THE BLOG
01/21/2015 05:16 pm ET Updated Mar 23, 2015

We're Talking Jaipur: Friendliest Literary Festival in the World

A few days ago, William Dalrymple, famed architect of the Zee Jaipur Literary Festival which opened today, posted the following status update with a few significant details:

"Over the next six days we will be deploying at Jaipur:
  • 240 speakers
  • Over 2,000 workers to ready the venue
  • Over 500 crew and volunteers
  • Authors & Musicians from nearly 60 countries representing 22 languages
  • well over 2 lakh footfalls of visitors at Diggi Palace over 5 days
  • a whole village has been imported to cook 15,000 plus hot meals for authors, press and delegates
  • 940 lights will be erected across all venues in the 14-acre site at Diggi Palace
  • 8 venues (6 at Diggi Palace, one each at Amer Fort, Hawa Mahal)
  • 1,800 rooms plus rooms booked at Jaipur hotels for visiting speakers
  • Over 2,30,000 sq ft of cloth used to decorate the Festival site
  • Over 1,80,000 decorative hangings will adorn the venue"

It sounds both outrageous and delightful. The fact that several hundreds of those who will be speaking at the festival mingle, and refresh themselves in between sessions in a very small courtyard equipped with one small room for resting, is part of the charm of the world's most popular literary festival.

I sat in that room - the room where Jhumpa Lahiri might go to speak to an interviewer, where Gloria Steinem might go to powder her nose, and where more than one author goes to lie down for a few minutes in between sessions, and where, surely, V. S. Naipaul and Paul Theroux will exchange a few private words this year - and speak with William Dalrymple. As we conversed, a young man walked in and asked why Dalrymple wants to live in India. "Only Indians ask me that," Dalrymple quipped, harkening back to the idea that none of us appreciate our own homelands, whose many graces are shrouded by the black curtain of our familiarity. Perhaps it is the more hopeful and forgiving eye of the foreigner that has helped Dalrymple to conceive of a festival like this. There is a palpable energy and excitement at this particular celebration of literature that unfolds among and within the palaces of Rajasthan's capital city, bolstered by the fluidity of the masses of volunteers who supply everything from a ballpoint pen to a train to the Taj Mahal without ruffle, an equanimity only matched by the even bigger masses flowing through the festival grounds. Between the blur of moderating and speaking on several panels, Dalrymple paused to discuss the thinking behind the creation of what is now the largest entirely free literary festival in the world. 

RF: What motivated you to conceive of a festival of this magnitude? 

WD: It has been a huge pleasure to curate this festival. I have taken so much from this country which has provided the soundtrack to all my books, and which will have been my home for thirty-one years on the 28th of January this year, that I wanted to give something back. The festival's original roots were in the Vriasat Heritage Festival which was handled by designers John and Faith Singh, who turned their own interest in music to creating a festival at which they could showcase the musicians they had discovered. I had just come back from touring with my book, Begums, Thugs, and White Moghuls (Eland Books, 2002), and attending the PEN World Voices festival, Sydney Writers' Festival, and so on, but I realized that Indians had little access to Indian writers like Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie and so forth. 

RF: What did you envision when you first conceived of the idea of orchestrating an entirely free festival in Rajasthan?  Did you ever imagine that the 18 writers would grow to over 200, and the guests from 100 to over 220,000?

WD: Frankly, no. When Faith Singh and I had talked about this festival, our plans were very modest. Maybe three to four authors a year. We teamed up with Namita Gokhale, who had run a festival before called Nimirana, who knew Indian writers and we decided to split the work; Namita would handle the Indian authors, and I would reach out for the international writers. Eight years ago, in 2006, we had eighteen writers, including Hari Kunzru, and we had about a hundred people show up, some of them by accident. The following year Salman Rushdie agreed to come and our numbers doubled. Now we have more than a quarter-million people and more than two hundred writers. 

RF: What are the logistics of coordinating a festival of this magnitude and relvance? 

WD: Sanjoy Roy, produces the festival with Teamwork Arts who handle all the details including transport and the care of writers and participants. We, Namita and I, aren't paid for doing this and there is a sense therefore that this is a festival organized by a bunch of friends. The Edinburgh Festival, for instance, has six paid staff and those are actual jobs. We have two writers figuring out whom to invite and how to put sessions together, dividing up the space and time but also being comfortable about crossing over into each others territories; Nimita did some Scandinavian noir writers this year, I did some on Asian art. We make the writers work hard when they come - they each do three- to four-hour long sessions -  and there are always bureaucratic snags that necessitate re-imagining things on the go, but that is also what keeps things feeling fresh and spontaneous and exciting both for us and the people who are here. 

RF: Your own writing grapples constantly with the never-done task of translation - of cultures (City of Djinns), of periods of time (White Mughals), or historical personalities (Shah Shuja in Return of a King). To what extend does this very personal and clearly life-long commitment to that work inform the way you envision the place of this particular festival on the global literary stage?

WD: I don't see my work as a work of translation, but I realize that it could be considered that way. The original tagline to the festival was bringing Jaipur to the world and the world to Jaipur. It's a very clear collaboration that we have between Namita and I, where sixty of the two-hundred authors are foreign (though they get much of the coverage in the media), and Namita's list is much larger. We have always wanted the festival to be rooted in the soil, but with an international flavor so it works to collaborate in this fashion. It is not hard to lure writers over here in January when their own countries (North America and Canada, for instance), are covered in snow. It enables us to punch above our weight. People who never go anywhere - Franzen, Coetze, Lahiri, Pamuk, Kincaid - will come here. India has the benefit of being associated (sometimes mistakenly) with being the bedrock of transcendence, beauty, and non-violence, and these things are appealing to people. For our part, I feel like we set India alight with this festival, where the writers who come here return to their countries to speak of the people they have met. We also get major coverage with the NYT and the BBC sometimes because of controversy - the Rushdie one from (two years ago), for instance - but usually because of the quality of our writers and the fact that it is free. 

RF: The festival is "free" of charge in every sense of the word, uncensored, inclusive, large-hearted in its embrace of good literature from all corners of the globe, something that brushes up against national and/or cultural policies that some could see as being restrictive. Do you think that the festival plays a role in changing the thinking behind those policies? 

WD: India is a free and open country, but the same things that make it great for a festival also make things difficult sometimes. Rajasthan is a conservative area of this country that has retained the architecture of a different world both physically and psychologically, which makes things tricky sometimes. We are supporters of press freedom, but (two years ago) there was a misinterpretation of a comment by Ashis Nandy that was taken out of context and caused a furor. Another time we had pressure not to invite writers from Pakistan. In an enclosed venue, contained and open to all, we are very vulnerable. We are unlikely to change Jaipur, or Rajasthan, but we do change the minds of young people. There are kids who sleep at the railway station because they can't afford accommodations, in order to attend the festival. I attended a bleak public school in Yorkshire where the new Head Master launched a series called "Head Masters Lectures." He brought in people like George Steiner in 1983. My life was transformed by that. We do that with nearly half a million people each year. They get to come and listen to thinkers and writers from across India and the world. You have to know that is transformative. 

***

As we wind down our conversation, there is a telephone call from someone who is having difficulty finding her way to the festival. There is some fatigue evident on Dalrymple's features as he repeats instructions and finally gets off the phone. I remark upon his unflappability. "You don't survive thirty years in India by flaring up in the face of frustration," he says, gathering his papers. Clearly, you don't get to direct a festival of this magnitude and success without having lived for more than three decades in the host country, long enough to understand what merits ire and what does not, either.