Sights And Sounds Of The Upcoming Jaipur Literature Festival

07/12/2014 2:39 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST
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[UNVERIFIED CONTENT] Old books in a church in Stockholm.

A decade ago in 2004, two weeks after I moved my family to a new life in India, I gave a reading at a small palace on the edge of the 'Pink City' of Jaipur. Fourteen people turned up, of whom 10 were Japanese tourists who had got lost. The next year, I helped organise a modest literary programme of 18 authors. Two failed to show up, but with the aid of my co-director Namita Gokhale, we gathered a respectable audience of nearly one hundred. Eight years later, however, by some strange yogic sleight of hand, the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival has shape-shifted into the largest free literature festival in the world.

The event is now a major operation, and my amazing colleagues at Teamwork Arts who produce the festival have to wrestle with staggering logistics: in the course of a week last January they cooked some 14,700 hot meals, booked 1,800 hotel nights for 240 participants, sold 10,000 books and hosted 75,000 people a day, adding up to around quarter of a million punters in all. And that's not counting the evening music programme which gathered similar-sized crowds.

Jaipur works partly because it is a properly festive festival. The buildings are festooned with bunting, there are hundreds of thousands of enthusiasts milling around, including an abnormally large number of students and beautiful women, we let off fireworks at night and after 6.30pm, the writers have to shut up and give the stages over to music and dancing.

We do what we can to keep order, but we have absolutely no control over that which visitors always seem to like the most -- the energy and enthusiasm of our audiences: "It's settled," Time Out wrote last year. "The Jaipur Literature Festival is officially the Woodstock, Live 8 and Ibiza of world literature. The Frankfurt Book Fair and the Booker Prize Awards are like watching the Pope sleep compared to an ambience best described as James Joyce meets Monsoon Wedding... [the authors] were treated somewhere between Bono doing an air dive and Salman Khan [a Bollywood sex symbol] taking off his shirt at an autorickshaw driver's convention."

Another big asset is that we are situated in Jaipur, one of the world's most beautiful cities, and one that has a rich literary and cultural tradition of its own, plus it takes place during the most wonderfully benign late January climate. My heart always lifts as I leave fog-bound Delhi and head onto the Jaipur highway. Within a couple of hours or so you find yourself in sunlit mustard fields. A couple of hours more and you are amid camel-carts and Rajasthani turbans of bright primary colours. By the end of the journey you are driving past the bastions and terraces of Amber Fort and the outer walls of the city running vertically up the mountains. Then comes the lake palace of Jai Mahal, the pink city walls and the lines of havelis and the choice of some of the best hotels in India.

Because the festival is free, and relies on piecemeal sponsorship rather than ticket sales, we are always semi-broke: no one is paid a fee and we can't afford to fly even our grandest writers Business. But authors are never slow to take up a freebie, and a warm Jaipuri palace in January is an easy sell to scribblers huddling round their radiators in the frozen North: each year we get a Nobel Laureate (next year VS Naipaul, who will be celebrating fifty years of A House for Mr Biswas) -- a clutch of Pulitzer winners (including Kai Bird, Adam Johnson and Gilbert King) and most of the Booker shortlist (including this year Eleanor Catton, Sarah Waters, Will Self and Neal Mukherjee) -- all in addition to over two hundred Indian and South Asian writers who write in over thirty different languages.

We have two missions at Jaipur: to showcase Indian writing to the world and to bring the greatest writers in the world to India. Namita and I share programming for the Festival and what follows are the highlights of the 2015 international list. This year, several of my favourite international writers who I have been chasing for years have said yes and it looks like a particularly vintage year. Alberto Manguel one of the great literary thinkers and critics of our time and the author of A Short History of Reading will join us along with two of the most successful travel writers of all time - Paul Theroux (The Great Railway Bazaar) and Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love). Nicholas Nassim Taleb will talk about Black Swan Theory: how rare and unpredictable events have a deep and lasting impact on our lives, whilst Simon Singh, author of the bestsellers Fermat's Enigma, The Code Book, and Big Bang, will talk about The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets.

We have Kate Summerscale who will be coming to talk about her Samuel Johnson Prize-winning The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, a true story that inspired a generation of writers such as Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle, and all the hallmarks of the classic murder mystery - a body; a detective; a country house steeped in secrets. Historian Bettany Hughes will painstakingly piece together Socrates' life and using fresh evidence to look at the man who asked 'how should we live?' - a question as relevant now as it has ever been.

We also have an exceptional gaggle of biographers: Jung Chang, biographer of Mao and the Last Chinese Empress Cixi, Mark Gevisser biographer of Thabo Mbeki, and Lucy Hughes-Hallet, biographer of Cleopatra and Gabriele d'Annunzio, will be discussing techniques and literary obsessions with Anita Anand, biographer of Sophia Duleep Singh. Hisham Matar, Helon Habila, Kevin Powers and Kamila Shamsie will examine the haunting, ecstatic, often wrenching stories that emerge from the mess of war. Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette, The Buddha of Suburbia), Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love), Paul Theroux (The Mosquitto Coast, Half Moon Street) Sarah Waters (Tipping the Velvet), and Lauren Child (Charlie and Lola) who have all seen their novels or work turned into successful movies will discuss the alchemy of adaptation. Jung Chang, Ma Jian and Anchee Min, who all lived through the political upheavals of the Cultural Revolution and found their voice as writers in exile, will talk about surviving Mao's China.

We have sessions on how to write erotica, criticism, art history, historical novels and memoir; we'll take a new look at Lawrence of Arabia, Homer and Marie Antoinette; and we'll have sessions on tigers, lesbians, bumble bees, neanderthals, pirates, aesthetics, detectives and spooks - where we'll explore the world of the CIA and the wilderness of Mirrors that spies inhabit. Its going to be an utterly amazing few days.

Our full list of speakers is up at, and the dates this year are 21st-25th Jan. I look forward to welcoming you there.

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