A Passage to Literature

By Dalrymple, William | Newsweek, January 24, 2011 | Go to article overview

A Passage to Literature


Dalrymple, William, Newsweek


Byline: William Dalrymple

Jaipur's got culture, elegance, and fine January weather. Why not start a book festival?

The British satirical magazine Private Eye recently ran a cartoon showing two survivors of a shipwreck watching their liner sink from a desert island, shaded by a single, drooping palm tree. One says to the other: "Well, I suppose the first thing to do is to start a literary festival." The cartoonist had a point: literary festivals now seem almost as globally contagious as SARS.

But it certainly didn't seem that way in 2004, when I moved my family back to India from London. Shortly after the move I was invited to do a reading at an annual music festival in Jaipur, in the northwestern state of Rajasthan, four hours' drive from our new home in Delhi. That reading took place somewhere at the rear of Jaipur University in a room that no one was able to find. Only about 14 people turned up, most of whom appeared to be Japanese tourists who had lost their way.

That evening, I suggested to the event's organizer that maybe something could be done to start a small book festival around the existing music festival. It seemed odd to me that India, which sent so many writers to festivals around the world, seemed to have so few literary events of its own. Wherever I appeared at book festivals around the globe, all the usual celebrated Indian writers were there. But one tended to meet way more A-list Indian writers in English at the literary festival of Hay-on-Wye, in the Welsh countryside, or even Sydney, than one ever did in Mumbai or Delhi.

Jaipur, the capital of the desert state of Rajasthan, is one of the world's most beautiful cities, with rich literary and cultural traditions of its own, as well as the most wonderfully benign late-January climate. My heart always lifts as I leave fog-bound Delhi and head onto the Jaipur highway. Within a couple of hours you break through the pollution and find yourself in sunlit mustard fields. A couple of hours more and you are amid camel carts and brightly colored Rajasthani turbans. By the end of the journey you are driving past the bastions and terraces of Amber Fort, the lake palace of Jai Mahal, the pink city walls and the lines of courtyard houses or havelis. It seemed the perfect venue for a festival.

Two years later, the literature festival finally opened. We thought we had 18 authors--all Indian residents, though "two failed to show up," as my codirector, Namita Gokhale, remembers. Since that unpromising start, Jaipur has transformed itself from an event into a phenomenon, growing like some monstrous creature from Indian myth. Last year, our fifth festival, 210 authors from 15 countries spoke to crowds of more than 35,000 people. In a few short years we've suddenly found ourselves running the largest literary festival in the entire Asia-Pacific region, and the biggest free festival of literature in the world. This year we expect well over 50,000 people, to hear 250 authors pitching up from around 30 different countries.

For all the festival's international reach, one of our missions is to highlight those Indian authors who write in India's 22 non-English national languages, 122 regional languages, and 1,726 mother tongues--writers whose names are still totally unknown outside their homeland. A few years ago Salman Rushdie wrote, "The ironic proposition that India's best writing since independence may have been done in the language of the departed imperialists is simply too much for some folks to bear." This caused a furor in a country where many write in Hindi, Malayalam, and Bengali, and whose Indian-language publishing industry is far larger than its English one. …

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