Global Writers, Thinkers Commune At Indian Palace

The musician Paban Das Baul performs at the Jaipur Literature Festival in India. (Custom)

The musician Paban Das Baul performs at the Jaipur Literature Festival in India. Mandy Cunningham for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Mandy Cunningham for NPR

Those who fear the world is being dumbed down can take heart from the scenes playing out in India over the past several days.

Thousands of people converged on a palace in the city of Jaipur, in the desert state of Rajasthan, from Thursday to Monday for an event that is rapidly gaining a reputation as one of the most exotic gatherings of writers and thinkers in Asia, if not beyond.

A Far-Flung Festival For Many

The Jaipur Literature Festival, billed as "The Greatest Literary Show on Earth," attracted visitors from as far afield as Africa, Britain and the United States, as well as large numbers from across India.

For many, beating a path to the festival was a marathon — even by the standards of India, where multitudes routinely embark on grueling religious pilgrimages or political odysseys, trudging up hills to mountaintop temples or marching for miles, demanding social change.

Some of the festival's visitors wasted hours trapped in Indian airports, waiting for a break in the thick fog that engulfed northern parts of the country for about a week.

Others lost time on the main highway to Jaipur, weaving a painfully slow path through hundreds of heavy trucks carrying goods and camels hauling wooden carts, while dodging monkeys and the occasional platoon of small hairy pigs.

'Everyone Is Equal And Everything Is Free'

When The Jaipur Literature Festival began five years ago, only 16 people took part. By contrast, this year's lineup included one Nobel laureate, two Booker Prize winners and a clutch of people with Pulitzers.

"People are very surprised by this," says the festival's co-director, William Dalrymple, an author and historian. "We have huge numbers of school kids turning up, through to grand literary figures, industrialists, unpublished poets from Bihar, Bengali political activists, South Delhi's aspiring novelists, ex-pats from New York and London. They are all here."

Alexander McCall Smith, Amit Chaudhuri, Claire Tomalin, the celebrated Hindi poet Gulzar, Louis De Bernieres, Roddy Doyle, Tina Brown and Pavan Varma are among the notable guests at this year's festival.

Watched by large audiences, they took part in five days of readings and discussions on issue as diverse as the future of Tibet and Afghanistan, the threat posed by English to India's indigenous languages and the impact of the Internet on book publishing.

Indian schoolgirls on the hunt for autographs at the Jaipur Literature Festival. i

Indian schoolgirls on the hunt for autographs at the Jaipur Literature Festival. Mandy Cunningham for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Mandy Cunningham for NPR
Indian schoolgirls on the hunt for autographs at the Jaipur Literature Festival.

Indian schoolgirls on the hunt for autographs at the Jaipur Literature Festival.

Mandy Cunningham for NPR

Dalrymple says no one received special treatment at the festival, no matter how great his or her fame. "We have a principle that there is no VIP enclosure," he says. "There are no red ropes. You mix with everyone. You eat on a first-come, first-served basis."

Dalrymple says there was a sensation last year when an usher cleared Julia Roberts out of an aisle, where she had been sitting on the floor, because he didn't recognize her. Vikram Seth, one of the India's best-selling novelists, was also spotted eating on the ground because all of the tables were full.

"People love it here," he says. "This is a very hierarchical country and to have one small space where everyone is equal and everything is free, is a wonderful thing."

Intellectual Ferment Welcome

Dalrymple's co-director, the writer and publisher Namita Gokhale, believes the festival's success is linked with the public's weariness with the dumbing-down of popular media.

"There are so many brilliant young, old and middle-aged people across India who are really tired of the trivialization of things," Gokhale says. "This festival proves that there are a lot of very, very bright Indians and other very bright people from around the world who want a relief from the banal stupidity that surrounds a lot of what they read in magazines or see on TV."

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