Crowds, Personalities at Jaipur Lit Fest

Whether you want to hear about the provision of toilets and treatment of excreta in India or the life and times of a transgender, or listen to one of Britain most famous comedic personalities or a pressured Indian bureaucrat defending his patch, or how the US has caused chaos in the Middle East by ousting established regimes, the Jaipur Literature Festival was the place to be last weekend.

Thronged with a record 330,000 “footfalls” (a definition that includes repeat visitors) over five days, the festival, now inelegantly known as JLF, continues to grow and defy the stresses and strains of crowd control by absorbing the thousands of people without disturbances.

It is billed as the world’s largest free lit fest and, in the 11 years of its existence, it has spawned more than 100 others around India and the rest of South Asia. Writers with new books to peddle travel along with established big names from Delhi to Calcutta and on to Chennai and Bangalore and from Goa to Mumbai and Hyderabad while there are more in the Himalayan foothills at Kasauli, Shimla and elsewhere – plus Lahore in Pakistan, Thimphu in Bhutan and Dhaka in Bangladesh.

None of these other locations however measure up to the sheer size and spread of the Jaipur fest, which benefits from the color and traditions taking place in the capital of the desert state of Rajasthan with excitement of the crowds and vast mixture of speakers in English, Hindi and other regional languages.

Margaret Atwood, the veteran Canadian writer, launched the festival, saying “we become writers because we love to read,” and “the writer’s ‘other half’ is the reader.” She was followed by famous names such as novelists Colm Tóibín, Marlon James and David Grossman, and writer and television personality Stephen Fry.

Rachel Kelley, a writer and journalist, talked about using poetry to overcome depression while Tristram Hunt put aside his role as a Labor Party member of parliament in the UK to talk about his book on “ten cities that made an empire” – including Mumbai and Calcutta as well as Cape Town and Hong Kong.

Ruskin Bond, an India-based veteran in his early 80s, seemed to hanker for the days before television and literary festivals when writers could ”remain anonymous and not be known as a face.”

Tell that to three voluble writers in their 50s who revel each year in popping up repeatedly on various of the festival’s five stages – Shashi Tharoor, a former senior United National official and now an erudite Congress Party politician, William Dalrymple, a historian writer and the festival’s ebullient co-director, and Swapan Dasgupta, a widely-read Anglophile columnist with strong Bharatiya Janata Party links.

All three were involved in sessions and writings that, among other things, are gradually lifting the lid on the horrors of India under British rule, especially the marauding East India Company with its early versions of crony capitalism. Dasgupta and Dalrymple discussed all this in one session with Ferdinand Mount, a British writer whose book The Tears of the Rajas traces his Scottish family’s involvement in, to quote the subtitle, “money, mutiny and marriage in India 1805-1905.”

The excreta and toilets were discussed in a session titled Swachh Bharat: The India story. Sanchaita Gajapati Raju, aged 30, talked about her voluntary organization that brings sanitation, toilets and clean drinking water to villages in Andhra Pradesh. This was one of several sessions that aired complaints and frustrations about the government of Narendra Modi, and especially about his high profile but yet-to-be-effective schemes, one of which is called Swachh Bharat or Clean India.

Amitabh Kant, a top industry ministry bureaucrat who runs two government schemes, Make in India and Start-Up India, showed how stressful it is making the most of such endeavors for the prime minister when I questioned him on progress during a session last Friday. He didn’t seem to realize the strength of widespread criticism about the Modi approach and about how little has been done to ease the path for businessmen who run into constant bureaucratic blockages, accusing me of being “frozen in time” when I challenged his forceful assertions. The frustrations however came out clearly when I talked a couple of days later with a business panel who tried not to be too critical of the government but were clearly less than impressed about what has been achieved.

To begin with, it looked as if the festival would not take place, or at least not in the ever-expanding stylish surrounding of the Jaipur’s Diggi Palace. A dispute in the family that own the palace triggered a court case last week that was loosely based on fears of a terrorist attack as well as filial jealousies. But after a stubborn police chief had been shunted out of his Jaipur post, a local judge wisely delayed hearings on the case till after the festival was over, avoiding the chaos that would have been caused by changing the arrangements and travel plans of some 380 visiting speakers as well as tourists and local visitors.

Meanwhile some of the best news at the festival was that Delhi’s Full Circle book shop was back running the book store, having been ousted last year by Amazon in that used its multi-national muscle to outbid it with a big financial down payment. Amazon turned out to be more interested in selling its Kindle book-readers than actual books, and this year the festival organizers responded to popular pressure and went back to Full Circle – a small victory for Riding the Elephant because I campaigned on this blog a year ago for Amazon to go.

Throughout, there was the backdrop of an on-going debate in India about freedom of expression and how that has been coming under attack under the Modi government. Karan Johar, a popular film producer said that freedom of expression was the “biggest joke” and that “saying something in Jaipur” could lead to court action against him elsewhere.

Curiously a noisy debate at the end of the festival accepted that freedom of expression could be “conditional” and chanted “Modi Modi Modi” when Anupam Kher, a popular actor (awarded the Padma Bhushan honour by the president of India the next day) disagreed with the mass of the literary fraternity by arguing that freedom did exist. It seems unlikely that most of the crowd agreed with him, though the vote went in his favor – and that I guess is freedom of expression, however transitory!

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent. His blog, Riding the Elephant, can be found at the bottom right of Asia Sentinel’s homepage.