Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Article excerpt

The Jaipur Literature Festival, which I help to direct, has in just six years grown like some monster from an Indian epic. Each year it doubles in size and we struggle to keep up with the vast crowds who come to hear our authors speak. We've also inspired nearly 40 daughter-festivals across South Asia.

The great Bombay poet Javed Akhtar aired a theory about why the region has suddenly taken to literature like this: 'We abandoned language and arts in the last 40 years, ' he said. 'We wanted cars and fridges. Now today's generation takes them for granted. They want something else. They want arts and literature.'

'Everywhere sales of novels are declining, ' claimed Howard Jacobson at his Jaipur session on the future of the novel, 'yet attendances at literary festivals going up. Are these events replacing reading?' It's an interesting idea but in fact it's not true, at least in South Asia. India is the one place in the world where reading and sales of books are increasing, and at an estimated 10 to 12 per cent per annum - the envy of publishers everywhere else in the world. It's also about the only place in the world where sales of newspapers are rising too.

From Jaipur to Rangoon, where the outgoing British ambassador and his wife have started the latest literary festival in the region.While waiting for my sessions I walked around Rangoon, guided by U Thant's grandson, Thant Myint-U, who is trying to conserve the heart of old city from the depredations of developers. Since the recent political liberalisation, Burma has been transformed: 100,000 new cars have been added to the capital's streets in the past year and a half, and for the first time there is traffic congestion. There is also a real estate boom and office prices are approaching those of London and New York. Thant took me around the magnificent remains of colonial Rangoon - the offices built by Burma Oil, the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company and the Bombay Burma Trading Company. In the 1930s Rangoon was much bigger than Kuala Lumpar, and one of the top five cities of Asia, with huge houses as well as the usual colonial paraphernalia of clubs and fancy hotels like the Strand. Today the city centre feels as decayed and melancholic as Calcutta, with pipal trees skewering out of the pavements, ruinous teak staircases and women doing their washing on parquet floors that once housed major commercial concerns. …

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