Common touch brings literary stars to India fest

Indian author Chetan Bhagat talks to his fans and media at the Jaipur Literary Festival. (AFP)

From extremely humble beginnings, the Jaipur Literary Festival in India has grown in just five years into a major event that attracts star writers by resolutely refusing to treat them as such.

The inaugural festival in 2006 gathered 18 authors – all Indian residents – who drew a crowd of around 100 people, a fair number who "appeared to be tourists who had simply got lost," said the event's co-director, the writer William Dalrymple.

The 2010 event, currently under way in Jaipur in the western desert state of Rajasthan, boasts more than 200 writers and performers, including the Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, two Booker winners and five holders of the Pulitzer prize for literature.

More than 20,000 people were expected to have crammed into the packed venue of the Diggi Palace – a converted 19th century mansion in the centre of Jaipur – by the time the five-day gathering ends today.

The explosive growth of the festival – it now claims to be the largest and most prestigious of its kind in Asia – has been achieved despite offering invited authors no financial incentive nor pampering them in the manner to which many are accustomed.

"Some of the Americans can be quite demanding," Dalrymple said. "A good American author expects to be flown first class and bring an assistant, and we just say 'no, we don't do that'."

With no VIP "Green Room" to cosset star writers in the fashion of other literary festivals, such as Britain's Hay-on-Wye, the authors in Jaipur are expected to mingle, drink and dine with the crowds. "It's just boisterous. I love it," said Tina Brown, the former New Yorker and Vanity Fair editor and a regular on the international festival calendar. British writer Geoff Dyer, who gave readings from his latest novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, said Jaipur was unusual in providing a level playing field. "In a more hierarchically organised festival, I'd always feel I was at the bottom of the pile and missing out on something," he said. "Don't get me wrong, I like to rubberneck in the Green Room at Hay as much as the next person, but I like the way there's no Green Room here. It makes it a much more integrated experience."

Despite its exponential growth, the festival, which currently costs $550,000 (Dh2 million) to organise, has never made a profit – partly due to its free access policy, and it almost went under in 2008.

Its saviour was an unlikely literary sponsor in the form of the Indian construction company DSC, which covers one third of the cost.

While big-ticket, prize-winning authors have played a major part in raising the profile, the organisers have remained loyal to their mission of promoting relatively undiscovered, non-English-language Indian writers.

"For me this festival has to represent the plurality and diversity of India," said co-director Namita Gokhale.

"There was resistance. People couldn't understand that uncelebrated writers from an Indian language could hold their own against the so-called stars," she said.

The 2010 event has focused on writers from India's "untouchable" Dalit caste, who often command large sales but remain largely unknown – not only internationally, but also in mainstream Indian literary circles, which are dominated by upper middle-class elite.

For Ajay Navaria, a Dalit who writes in Hindi, the Jaipur festival provides a forum he is denied in the Hindi literary community which he describes as generally "caste-based, insular and feudal".


Mccall Smith talks africa

Alexander McCall Smith has sometimes been criticised for portraying an unreal Africa, but the creator of a series of detective novels set in Botswana believes writers are unfairly condemned for their craft.

In Smith's No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, there is little corruption, disease or dictatorship, but it was not his intention to be deliberately upbeat.

"I didn't sit down planning to write a sunny, bright book about Africa," he said at the Jaipur Literature Festival.

"Sub-Saharan Africa has a lot of problems, but it is not universally bleak and I wanted to show the inherent goodness in Botswana, which is a very well run country, with very little corruption and a wonderful people," said Smith, who taught medical law for many years in Edinburgh.

"Some people say it's the role of a fiction writer to show the reality. But they don't say that about the other arts: they don't ask, why are you painting cheerful flowers when there are so many problems in the world?"

Smith, who was born in Zimbabwe and worked briefly in Botswana, turned seriously to writing after winning a competition with a children's book.

He has written more than 30 books for children since then.

But it was his detective series that catapulted him to fame, although it was first published by a small Scottish publisher.

 

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