At the Jaipur Literature Festival, East meets West as it does at no other event in the book world. East and West immediately fall into heated debate about the role of the occupier in Afghanistan, and about why the most recognized South Asian writers are all expatriates from their homelands.
Then West bums a smoke.
East confesses to a mad crush on the writer U.S. writer Junot Diaz, who was just signing books in the courtyard.
And they head off together to dance until dawn on the ramparts of the Moghul emperor's fort.
As book events go, there is nothing quite like this one.
The festival couldn't help but be a little bit magical, set as it is in the grounds of a 150-year-old palace in the princely city of Jaipur - visitors enter through 20-metre azure wooden doors studded with silver. When Diaz (who won the Pulitzer Prize for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao)took the stage on Friday, he was occasionally drowned out by the screams of the peacocks who glare down at the book-lovers from the flowering trees.
The Jaipur festival has another remarkable quality: Its events are free. Some 30,000 people attended last year, wandering into the palace grounds and on to the lawn or into the tents where readings are held. Early estimates are that the crowd has increased by another third this year (leaving the events groaning at their ribbon-wrapped tent seams.) "As a writer there are very few festivals you go to that you really enjoy - but this is a festival that's festive," said the Toronto-and-Kathmandu-based writer Manjushree Thapa ( Seasons of Flight). "Everyone is happy to be in Jaipur, because it's beautiful and it's a mix you don't find elsewhere of international writers and local ones - it's very cosmopolitan and also very rooted. And they don't focus on the international at the expense of the literature from the corners of the world." Thapa is at the festival as part of a focus on writers from Nepal.
The festival was founded six years ago by the Scottish-émigré-to-India historian William Dalrymple (City of Djinns) and the Indian novelist Namita Gokhale ( The Book of Shadows). In the beginning, it was something of a novelty, a cult destination for book lovers. But its freewheeling format allows for all manner of serendipitous encounters, and it began to be a favourite event for Western writers as well as South Asians.
"There is no segregation of writers, publishers and public and that makes for a very fluid kind of experience," said the British-Indian novelist Rana Dasgupta, winner of the 2010 Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Solo. He found himself chatting with the Indian tycoon Nandini Nilekani ( Imagining India) at the festival two years ago. "In such a hierarchical society, where access to people is so controlled, it seemed so miraculous that you could walk in on Nandan Nilekani having his lunch, when he is at the very heart of the transformations of this country. The fact that a person like that doesn't need to hide - the festival brings that openness in those who come."
Desi-lit superstar Vikram Seth ( A Suitable Boy), for example, loitered in the festival bar on Friday night flirting with all comers. "I love this place," he enthused. "It's more like a bazaar - anyone can come in." (The next morning, he sported large dark sunglasses and fell asleep in the penultimate row of a talk by Man Booker Prize winner Kiran Desai ( The Inheritance of Loss) and the British historian Patrick French (The World Is What It Is). Candace Busnhell (Sex and the City), meanwhile, stood in very New York stilettos and teased up-do amidst a tide of green-and-yellow auto-rickshaws, hollering into a cellphone while a cow munched rubbish behind her.
This quixotic quality, and the crowds, have put the festival onto the international map in a new way this year. "There is a sense it is now much more important to the industry," Dasgupta said. "I was in London three weeks ago and I couldn't believe the number of people who said, 'See you in Jaipur!' "
Little wonder: India's non-academic English book market is growing at about 18 per cent a year, compared to 2 per cent in North America. Publishers are piling in to Delhi to open offices or set up operations, and at Jaipur, they smell money.
"It's not a rights fair but deals are happening," said Diya Kar Hazra, rights director for Penguin India. "You hear more and more people arranging to meet offsite and talk about deals."
Dasgupta chalked the interest in the India market up to the fact that that the world is hungry for stories of India - "a sense that the centre of the world is shifting" - and this was a constant theme in conversations over the weekend.
"This is the place where we see the English language being reinvented and rejuvenated in the most fascinating ways," Diaz said after a reading. Yet at the same time, he added, "It keeps being brought up to me again and again that the most innovative writing being done here is in local languages, and our understanding of what Indian writing is, is fundamentally distorted."
Diaz appeared slightly dazed by the size of the crowds and the waves of cheery affection being showered on him at his readings.
"I couldn't imagine anything weirder to the Indian reality than Dominican fiction, but …" he told a packed hall. "White people were looking for you when they found us, so we have something in common."
Diaz was asked about the recent decision to edit "the N-word" out of a new edition of Huckleberry Finn,which sparked one of his trademark profane and witty rants. In the audience, two demure women in elegant silk saris bent their heads together and conferred in whispers. "The N-word? Which word is he meaning? Do you think it's Negro?"
Dasgupta savoured that sort of moment. "It's great to talk about all the things India is bringing the world but India is very impoverished in terms of a certain kind of conversation - like those of Junot Diaz … We don't have conversations about … inequalities so it's great to have someone come out and talk about race and class and privilege."
The Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk ( Snow) treated the crowd at his reading to an icy lecture on the struggles of those who do not write in English to achieve the same legitimacy and audience as those who do. Also on the bill Sunday was another Nobel winner, J. M. Coetzee (Disgrace), Martin Amis, (The Pregnant Widow), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ( Half of a Yellow Sun)¸ Henning Mankell (The Man from Beijing) and Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City) and more than 30 South Asian writers.
In addition to the English-language program, the festival has events in Hindi, Urdu, Sanskrit, Tamil, Bangla, Assamiya, Oriya, Gujarati, Malayalam, Kashmiri, Punjabi, Nepali, Bhojpuri and Rajasthani.
India's publishing industry, headquartered in Delhi, decamps to Jaipur for the five days of the festival each year, and Bollywood sends a large contingent, too. The audience is a mix of foreign tourists, earnest Indian bibliophiles, and chic subcontinental culturati. The festival also draws charming hordes of school children in blazers and well-pressed pants, the girls with shiny braids - who sit rapt at the feet of the writers and stand shyly to ask complicated questions about the evolution of democratic thought in India- or, of Desai, "What did your mother say when you won?"
The festival functions on sponsorship - its chief backer is the Indian infrastructure conglomerate DSC - and pulls off a budgeting feat that leaves authors happily puzzled, by paying for flights, accommodation, and an endless tide of food and drink, all while remaining defiantly free. "It's astounding," said Thapan, "especially at a time when the book industry everywhere else is besieged."