A celebration of books

The crowds thronging Diggi Palace for the 13th Jaipur Literature Festival belied the idea that literature is an exclusive preserve of the wealthy.

Published : Feb 24, 2020 07:00 IST

At the inaugural session of the Jaipur Literature Festival on January 23.

At the inaugural session of the Jaipur Literature Festival on January 23.

THE Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), as Congress MP Shashi Tharoor remarked in a press conference there, is not just a book festival: it celebrates both writers and their books. Literature festivals might seem to be just another consumerist spectacle, but they can foster a community. This event helps the community of readers and writers from across the country and across the world come together and talk to one another.

The 13th edition of the JLF at Diggi Palace saw a host of big names such as Simon Armitage, Perumal Murugan, Ann Cleves and K.R. Meera in attendance. Readers thronged to meet their heroes and to find new heroes and were variously surprised and disappointed.

In a session titled “Being Various: On Literary Diversity”, Sunny Singh, Roanna Gonsalves, Annie Zaidi and Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar talked with Urvashi Butalia about the difficulties of navigating diversity and its tenuous relation to power and inclusivity. In a multicultural world, literary diversity can showcase minority identities even as they are labelled as such alongside a literary mainstream of identity-less literature. But what should the minority stand for? Is the minority itself intellectually diverse or geographically slight?

This mode of self-reflexivity was evident throughout the festival, especially amongst the speakers who openly condemned the government for its policies and the audience who applauded them. Nandita Das urged people to raise their voices against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the proposed National Register of Citizens and said that Shaheen Baghs will come up everywhere.

Notwithstanding the anarchy that the speakers propounded, the JLF thrived inside a serene oasis of order and organisation, enabled by Teamwork Arts and its dedicated volunteers.

There was a category called “Friends of the Festival” where a number of the “friends” seemed to be diplomats and consular officials from embassies across India. Some of them were interested in getting their country represented at subsequent editions of the festival. An embassy official from Indonesia was disappointed at having missed the deadline for recommending Indonesian authors to the festival and said she would be better prepared next year. She was apprehensive as she had heard that the festival would not be held at Diggi Palace next year.


Amidst the din of American writers, when Jokha al-Harthi spoke about her novel Celestial Bodies , the first Arabic novel to have won the International Booker Prize, it was clear how important the motif of diversity has become even as we renegotiate multiple meanings of identity and culture.

The festival co-founder William Dalrymple described the festival as “democratic” and “egalitarian”, two words that are constitutionally close to the Indian ethos. Today, assailed by market liberalism and the ideology of Hindutva, there is a need to create a safe space for expression and free speech. At the JLF, that safe space was a cautious space. Pragya Tiwari introduced her fellow panellists who would discuss Swapan Dasgupta’s new book, Awakening Bharat Mata: The Political Beliefs of the Indian Right, by saying that cultural nationalism or right-wing ideology or Hindutva was often linked to the idea of India’s Hindu culture and accompanying social traditions.

Meanwhile, the JLF’s title sponsor has been Zee Entertainment Enterprises since 2014, and corporate sponsorship is not only about money. The festival’s actual name is ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival even though it continues to be known as JLF. In a rather weak effort to exorcise the spectre of money, Jaipur BookMark was held on the same days at a nearby venue where stakeholders such as publishers, literary agents, booksellers, writers and translators could come together, network and, probably, talk business.

It is up to the organisers to decide who they want to invite, but is it indeed the case that the representation of little-known writers or minorities is more important than ever before? As commercialisation grows rapidly, so do token nods to marginal voices. This year, there were sessions on women’s biographies and translations and writing from Kashmir. But the divide between theory and practice became clear when the security team removed a group of protesters chanting slogans against the CAA.

Sanjoy K. Roy, the festival producer, said that the “narrative of hate could be countered through art and literature”, but at the same time, Teamwork Arts and JLF jointly issued a statement that they wanted to ensure the safety of every guest and appealed to visitors not to squander an opportunity to imbibe the “vast spectrum of knowledge”.

The Guardian’ s review of the festival, in a rather biased but not any less condescending view, situated the JLF as an antidote for poor Indians in small towns who are “starved of culture and long for knowledge and ideas”. Contrast this with William Dalrymple’s claim that literary festivals are not a Western import but a part of the Indian guru-sishya tradition.

This time the literary ensemble was less sensational than usual, and one of the reasons could be that since the JLF has become an important opportunity for new authors to promote their books, only writers with books out in the previous year make an appearance. This theory accounts for JLF’s significance in the publishing ecosystem. While every person in the JLF will truthfully remark on how crowded and commercial it has become, people return for various reasons. However, writers tend to come when they have released a book in the previous year.

Contemporary literature is also forged through such events and gatherings. Some books such as Madhuri Vijay’s The Far Field , set in Kashmir, was unanimously praised in several sessions for its poetic style, thus increasing its visibility.

Contemporary literature presents this dilemma of chance. Unlike the classics, every reader takes a gamble on a book of contemporary literature to see whether it is any good. Marketing and beauty can sometimes make even an average author a bestselling author overnight. JLF mitigates that risk.

The other providential factor of contemporary literature is introduction. A book can change your life, and the JLF introduces you to a number ideas and books that may be just what you need in your life right now. Many women may have been so piqued by Benjamin Moser’s certainties and confidence that they looked up his biography on the American intellectual and writer Susan Sontag, Sontag: Her Life and Work .

In addition, the JLF is also a winner’s podium, and an acknowledgement in the eyes of the masses that you have made it as a writer. Annie Zaidi, who won The Nine Dots Prize last year for her essay on the question, “Is there still no place like home?”, is now getting a lot of acclaim and spoke at several sessions at the JLF. Her book based on that essay, called Bread, Cement, Cactus: A Memoir of Belonging and Dislocation , is expected to be out in May.


Along with authors, the biggest crowd-pullers this year were politicians and the political media. Shashi Tharoor spoke every day on panels in a self-indulgent fashion such as “Shashi on Shashi”, and sharp critiques from Ravish Kumar and Rajdeep Sardesai were openly cheered. Political poetry was performed in “Poetry Durbar”, which saw people mix the personal with the political. Jeet Thayil’s poem “Ghazal 2020” said it bluntly: “Women and students and poets, they are the enemy, come here dear, we will show you how to shake in India/ The economy is bust, jobs are gone, the poor are poorer, the question is, how much more can we take in India?”

The theatricality of poetry is not the same as entertainment, however. The mediascape offers a false perspective of privilege to literature because it assumes that if it is properly co-opted and stage-managed, literature can guide and edify because of its moral authority and explanatory power. Recent genres like priv-lit of which Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love is a forerunner and the numerous science and technology books that were spotlighted at the festival attest to this growing trend.

Marcus du Sutoy, mathematician and writer, delivered the keynote address with Shubha Mudgal on “The Arts, Sciences and Creativity” and talked about machine-generated creativity and his new book on artificial intelligence and creativity. Climate change was also a popular trope for discussion thanks to David Wallace Wells’ popular book The Uninhabitable Earth and Jairam Ramesh’s eloquence.

Literature is perhaps an old capitalist ploy. Instead of measuring everything in economic terms, there is a concerted effort to turn to stories and narratives for existential sanctuary and solace. In a dramatic talk that also saw the actor Dia Mirza cry, Samir Saran embraced this narrative when he said that if climate change became part of literature through stories, then these narratives could inspire us and declared that if our stories were green then our future would also be green and prosperous.

There were many sessions running parallel to one other. And, like entertainment, it was an ensemble of overstimulation, and visitors were compelled to make difficult choices such as listening to either Stephen Greenblatt or David Wallace-Wells or choosing between Simon Armitage and Asiya Zahoor.

This year’s JLF saw a large contingent of foreigners. Some of the stalls at the venue seemed to specially cater to them. The foreigners who descend on Jaipur for the festival certainly do not come for it alone. The success of the festival is entwined with a romanticised idea of India. The authors, who were put up in hotels such as Marriott, embarked on tours of Rajasthan and other States soon after their sessions. For these tourists, Indian and foreign alike, the festival is a stepping stone to Indian culture as it has been primed and resourced for consumption.

Perhaps it has always been true that literature can be enjoyed only if you have the time to relax and the money to afford that relaxation, but increasingly literature is not available to the socio-economically poor aesthete. The increasing commercialisation of the festival can only benefit the acquisitive tastes of the well-heeled.

It is, of course, true that there is no reader’s paradise in our society, and it is naive to expect that there will be no agenda, money or ideology. The patient reader therefore tries to contextualise this literary community through greater awareness and more reflection. Be that as it may, the most enchanting aspect of JLF is its joyous affirmation of the reader. Membership of the art world does not rely on participation alone; its community prospers on a transformation that comes from inhabiting that space, even if fleetingly. It is only through reading that the performance and the theatricality of the JLF can be meaningful.

Can literature offer us redemption, however? The re-emergence of Faiz Ahmed Faiz as a youth icon alone should point us to the redemption that art can offer politics. And in the weekend, the crowds poured into Diggi Palace, belying the idea that literature is an exclusive preserve of the wealthy or that it is dying a slow but sure death. Literature is not philosophy or ideology that can offer up a totality; rather, in being various, cracked, imperfect and yet hopeful, it suggests paths for walking.

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