Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Elephants at the gate - the Jaipur Literary Festival

I came back two weeks ago from India and the Jaipur Literary Festival, and have survived until now on the protracted glow of those eleven days.

I loved the country, the festival, the crowds. Loved seeing new people, meeting old friends.The festival itself is the most incredible experience: noisy, overcrowded, like a medieval city, people seemed to come to eat, drink, buy books, check one another out, listen to music, and often, without the inhibition of tickets or gates, surged from one canopied venue to another, one author to another – cramming in to hear Richard Dawkins here, or Ben Okri there, standing where they could, obscuring the exits, spilling out onto the lawns and cool passages of the shabbily elegant Diggi Palace. 

With an event of this size there were hiccups, of course, but not as many as you would imagine: writers cancelling, times changing. And controversy: Salman Rushdie was rumoured to be appearing and then did not, a squib that fizzled damply but dangerously, armed guards at the gate. Some younger writers, including my friend Jeet Thayil (Narcopolis, just out - find a copy), angered at Rushdie’s exclusion read from the banned Satanic Verses and were expelled from the event – and from the city. Oprah Winfrey appeared, stopped traffic and started a bit of a debate about the popularization of the festival.

The word I heard most often used to describe this event was democratic. But like India itself, the Jaipur festival might be democratic (India is the largest democracy in the world) but there is hierarchy everywhere. It’s a genuine paradox. The festival is free, and open to all. But there are layers upon layer of visitors. Some visitors register as delegates. Some register and pay a modest daily fee, these paid delegates having entry to a gated garden within the garden, where food is served and you can mingle with friends and authors (sometimes the same thing), and might be invited to an after-hours party, or two.

Four days of events, four days crammed with stimulation, noise, colour. There were clear, cool blue skies by day (a bit like Dumfries in high summer), and in the evening I found myself shivering by the battlements of some beautiful castle or palace. On the closing night, the party surpassed all others, and I found myself wondering - how do they pay for all this? The Amber Fort at dusk, with its sunken gardens with little rivulets running through, elephants at the gate as we arrived, camels, monkeys. Music. And some distinguished literary figures silhouetted in overcoats and caps against a starry desert sky, gently swaying to the beat of some strange Eastern fusion. I almost fell into an ornamental pond. The glamour of it all…

Ah, coming back to Edinburgh was not easy – so I detoured to Bombay for a few days, finding a different kind of stimulus there. There are poets in Bombay too – plenty of them. I travelled to India, spending a few days in Delhi before Jaipur and onto Bombay after the festival, with my friend the novelist, screenwriter, filmmaker Farrukh Dhondy. He is a Bombay native. How wonderful to spend a little time in someone else's world. How wonderful Bombay is. What a beautiful, resilient city. What a beautiful, resilient country...