Saturday, February 6, 2010

Jaipur Literature festival - Changing face of India

The recently concluded literature festival in Jaipur ( has literally garnered the attention of the world press. Time magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The Economist all had articles on the festival. I was really struck by that level of attention. A vibrant and accessible intellectual tradition is essential to the progress of a nation.

The Jaipur literature festival is a welcome change that has really impressed me by its content and not merely by the symbolism. Seeing the depth of world coverage I went to their website and was simply taken aback by the professionalism and sweep.

The topics and literary persona were truly eclectic presenting a wide array of ideology that I normally would not credit India with. Some names like Wole Soyinka, Mahasweta Devi, Girish Karnad, William Dalrymple are instantly recognizable. Names like Henry Louis Gates Jr, eminent Afro-American scholar from Harvard, Niall Ferguson, Harvard Historian, Claire Tomalin, author of well received book on Samuel Pepys (ah how many would even know of Samuel Pepys in the first place), Kai Bird, author of Pulitzer awarded biography of Oppenheimer, etc are all known only to a discerning reader.

Given that the setting was India and knowing something of Indian intelligentsia I feared the left wing slant and very impressively I was proved wrong.

Featuring authors like Steve Coll, author of 'Ghost wars' book on CIA & Afghanistan, Lawrence Wright, Pulitzer awarded author of 'The looming tower', Tunku Varadarajan, right wing economist and columnist from NYU Stern business school, Anne Applebaum, author of Pulitzer awarded "The Gulag" a book on the Gulags of Soviet Russia, etc is quite a variety of non-traditional opinion makers not seen in India usually.

The prize for surprise and guts goes to featuring Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a muslim herself, formerly resident of Netherlands and of Somali origin, caused a religious maelstrom in Netherlands with her writings on Islam. Ayaan HIrsi Ali wrote the screen play for Dutch director Theo Van Gogh, movie "Submission" , a movie very critical of Islam. Theo Van Gogh was murdered by a religious fanatic causing an uproar in Netherlands. Ayaan Hirsi Ali's later wrote a highly critical book on Islam, 'Infidel'. THe book was panned by critics but the author was praised for her courage. I am truly surprised that her appearance in India went without a blip. Note that even today "Satanic Verses" remains banned in India.

The article in Economist drew attention to the special section on Dalits and presenting works by Dalit writers. "Room was also made for a group of writers who are little known, even in India: Dalits, formerly known as “untouchables” at the bottom of Hinduism’s caste system. Omprakash Valmiki, whose Hindi autobiography, “Joothan: A Dalit’s Life”, has been translated into English, read poems about the routine wretchedness of the lives of poor Indians".

The best part of Economist's article was this "No special rooms are set aside for VIPs, so the famous mingle with the crowd. And unlike other big book festivals, Jaipur, which relies on a growing list of corporate sponsors to fund it, charges no entrance fee. The most enthusiastic participants are hordes of neatly dressed Indian schoolchildren who sit listening intently as writers finish their readings, before surrounding them to beg for autographs."

A word on the sponsors ( When I wondered about authors like Niall Ferguson, Tunku Varadarajan, Lawrence Wright etc looking at the sponsors list gave an inkling. Merrill Lynch, Reuters, American Center, Shell, Goldman Sachs (that most hated American firm by left wingers). One wonders whether the business friendly, centrist, some even right wing, authors owe their presence to these organisations. Credit to the organisers AND sponsors is that intellectual integrity was not sacrificed to promote ideology. Every featured author had his/her merit.