Jaipur seems bigger and more anonymous every time I return. The Jaipur Literature Festival, too, is growing by the year, with over 100 sessions spread over four venues and five days in the sprawling grounds of the Diggi Palace Hotel. But if crowd crush is an inconvenience at sessions with marquee authors such as Orhan Pamuk, Vikram Seth, Martin Amis, Kiran Desai and Junot Diaz – with tens of thousands swarming the fest on the weekend – the essence of such a gathering remains, to quote opening
speaker Karan Singh:
"Prose is written to be read
Poetry is written to be heard"
The passion for both forms is what ties the diverse Jaipur audiences together. Shabdabrahma awaits you, quoth Singh, and we were ready to be beguiled by the divine word.
An early highlight was Orhan Pamuk, expounding on the themes of cultural change in the context of Turkey. His accented, rather mechanical sounding English belied an acid, self-deprecating humour, and a very clear sense of his mission as an author. But the patience one would imagine necessary to recreating the milieu of medieval Ottoman miniaturists, as in 'My name is red', wasn't much in evidence come question time.
"I really like your—"
"Yes, yes. Next question!"
'Strangers in the Mist', a discussion on the Indian Northeast's gloomier prospects, triggered reflections on the pitfalls inherent in a state's dealings with ethnic communities. With 220 ethnic groups making up a population of 40 million – "an anthropologist's delight, and an administrator's nightmare" – according to panelist Sanjoy Hazarika, the Northeast is an example of how not to 'do' federal Nepal. The tragedy here is not only in the truth of massacres, rapes and disappearances, but also in the fact the young novelists like Assam's Aruni Kashyap can only write about violence, because they have "never known what it is like not to live under the shadow of a gun". The success of Indian democracy, he concluded, "is that it has managed to create apathy amongst urban populations towards the plight of those in rural areas."
JM Coetzee's reading was probably the most anticipated event of the festival. A spare, upright, white haired man of 70, he could not have seemed more different from last year's Nobel Laureate, Nigerian author Wole Soyinka. But for forty-five minutes, reading from 'Elizabeth Costello' in his precise, measured tones, the South African achieved the same effect on the Front Lawns of the festival venue. Layers upon layers, in unblinking, limpid prose: you could not ask for more of a novelist.
And what of philosophy, beloved and daunting? Following Coetzee's meditative reading, AC Grayling's 'secular sermon' sought to dispel the fear of seeking answers to 'what is' and 'what matters'. This quest, for Grayling, is a responsibility if we are to live better lives, and make use of the third of the 1000-odd months that are available to us for serious living, learning, and loving. Further, if we are to be able to have "the degree of latitude with which to seek the ethical", we need individual autonomy and freedom of expression. Authoritarians across the world well fear the Graylings of our age, because the sword has no chance against pens wielded with such passionate, articulate intelligence.
Whether to write in one's mother tongue or an 'imperial' one is a debate that has been going on for as long as postcolonial literatures have existed. Nigeria's Chinua Achebe and Kenya's Ngugi wa Thiong'o slugged it out decades ago, the latter ultimately forsaking English for his mother tongue, Gikuyu. Nigeria's Chimamanda Adichie, author of 'Half a yellow sun', faced the same question in Jaipur, as did authors in a later session on 'Imperial English'.
JM Coetzee, in typically sparing fashion, defined the dilemma facing those with 'dual lives'. The mother tongue is the private sphere; the imperial is the public sphere of school and work. Unsentimentally, Coetzee dismissed the idea that there was anything special about mother tongues: "You claim ownership of a language as you master it." A tonic for those who suffer the guilt of writing in a language defined as 'imperial' or at best, 'foreign'.
What then to make of Roberto Calasso, the Italian who has made Sanskrit his own? In a repeat performance of last year, Calasso held his audience in thrall as he spoke of how the Vedas describe the ascent of man. How the first seed of the mind appeared, how man transformed himself from prey to predator, how he begins to reflect on the self, and actualises meaning through rituals. For Calasso, 'the knowledge that transforms the knower' is a particularity of Vedic knowledge that has been lost to the moderns.
A generalised mental exhaustion was apparent on the fifth day. Four days of browsing some of the best minds of our time; four nights of dousing our own minds with alcohol. Still we soldiered on.
One of the few Chinese writers at Jaipur, Hong Ying, partnered with the ever-articulate Isabel Hilton for an illuminating session on our giant northern neighbour. Saviour or desecrator? "Everything you say about China is both true and untrue," said Hilton, noting that China knows its power, but also fears that there may not be enough space for it to pursue its developmental agendas. Therein the bluster, but also the foresight to recognise and plan for the environmental limits of the planet.
The build-up for the Nepali contingent, of course, was towards the session titled 'Nepal …in search of a song'. Despite an unfortunate clash with separate sessions starring Vikram Seth and Irvine Welsh, the decent-sized audience that turned out to see Manjushree Thapa, Narayan Wagle and Sujeev Shakya wasn't just Nepali. With Shakya moderating, Thapa and Wagle spoke of the difficult transition of the past two decades, which Thapa characterised as 'a struggle for the soul of the left'. Readings from both illustrated the role the insurgency has played in the cultural and political psyche of Nepal. Ultimately, it was Wagle who struck a balance between the 'ultra-optimism' of Shakya and the frustration expressed by Thapa. If the politics is sorted out, he suggested, "the people will take the process forward."
If all weeks were like Jaipur's last, we'd be a long way up the road.