Posted by: John Elliott | January 24, 2010

Books and crowds in sunny Jaipur

If anyone doubts the future of books in the age of dumbing down television and internet with its social media, see what has been happening in India at Jaipur Literary Festival which started on Thursday. Some 15,000 people had by last night checked in during the first three days of the five-day festival, which is in its fifth year and is both Asia’s biggest such event and the biggest free lit fest worldwide.  

The 15,000 inevitably included some of Delhi’s social set who can’t let such an event pass without being seen, but it was dominated by crowds, young (including swarms of schoolchildren) and old, all anxious to hear over 200 speakers – including India’s great novelists and poets, as well as big names from abroad.  

As Namita Gokhale, one of the festival’s two co-directors told Phil Reeves of America’s National Public Radio, “This shows that we are not just argumentative Indians but that people want a relief from the banal stupidity that surrounds what they read in newspapers and see in tv”.  

Diggi Palace's Durbar Hall

This was originally conceived as an Indian festival celebrating local language as well as Indian English writing, but it now also brings in leading international figures – there is a Nobel laureate and Booker and Pulitzer prize winners among the famous names that include Wole Soyinka, Roberto Calasso, Hanif Kureishi, Niall Ferguson, Roddy Doyle, Anne Enright, Tina Brown (who has had a reporting team writing for her Daily Beast website and is in the big pic below), Claire Tomalin, and Michael Frayn.  

Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian Nobel laureate, charmed and captured his audience reading and talking about “The Road”, his novel that seeks some spiritual meaning to life. He’s also a political activist and bemoaned the growth of religious-based terrorism. “It’s no longer a question of ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ but ‘I’m right, you’re dead’ “, he said, adding jokingly, and to loud applause, that all such religious terrorists should be put into a missile. “Fire them into space and leave us sinners behind”.  

Niall Ferguson, the historian, annoyed many people with blunt Bush-like rebuttal of “Freedom for Sale”, a book on the counterpoints of wealth and democracy by John Kampfner, former editor of the UK’s now-ailing “New Statesman” weekly magazine, but then fascinated a later session talking (above in the Durbar Hall) about the recent financial crisis which is the subject of his best-selling “The Ascent of Money” book.  

The festival organisers have been promoting the work of Dalit (scheduled caste) writers whose powerful literary work reflects their frustrations, pain and anger. Kancha Iliaiah, told how his latest book, “Post Hindu India”, argues that Hinduism is a declining religion because “spiritual fascism is its core value”, based on the inequality and “barbaric treatment” of the caste system. Complementing this was a passionate discussion on Naxalite Maoist rebels and the appalling way that Indian authorities treat the rural poor.  


I’ve found myself drawn to a series of sessions linked with royalty and dynasty in Bhutan, India and Britain, including Queen Victoria’s fascination for two very different Indian men and the supposed love (sex?) life of Jawaharlal Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten, wife of India’s first post-independence viceroy. I sadly missed a session on erotica which would have rounded the theme off nicely.  More on all of that in a later post.  

Now this amazing festival, which has become world famous in such a short time, is getting almost too large with twice the number of people turning up than can be seated for the three-parallel sessions that run through the day. In the evening, there’s magnificent Indian and fusion music.  


The co-directors are the irrepressible Willie Dalrymple, who’s made Delhi his book-writing home and has just written “Nine Lives”,  and Namita Gokhale, a well known Indian author and publisher (with Penguin) of books translated into Indian languages. Her brilliantly illustrated (and written) “The Puffin Mahabharata” was published a few months ago, explaining the twists and turns of this ancient epic in flowing style. 

There’s a continual twelve-month international ‘v’ local tug of war between them on who should go into the programme (and be flown expensively from abroad) – but it’s constructive tension that ultimately leads to a crowd-pulling balance.


This famous old pink Moghul city, the capital of the Indian desert state of Rajasthan, is a good place for such an event, combining the magic of India’s history and all the fun – and chaos – of a modem Indian city as well. The events take place at the Diggi Palace hotel, a charmingly faded pile built in the 1860s as a grand town house or haveli for a rural Rajasthan ruler. The city is full of these old havelis – I’m writing this sitting in my roof top room (right) of the Alsisar, a mini palace on the edge of the old city.

The organisers have learned a tough lesson – if you run a festival in a country which is a terrorism target and has thick fog in winter, prepare for the worst. More than a dozen speakers were held up abroad, and at least two didn’t make it, because of problems obtaining Indian visas, which are becoming more difficult as anti-terrorism measures are put in place. Then, on the day before the opening, about 100 people, both speakers and delegates, were stranded at Delhi airport for several hours, unable to take off the 250kms flight to Jaipur.

As darkness fell and flights stopped, two of the key first-day speakers were still stuck there – Her Majesty Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, the queen mother of the remote Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, who was due to speak at 2.30pm today, and Girish Karnad, a famous Indian playwright, film-maker and actor, who was due to deliver the opening address on Entertaining India.


But, while the organisers agonised and worked their mobile phones to organise beds in Delhi (the chaotic careering-truck-ridden Delhi-Jaipur highway is not safe at night), there was a celebration at the nearby Narain Niwas Palace hotel, another rather grand old home of another rural raja.

Fiona Caulfield, an Australian who had a successful career in America as a branding and futurist consultant till she moved to India about six years ago, was launching “Love Jaipur”, the latest in her series of “Love Travel Guides”.

No, these aren’t guides to old maharajas’ harems, nor more modern versions of the same, but what Caulfied describes as “passionately curated guides for the discerning luxury vagabond”, covering everything from the best restaurants to street food hideouts and a host of places to “shop, be pampered, get fit, and explore”. Jaipur follows similar handloom cloth covered guides on Bangalore, Mumbai and Delhi – she’s sold over 12,000 books so far.

Yesterday Tony Wheeler, founder of the iconic Lonely Planet guides, told us how he first visited India in 1972 on the hippie trail and how that led to his ubiquitous series of guidebooks. He sold out a few years ago to BBC Worldwide and he explained how that had sharpened the debate over whether the BBC was going too far beyond its public broadcasting remit – something that is highly topical in the UK today.


A final thought from Javed Akhtar (right), a famous Indian poet, that came during a discussion (pic of open air stage above) on the future of books in the world of the internet and on Kindle computers. Navtej Sarna, a novelist (and Indian diplomat) had noted that in John Masters’ famous novel, “The Night Runners of Bengal”, news was spread by the runners who “spread the message of the mutiny by carrying chappatis from village to village”. Now such news would travel in a second on the internet.

Akhtar looked ahead to a time when “knowledge and books will be injected into your brain electronically”, with no need for computers or mobile phones. He thought that was probably a long way in the future – but people talking later wondered if it really was that far off.

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  1. Jaipur also very popular as the Pink City, is the capital of the state Rajasthan. Jaipur was the capital of the princely state of Jaipur During the British rule. From last few years Jaipur has become a developed centre for education. There are few good Engineering Colleges in jaipur, Rajasthan. There are also some old and good Medical Colleges in Jaipur city.

  2. It was my second year at the festival – greatest show on earth – as it is now called. Its the place to discover new writers and poets, meet “festival friends” from last year and make new ones.

  3. Thanks to your lovely description John I felt I was present. Best, William

  4. really good to hear such stuff !

    yes, there’s still (a lot of) time before books may become redundant as mediums of communication, documentation, education, et al..
    mean-while, it’s good to see that books’re still celebrated with such fervour 🙂

  5. News of the 1857 mutiny was spread by runners who carried chappatis and lotus flowers as a sort of symbol to rally people from towns and villages they went to. Kind of like how Scottish highland chieftains would send around a burning cross (the crosstarrie) to rally their clan for war.

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