where the writers are
India's Literary Extravaganza: The Jaipur Literature Festival


"The brightest, most brilliant, funny, moving, and remarkable authors come to Jaipur each year." So boasts the website for the renowned Jaipur Literature Festival, an  extravaganza held every year in the capital of India's exotic state of Rajasthan. Started in 2006 with 18 presenters and 100 attendees as part of a larger Rajasthani cultural festival, the JLF soon evolved into the largest literary event in Asia and the Pacific. Directed by William Dalrymple, author of numerous books on India, including the remarkable Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, and Namita Gokhale (The Habit of Love; Dreams of Passion; Gods, Graves, and Grandmothers), the 2013 festival had over 300 presenters and drew several thousand visitors .

Last year, Oprah Winfrey bestowed her Oprahness on the Jaipur Literature Festival, but this year's greatest visitor was H. H. the Dalai Lama, who was his usual cheerful, thoughtful, Buddha-like self on an open air stage in front of a packed courtyard. Other guests included a colorful melange of poets, novelists, journalists, actors, and intellectuals from around the world, including British popular historian Tom Holland, anthropologist Smita Tewari Jassal (an Indian living in Turkey), Kashmir activist Siddiq Wahid, University of Chicago professors Suzanne and Lloyd Rudolph, Indian photographer Pablo Bartholomew, and Nigerian novelist Ben Okri (The Famished Road).

The JLF is both loved and hated. Former New Yorker editor Tina Brown calls it, "The greatest literary show on earth," and British author Simon Schama says it's, "The most fabulous literary love-fest on the planet." But not not everyone is so enamored.  In a recent blog post, journalist Rohan Venkataramakrishnan refered to the festival as little more than "an opportunity for Delhi's elite intellectuals to descend from their ivory towers ... only to reassamble in nothing less than a palace surrounded by writers who can help them feel smart." Another blogger more succinctly called it "a wannabe's festival of air-kissing."

I, personally, had mixed feelings. The talks were pretentious, but then authors' presentations almost always are. As at most literary conferences, the interviewers seemed more interested in showing off how much they knwo about literature than in actually learning how and why writers write. (In my experience, writers don't spend much time thinking about stuff like "how a compact form like the short story can accomodate a theme about the expanstion of time." More-or-less, I think writers just write.) 

But those complaints aside, the JLF was a hoot: a gathering of literati, eager readers, Indiaphiles, expatriot Westerners living in India, expatriot Indians living in Europe, western women in Indian clothes, Indian women in Western clothes, vast canopes in brilliant colors, boothes selling everything from mango milkshakes to ruby necklaces, music, sunlight, lawns on which to lounge, and a general atmosphere of energy and delight in the written word.