Its over for another year. Hard to come away and leave it all being dismantled, this year a day early, due to the heavy rain that fell in the night.Some of the venues became unusable, and had the organisers scrambling to arrange new ones on the site at the last minute.
For those who come to this for the first time, the Festival has been going since 2006. A handful of eager writers came together then and read their works at a place called Diggi Palace in the city of Jaipur. This, the 7th Festival, saw over 200,000 people go through its gates with 75,000 on Sunday the 19th of January. For India perhaps, when you think of other Festivals like the Kumb Mela these numbers may not appear that large, but for me this is the one overreaching fact that makes the Jaipur Literature Festival so special together with the basic premise on which it was founded, which is that it is free for all.
Unlike elsewhere in this caste and class ridden society everything works on a first come first serve basis and no one can have reserved seats, or a bigger say. My friend Catherine put her finger to her lips and sushed two chatting ladies, sitting behind us, two Bollywood actresses who had come to the show. School children pour in, young people ask questions, thought provoking and complicated, the authors interact wonderfully on seemingly little rehearsal, (they are perhaps well versed in this kind of exchange) and the sessions are always on time, mesmerising and inspirational. This year I will not talk about the various sessions in great detail. My world has shifted and perhaps some of my readership so I will share with you some of the highlights.There was so much more ... I sat behind this beautiful back which I thought was worth capturing on camera and then saw her exquisite face. Just one in the crowd.
Amartya Sen, renowned professor of Economics and Philosophy came with a simple but engaging dialogue with a goddess in which he put forward his seven wishes for his country India. Things which we all wish for perhaps, but which are affirmed by someone like him. That the media is more responsive to the needs of the poor. That children have access to education and basic sanitation, including health care and clean water. That women are safe and equal in India, that the Courts are progressive and not regressive. There has been a reversal of a court case making homosexuality a criminal offence. That social media play a part in this and that we must as a consequence of these needs all read more books.
Amartya Sen on a cold morning at Diggi Palace.
Jonathan Frantzen contemporary American Author of the "Corrections" and "Freedom" has a bit of a horror of festivals preferring solitude and dark cold places. He grew up reading lots of books and was never alone for all the characters who embraced him.
Gloria Steinem who at 79 looked great, reached out to her Indian audience and asked them to be activists for their issues, behaving as if everything does matter, no matter how big or small the action.
Justin Cartwright and Peter Godwin on the fate of their countries, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
Jhumpa Lahiri, telling us how she was constantly aware of her parent's sense of loss of Calcutta, growing up in America, which may have been the corner stone for her writing her stories like "The Namesake" and "Lowlands" about Bengalis and people of Indian origin.
The exuberant Reza Aslan on what we actually know about Jesus. "Zealot, the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth" The equally captivating, if disturbing account by Adrian Levy of the Mumbai siege, in his meticulously researched book "The Siege" and what the secret services get up to and even more disturbingly that they knew of the planning of the Mumbai attack and had passed the information on to the Indians.
The astoundingly young but very accomplished Historian Maya Jasanoff talking about her book "Liberty's exiles". The loyalists to the British empire that needed to find safe havens in the British empire after the American war of Independence.
Historians such as Anthony Beevor on war literature. He is the author of "Stalingrad", "Berlin" and the "Second World War" and David Cannadine (above) talking about the how the British Empire was run on a shoe string budget. Mary Beard on the Romans, Greeks and the Classics. The people's favourite Pavan Varma, diplomat now turned politician, on whether there is an Indian way of thinking. The panel of speakers decided there wasn't but we thought there was !
Robyn Davidson who is based in Melbourne, talking about the Himalayas. Cheryl Strayed about her books "Wild" and "the Beautiful Things". Isabella Tree on the "Living Goddesses" of Nepal.
A. N. Wilson whose latest biography is a "Potters Hand", a historical fiction about Josiah Wedgewood but who also wrote "Dante in Love" and "Tolstoy".I think my favourite though was Richard Holmes, a biographer of some renown whose recent book "Age of Wonder" is about what the Victorians achieved in their times, using science and skills to enhance their understanding of the world. In a session to packed audience on the last day he recited the "Ancient Mariner" to us, telling us that Coleridge had written this seminal poem at the age of 25.His voice was captivating, the poetry rhythmical and ordered and we were all transported off on that voyage which ended so disastrously.
As if all this and more was not enough to tickle our senses the nights were filed with music from sensational bands like the Sca Vengers, the Grammy award winning Malian band Tinariwen and the Rajasthani folk band, Jaipur Kawa Brass Band, together with Midival Punditz.
My return to India was filled with the joy of seeing familiar faces, friends from Delhi, my erstwhile neighbours the Dalrymples, our old rickshaw driver who I had written about in Culturama magazine and the many characters we met over delicious lunches, standing or sitting next to us, all enjoying the offerings of what is probably the biggest literary show on earth.