Deep in the madding crowd at the Jaipur Lit Fest

January 24, 2011

It was a startling introduction to Asia’s largest literature festival for best-selling writer J.M. Coetzee, as he clambered over hundreds of people squeezed next to speakers, crouched next to seats, or sat on folded newspapers on the churned-up grass.
Jon Lee Anderson (R) talks about his best-selling book Che on the opening day of the 2011 DSC Jaipur Literature Festival
Coetzee, a notoriously reticent author who rarely appears in public, gingerly picked his way through the masses to reach the stage and address the Jaipur Literature Festival that has in seven years grown magnificently into a cultural must-visit, but requires careful cultivation to ensure its rapid rise can continue unabated.

For all the intellectual finger-pointing whipped up by a public spat between organizer William Dalrymple and India’s Open magazine over allegations of a perpetuation of colonial-era Western superiority the Open-sponsored banner welcoming guests to the festival appeared as something as a peace flag – it was anyway unlikely to sour an event that is famed as much for its infectious atmosphere as its literary relevance.

There was a undeniable energy to the event, hosted in the grounds of a former royal palace, garlanded with striking orange, yellow and green drapes, and blessed with uninterrupted Rajasthani sunshine.

The excitement as hundreds flocked from one location to the other, or the electric murmur that steadily rose in volume from the main tent as an anticipated session approached is impossible to ignore.

Choosing between events was the only stress of the day, as the guests, who had paid nothing to get in, mulled difficult session choices over their free lunch.

“What does he expect me to do?” said one exasperated reporter of her Delhi-based editor. “Split myself into four people and make sure I see everything?” she suggested, to laughs from the group of journalists huddled over their laptops near her.

Orhan Pamuk, who opened the festival on Friday morning, attracted more people to main lawn stage that it could accommodate each time he took to the microphone, while fellow Nobel Laureate Coetzee attracted the largest crowd of all for a absorbing 45-minute long reading on Sunday afternoon that left some Indian critics nonplussed, but only enhanced his reputation as “a writer who writes.”

Javed Akhtar, Bollywood lyricist, had hundreds of devoted fans in raptures, and the much-touted session with Dalit poet Chandra Bhan Prasad had scores jostling for space at the venue’s doorway just to catch a glimpse.

Rory Stewart, British politician and former Asia diplomat caught the attention of many with his forthright political analysis and wide-ranging regional knowledge, while Dominican author Junot Diaz excelled in expressing the complicated relationship between nationality and critical reception through a spirited argument that resonated with an entertained crowd.

Yet for all the thought-provoking sessions and big-name speakers, the festival suffered from a lack of space considering the predictably large number of attendees.

“It’s just too big this year,” was a comment I heard throughout, while the observation “It’s got too big for its own boots,” was repeated by many.

The weekend was indeed crowded. A bottleneck caused by some ill-placed shops and stalls meant part of the festival felt much like a Delhi metro train at rush hour, and while the outdoor events meant those unable to sit could crowd around the speakers listen from outside the tent, those held in the indoor exhibition hall were often hugely over-subscribed.

Dalrymple and the other senior event organizers all told me that there was a large plot, totaling some 3-4 acres, on the other side of the hotel that they had earmarked for a significantly enlarged festival next year. That fix, however, throws up a number of questions on the feasibility and atmosphere of a split-location event.

Jaipur’s rapid rise has been an incredible success, and one that should be applauded as such. There is perhaps nowhere in the continent that offers such a rich and heady mix of international literary talent. Yet it faces big questions over how it approaches the logistics of next year’s inevitably larger level of interest.

Dalrymple and his team have created a monster – they must realise that as the bar is raised every year, so too are expectations.

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