF; Afghan writer Atiq Rahimi, who was brought to the audience twice-removed, since he had to be translated from the French to the English by Brit travel writer Rory Stewart; the Pakistani author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid, quiet about his political convictions; the affable Swedish crime fiction writer Henning Mankell, whose Inspector Kurt Wallander series has sold 20 million copies riding a tsunami of Scandinavian police procedurals created when the Martin Beck series, by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, hit the literary world sideways; and the philosopher A.C. Grayling, who, like all philosophers, is far dearer to the heart read than heard.
I’d imagine that much of the Rs. 4 crores spent on this literary extravaganza (I’ve also heard it called “jamboree” and “carnival” and – by the irreproachable Tina Brown – “the greatest literary show on earth”) went into flying in and out and hosting the best known (read elderly) authors. But the authors who made the biggest dents in an Indian readership starved of homegrown style and substance were the young turks from oddly-hyphenated, marginalised ethnicities: Dominican-American Junot Diaz, whose stunning 1996 debut, Drown, led up to a Pulitzer Prize 12 years later, and who kept his audience rapt with his rhythmic rap of words running into the paths of other writers; the Vietnamese-Australian Nam Le, fiction editor of the Harvard Review and author of the widely-awarded The Boat, who told the audience that “White writers” who were friends of his in New York were upset that they were being turfed out by “exotic writers” hogging all the publishing space; and Basharat Peer, whose searing Curfewed Night, a personal report on the Kashmir conflict, changed the way that civil society in the West and in India looks at the Kashmir issue.
To an outsider, the JLF might have seemed to be a deafening cascade of the gift of tongues; it was leavened by a river of exorbitantly-priced alcohol and, towards the fading of the day, when most bibliophiles had been enticed away by staged fusion music and Dalit activist singing, less licit intoxicants in the shadier parts of the vast, whispering palace grounds. If you cared to wander around, it became clear that the JLF isn’t designed for the heterogeneous mass of Indian readers; it is for a fairly undifferentiated, economically stable – whatever the circumstances of the economy – narrow-spectrum group that can afford the suddenly-steep hotel rooms in Jaipur, the six-hour drive-downs from Delhi in chauffeured sedans, the Rs. 2,500-a-day delegate passes. The best of them are there because other people are – you couldn’t miss the Bollywood actors, some salonistas, some fashion divas, all without a rendezvous but hardly lost; and then there were the dead-earnest and the focused, clogged with dust and hacking in the nicotine miasma, sprinting from shamiana to shamiana trying to catch sessions that overlapped, victims of a scheduler who had tried to fit in too many writers into too little time – which is a crime, in any book. Writers are, by definition, autodidacts – gasbags, in other words – and they need time to bond with their readers. Give them too little of the clock, and you’ve lost the plot.
And that is the problem with the JLF: it aims to do too much and ends up doing too little. It is a rather wild, swish bacchanal of books and bibliophiles, but it’s hard to think of one good book to have come out of the meeting of minds between potential writers and the wolf pack of attending agents since the fest began, small and cosy, in 2005. Perhaps next year will be better: it certainly will be bigger, as Dalrymple promised when the final session, between Irvine Welsh and Jeet Thayil, had ended. He spoke of “provisional international acceptances” by, among others, AS Byatt, Hilary Mantel, Zadie Smith, Ian Buruma, Salman Rushdie, Richard Dawkins, Nora Ephron, Kazuo Ishiguro, Jonathan Franzen, Germaine Greer, Colm Toibin, Bill Buford, Philip Pullman…. Like him, I could keep name-dropping from the directory of literary nibs.
I attended this last session with Welsh, forgoing an overlapping one with Vikram Seth – who was still smarting from the inexplicable media fury last year when he quaffed a bit of wine onstage – because I wanted to know if Welsh spoke as profanely as he wrote. (Seth I wouldn’t miss much: he is a predictably anodyne speaker.) Welsh didn’t – he is 52 years old, two decades older than when he wrote Trainspotting, and he lives in Chicago because the winter there, harsher and “filthier” than in Edinburgh, keeps him in the house and slaving away at his writing. So think of how the JLF hauled him out into the sun of Jaipur to live hot and dusty as hell in the day, chilled to the bone by the keening desert cold at night. Like it or not – and there are many who don’t – the JLF is going places.