Jaipur Literature Festival - then and now

#1 Jan 26th, 2013, 14:12
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Four years ago, in 2009, I was able to walk the couple kilometers between home and Diggi palace and until I was in front of the first fountain inside the walls of the palace, it was hard to make out there was anything actually happening. I spotted Mr Dalrymple inside the wing of the palace that is cordoned off as the 'media section' and after a quick request to the girl minding entrance of that section was able to walk inside, and get my copy of the 'White Mughals' autographed. I then stood around to watch some other celebrities and after a little while, left. As I was carrying the book in my hand, I left my camera behind and have no photos from that visit.

I next visited in 2011 and have a few photos from that visit. The festival had clearly grown significantly and all four venues inside the palace now had title sponsors. Still, the fountain area in the front (to its right is the music stage and to the left is the front lawns) was blisfully devoid of crowds - there was a quaintly painted ambassador car parked as an advert there.

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In the front lawns that time, was one of my favorite authors, a man I grew up reading and admiring - Ruskin Bond reading out from his book. He then took a question about 'Susanna's seven husbands' - his book that was turned into the bollywood film 'Saat Khoon Maaf'.

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Another discussion was about Af-Pak chaired by Dalrymple (seated second from the left). It was still nice though, one could get quite close to the main stage despite showing up halfway through a session.

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The music stage was a series of concerts held each evening and I didnt know about those till I ended up staying back for one of those. They were hugely enjoyable. There were pakistani qawwals, indian folk and fusion and some other eclectic music. All of it free!

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#2 Jan 26th, 2013, 14:29
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Cut to 2013- The fest kicked off on the 24th Jan with HH The Dalai Lama's visit. About a half kilometer before the venue, one way traffic restrictions were in place. I had to register online to avoid queing at the festival venue and the security system was like a regular festival - frisked twice by metal detectors.

Once inside, there was zero chance of getting close to the front lawns stage, or for that matter, any stage! The mood and mix of the discussions has changed a fair bit too. Here's Ruchir Sharma talking to Nandan Nilekani about 'breakout nations' - his latest book.

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Moving on, the lawns opposite the darbar hall resembled a regular picnic area or nothing dissimilar from what one sees during the IITF, Delhi. People stood chatting, sat around on dates, held hands, smoked in the open (ignoring a warning sign from the local police station chief about a two hundred rupee fine for smoking - maybe because it was in hindi ), even the ledge surrounding the fountain was taken over.

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In each session, half or well over half the people were there to see and to be seen rather than to hear. Most people come dressed to the nines, lady in the brown boots' yellow dress contrasts with the lama's maroon robes.

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Not everything's gone down - a session that i managed to get a seat at was about Indian Miniature paintings and was chaired by William Dalrymple. One of the speakers, Debra Diamond, shared an interesting perspective of how the technique with which you view a miniature makes a difference in your appreciation of that art form. Back in the medieval times when miniatures were produced for the court, a royal would hold a painting close to his person and horizontally, while kneeling down or sitting cross legged and that would make the painting glitter (due to the gold used). Unlike those times, today, the paintings are displayed flat on a wall and appear relatively inert. She had several examples (slides) to share her perspective on this while other panelists shared thoughts about development of different schools of painting and the materials used. Very worthwhile.

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Ironically this session was held at a venue called 'baithak' - a newly constructed wing that didn’t exist till 2011. The photo of the 'baithak' from two years ago is the one below ( beautifully decorated tent - photo taken between sessions).

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Commercialism has inched in, sometimes too much in your face. There was 'healthy frozen yogurt' and the edge of the grounds had stalls from 'old silver' and textorium (!!).

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Going back to near the front lawns, the crowds had swelled well beyond my comfort level (this is the fountain area that I spoke of that leads to the music stage - it was deserted till a few years ago). The music stage’s a paid event now and is held 6 kilometers away at a major Jaipur hotel. I left quickly.

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#3 Jan 27th, 2013, 22:40
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Once more

Despite the significant crowds I had run away from the day before, I fell prey to the allure of easy and free access to the Literature festival this morning. I thought of attending at least one session - where Dalrymple was going to introduce his newest book 'The Return of a King - the Battle for Afghanistan'. The book has been out since atleast december and I had noticed it in bookshops in Delhi.

There had been reports today of a near stampede like situation yesterday when Rahul Dravid (the retired Indian cricketer) had showed up. So, this morning, I wanted to be there ahead of time of my intended session - that was to start at 11:15 am India time.

When I reached the venue around half past ten, I was pleasantly surprised to find plenty of chairs not taken on the freshly washed, paved floor of the 'Charbagh' venue.

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I parked myself and tried to understand the points being made by the speakers talking about 'Buddha in literature'. Except that they didnt, quite.

The audience was much better prepared than the speakers in this particular session and when Kunzang Choden couldnt answer why the Buddha is depicted with long, flowing hair, someone in the audience was able to prompt that it was the Hellenic influences in the Gandhara school of Art. She is very sweet and conceded that those of a scholarly disposition in the audience were much better prepared than her.

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Pakistani author Nadeem Aslam read beautifully from a book (he has a great voice) and made a blooper going back and forth about the 'hauntin image of the starving buddha' being at the Lahore musesum and then later mentioning that it is at the Peshawar museum. (google tells me it is at Lahore?)

Lastly, Chandrahas choudhury, a novice writer attributed the famous Jataka tale (the conversion of nanda) to a comic (!) I felt like screaming 'please visit Ajanta - Cave 1, but refrained.

After a short break, the star show started and well before Dalrymple was introduced by Jason Burke (who writes for the Observer and the Guardian), the seats were all gone! Burke himself is a very good and informed speaker and his introduction was excellent.

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During his research in 2006, Dalrymple reported that he " sat in a shrine on the outskirts of Kandhahar reading the diary of Sir Henry Rawlinson who spoke of the Russian Cossack warriors coming down the hills in the 1830s, the first ‘nugget of information’ that confirmed that Russia indeed had designs on Afghanistian; he heard a distant rumbling sound and looked up to see an American caravan of humvees driving down along the same trail the British would have followed over a century and a half ago. Suddenly an IED went off. "

I looked to my right and found the audience sitting in rapt attention, not a single chair was available any longer and it was standing room only.

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He went on to describe with great humor “ that when the British (egged on by hawks from London such as Sir Henry Rawlinson) went forth to capture Kabul in the early 1800s, they were so confident of their own success that they employed several camels to carry cigars and brandy (eighteen is what I heard) for the enjoyment of the officers. They even brought along with them foxhounds so they could hunt while they were not fighting. What they didn’t
carry with them was a reliable map.”

“ The force was led by Major General William Elphinstone, who had gout so severe that he couldn’t mount his horse. He was chosen to lead an army of over twenty one thousand from the plains of the Punjab through the Golan pass into Afghanistan”

When they nearly crossed the plains of the Punjab, they realized that they had no clue of where Kabul was and as a classic last minute plan, found a deserter from Napoleon’s army who was employed by Maharajah Ranjit Singh and had sketched parts of Afghanistan in his diary and bought that diary for a considerable sum of fifty thousand pound sterling.

(At this time, the audience was in splits)

"Their first attempt to reach Kabul was met with almost no resistance at all. After a battle at Ghazni the British were in a comfortable position in this unfamiliar land and reached Kabul via Quetta and Kandhahar”. They defeated Dost Muhammad Khan, the current emir and replaced him with Shuja Shah Durrani. (the man on bottom left is Dost Muhammad Khan)

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“British settled down in a tent city in Kabul, instead of the Bala Hissar fort, and were happily ensconced for a full three months in that place. There were talks of moving the summer capital form Simla to Kabul because the weather was nice and all sorts of fruit grew here - peaches, melons and pomegranates.

So easy was the victory of Kabul and so enjoyable the peace that the wives came down from London and brought with them their kitchen gardens including 'sweet-peas' and 'geraniums'. Throughout this period the british made no attempt whatsoever to build a fort, merely enclosing the tents with a wooden wall. This later became the British Cantonment.

The soldiers continued to indulge themselves including taking a fancy to the Afghan women of the day. “

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This disturbed the Afghans greatly but they didn’t strike back, not yet. All hell broke loose when Captain Sir Alexander Burnes, an early spymaster of the Great Game, better known as Bokhara Burnes for his exploration of Bukhara, seduced the mistress of one of the key afghan warlords - Abdullah Khan.

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He didn’t stop at that and, full of hubris, also beat up the servant of the warlord who was sent to bring back the woman back to Khan's household. Overnight the Afghans decided that enough is enough and that the British cannot be 'allowed to ride the donkey of their desire into the field of stupidity'. "

“With the first attack, the Afghans butchered Burnes, took control of the ammunition as well as food of the cantonment (it was stored in a smaller fort that lay outside the cantonment) and brought them to a situation of clear subjugation. Elphinstone, wisely, chose not to fight on and negotiated for safe passage with Akbar Khan (the son of Dost Muhammed Khan and the prince of the Barakzai dynasty). This force now numbering 16,500 started retreating towards Jalalabad – a six days’ march.

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In the kud-Kabul pass, so narrow that no more than three men may ride abreast, the Gilzai tribe who did not swear allegiance to the Barakzais were busy loading their old long guns. The tribesmen sat down at heights well above the reach of the new muskets of the british army which couldn’t shoot beyond three hundred yards (the old long guns took time to load but could shoot for half a mile). Once Elphinstone’s army walked in, they were all but butchered and the few wagons worth of food they were provided with on departure were looted.

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A handful of survivors fought valiantly over the Gandamak pass but were killed. The sole survivor to reach the garrison at Jalalabad was Dr William Brydon. This poignant portrait titled ‘Remnants of an Army’ by Elizabeth Butler shows us how. Dr Brydon was apparently saved by a popular magazine of his times that he had stuffed in his headgear – it was a hardbound copy, as was the fashion in those days.

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Dalrymple made his point that “There were eerie parallels between the modern day geopolitical situation of Afghanistan with the circumstances of the first Anglo-Afghan war” that he covers in this book.

Dalrymple mentioned that when he was done with the manuscript he received a phone call from Kabul that described that President Karzai is up till 3 am these days reading his book as he is “from the same tribe as was Shah Shuja, the puppet king the British chose to install then, and the tribe that chopped down the retreating British in the kurd-kabul pass are now the foot soldiers of the Taliban and this is keeping him from reading his notes for the upcoming visit to Washington”.

There was a standing ovation.
Last edited by vaibhav_arora; Jan 28th, 2013 at 12:33..
#4 Jan 27th, 2013, 23:40
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Wonderful detailed report Vaibhav! I have been reading reviews of Dalrymple's new book - I might try to get it from the library.

Whenever I see photos of him I can't help gawping at how wide his shoulders are

Is the festival finished now for this year?
#5 Jan 28th, 2013, 00:02
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The best exotic marigold hotel

The next session was at the Durbar Hall of the Diggi Palace. Diggi-Malpura lies not far from Jaipur and like many other principalities that swore allegiance to the relatively powerful state of Jaipur, the rajput chieftain of this tiny kingdom was also allowed to build his own palace at the capital.

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The Durbar hall is the most fitting reminder that one is indeed, sitting in a real palace amidst all this eclectic discussion that goes on. This photograph (taken in 2009) shows the chandeliers that light up the ochre walls. The kings of Diggi all stare down from their portraits at the audience while the walls are painted with floral motifs in red, blue and green.

There could not have been a more fitting venue for Deborah Moggach's reading of her acclaimed novel 'Those foolish things' that is better known to many of us as the basis of the film 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel'.

Deborah was introduced by an Indian Journalist who asked her why did she choose to become an author to which Ms Moggach responded disarmingly - "Ours was a very traditional family, if my parents were butchers, I probably would have become one too, but they were writers."

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She has 17 novels to her credit and she said that she remembers only two of those. She writes something mostly to get it out of her head and indeed that approach is mostly quite successful.

The room was packed to the backdoor and I along with a bunch of unidentified other women were sitting on the carpeted floor.

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The premise of the novel was explained by her thus. "We outsource everything in Britain, so why not our elders?"

"Besides, what's there not to like about India. After all, it's beautiful as heaven. It's warm and its cheap - lot cheaper than London for sure. And lastly, if you were to retire in India, chances are your grandkids would visit you more often than if you were in, say, Midlands".

She then mentioned, the novel was set in Bangalore because, "y'know the name itself is funny." The film has actually been shot in a different place outside Udaipur and some of the scenes have been picturized right here, inside Diggi Palace.

I didnt take a lot of pictures (there wasnt much on display) nor many notes but I thought her reading was ticklishly funny and very charming indeed (she has a great voice).

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On the differences between the two sexes she said:

'I mostly stay away from such jokes but one particular incident comes to mind. I was overhearing a conversation in a restaurant in London between two women sitting across on a dining table. The first one went on to describe how a neighbor of hers had quit her husband and ran away with the plumber and was living in a caravan in Maidenhead. The second was nodding with 'oohs and aahs'. It was all quite dreadful really.

Then one of the two men, till then completely silent, tried to get a word in the edgeways by saying to the other something that no woman from Beijing to Bangalore to Bulawayo would ever say -

"So how does it feel, Alex, to be driving the car of the year?"
#6 Jan 28th, 2013, 00:17
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Originally Posted by JuliaF View Post Wonderful detailed report Vaibhav! I have been reading reviews of Dalrymple's new book - I might try to get it from the library.

Whenever I see photos of him I can't help gawping at how wide his shoulders are

Is the festival finished now for this year?
Thanks Julia!! I'll try to write the concluding bit in a day or two. The festival ends tomorrow but I'm working from tomorrow so no more visits

He's incredible. I've been watching him in action since 2009 and he's huge and yet so energetic. There're 30 sessions in a day - 5 concurrent tracks with 6 sessions each. Willie D is engaged either delivering or moderating or introducing any one track's session - that's 6 hours per day just speaking. Plus he's the festival director!
#7 Jan 28th, 2013, 00:24
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Excellent writing Vaibhav! I feel as if I attended the JLF myself, so atmospheric and detailed is your report.

To hear an interview with Deborah Moggach at Tehelka radio, where she compares Jaipur with Wales (erstwhile home of the Hay Festival, which this year has moved to Cartagena in Colombia!)
#8 Jan 28th, 2013, 20:34
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Break and a session

Lunchbreak followed. It was fairly hot by then and I walked around looking for shade and a spot to just stand away from the crowds.

I found a Cassia tree next to Baithak (the structure that has been turned permanent now). The shade of the tree was being gainfully utilized through placement of a desk that sat three authors of which one looked faintly familiar.

He turned out to be Edward Luce - the author of 'Inspite of the Gods, the Strange Rise of Modern India'. That book, not widely known, is very thoroughly researched and here has a synopsis. I mentioned to him that his book has had an impact on my thought process and I had read him way back in 2007 when I was based in Salt Lake City. We had a brief, interrupted conversation (due to many others wanting to network with him) and later, he happily posed for a photograph.

The next session was back at Charbagh, the venue that (of all) most resembles an Indian wedding scene. Attendance was thinner here, perhaps due to the direct sunlight and Fancy hats were out.

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The session was on a great theme – Travel Writing!

I turned to my left and the lady seated there told me that she had traveled all the way from France to attend this festival. Quite creditable I thought.
I turned to my right and the two young collegiate turned out to be from Delhi University. As we were all waiting for William Dalrymple to introduce the speakers, one of the young girls complained to another - 'Baithak has more comfortable seats, let’s go there' – and they walked away. Priorities!
In this session, the authors tried to explore travel writing as a form that has evolved over the millennia and then wondered if it would survive.

The notable speakers included Pico Iyer. Iyer’s thought about differentiating yourself as a travel writer in this day and age when it’s so easy to find the way through the internet as well as get a glimpse of what the place would look like through photos is the travel writer should write about what he experienced, rather than what he saw. Rings true!

Pico chose to read a serious piece (quite unlike him) and hence I don’t remember a word of what he said.

Peter Hessler on the other hand, read a piece from his time in China when he was set up for a blind date by a Chinese matchmaker. The place suggested by the matchmaker for the meeting was McDonalds as it is perceived to be quieter.
“I was intrigued why she would say that till I realized that at every other restaurant in Hutan, the waitresses stood on your head till you ordered pork or duck – but not in the Golden Arches.

My date arrived and we didn’t order food. Well, why spoil a date in McDonald’s by eating the food, I thought”

The closing piece was read by William Dalrymple from his book ‘From the Holy Mountain’. I haven’t read that one yet but he described his time discussing with an orthodox father in the Greek Orthodox Monastery of Mar Saba (near Bethlehem) regarding what he thinks Judgment day would be like.

It went something like this:

“When you arrive at Mar Saba (if you are a man - women are forbidden), he will greet you at the door, asking if you are orthodox or heretic. He then informs you that unless you convert you will be among the damned.

Allow me to read you a little extract of my conversation:

"See that river down there at the bottom of the cliff?" said Fr. Theophanes. "Nowadays it's just the sewage from Jerusalem. But on Judgement Day that's where the River of Blood is going to flow. It's going to be full of freemasons, whores and heretics: Protestants, Schismatics, Jews, Catholics. More Ouzo?"


The monk paused to pour another thimbulful of spirit into a small glass. When I had gulped it down, he continued with his apocalypse:

"At the head of the Damned will be a troop composed of all the Popes of Rome, followed by their deputies, the Vice-Presidents of the Freemasons..."
"You're saying the Pope is a Freemason?"

"A Freemason? He's the President of the Freemasons. Everyone knows this. Each morning he worships the devil in the form of a naked woman with head of a goat."

"Actually, I'm a Catholic."

"Then," said Theophanes, "unless you convert to Orthodoxy, you will follow your Pope down that Valley, through the scorching fire.

"We will watch you from this balcony," he added. "But of course it will then be too late to save you."

Mar Saba was once famous for its scholarship. But you would never guess any of this from talking to Mar Saba's current inhabitants:

"So you're a writer are you?" asked Fr. Theophanes when he brought me my supper on a tray at the end of vespers. "I've stopped reading books myself. The Divine Liturgy contains all the theology I need. Once you've read the word of God I can't see the point of reading anything else."

"They say books are like food," pointed out Fr. Evdokimos, philosophically. "They feed your brain."

"But Father, " said Theophanes quietly. "Monks should try to eat as little as possible."

It was nearly dark. As we talked Theophanes took out a box of matches and began to try and light a pair of battered old paraffin storm lanterns (there is no electricity in Mar Saba).

"What did you do before you became a monk?" I asked as Theophanes sat trimming the wicks.

"I was a policeman, in Athens. I came here for the first time on a pilgrimage. As soon as I saw this monastery I recognised it as my true home.. Since then I've left only once. I went back to Athens, but I hardly recognised my old city. There were so many new buildings. New buildings and new crimes."

"Being a monk must all have been a quite a change from your previous work."
"Not so different," replied the monk. "Demons are very like criminals. Both are very stupid. Both are damned."

Over the course of the week Fr. Theophanes raved on intermittently about the Freemasons, and how they had masterminded the Ecumenical movement and invented the supermarket bar code, but it was only towards the end of my stay I finally plucked up the courage to ask Fr. Theophanes why he was so worried by the Freemasons.

"Because," he replied, "they are the Legions of the Anti-Christ."
"I always thought Freemasons just held coffee mornings and bridge evenings and that sort of thing."

"Breedj evenings?" said Theophanes, pronouncing the word as if it was some sort of Satanic ritual. "Probably this breedj drive also. But their main activity is to worship the Devil. There are many steps," he said, nodding knowingly. "But the last, the final step, is to meet with the Devil and have homosexual relations with him. After this he makes you Pope or sometimes President of the United States."

"President of the United States...?"

"Certainly. This has been proved. All the Presidents of the United States have been Freemasons. Except Kennedy. And you know what happened to him..."

The crowd dispersed, laughing.

This reading may be found online also, I’ve taken a portion of this from this site which contains a significantly longer text of the book. (all credits due to the creators of this website who have in-turn taken them from a lecture delivered by William Dalrymple).
#9 Feb 2nd, 2013, 01:21
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Originally Posted by vaibhav_arora View Post Dalrymple made his point that “There were eerie parallels between the modern day geopolitical situation of Afghanistan with the circumstances of the first Anglo-Afghan war” that he covers in this book.
This is my main problem with Dalrymple as a historian, he always draws dubious analogies with the present day which typically ignore 150+ years of history and serve a particular political agenda of his (not that I necessarily disagree with his views). E.g. he concluded his last history book (The Last Mughal) by arguing that the British victory over the 1857 rebels led, however indirectly, to the rise of the Taliban in the 1990's!

But maybe I'm being unfair, as his books are written for a popular audience who need a recognizable 'hook'. I still much prefer his travel writing which seems to flow much more convincingly.
#10 Feb 2nd, 2013, 02:30
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  • edwardseco is offline
Tell Ashish that academic comments often don't translate well into public ones..
#11 Feb 2nd, 2013, 06:14
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  • dazh3979 is offline
Great reports! Thank you. I'm definitely attending next year, and as a translator I can even claim the trip as a tax credit/deduction
#12 Feb 2nd, 2013, 16:10
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Originally Posted by Shiver me Timbers View Post But maybe I'm being unfair, as his books are written for a popular audience who need a recognizable 'hook'.
Yes, I think of him more as a story teller than a historian. He's very good and entertaining though. Infact, his lectures at the festival are even more entertaining than the books he writes (which is quite a contrast from most other authors that show up).

Originally Posted by edwardseco View Post Tell Ashish that academic comments often don't translate well into public ones..
I didnt even know of Mr Nandy till the controversy hit the TV screens, and that was the day I chose to stay home. The festival got mileage though!

Originally Posted by dazh3979 View Post I'm definitely attending next year, and as a translator I can even claim the trip as a tax credit/deduction
Wow! Lucky you.
#13 Jul 3rd, 2013, 21:26
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Attended in 2012 and can attest to the overwhelming crowds over the weekend - we found the days either side less congested. I suppose it depends on what you're prepared to brave on the basis of who you want to see/hear. Still, even with the crowds it had a great friendly environment. I was amazed to see that an event of that scale had only started in 2006. Still, I can see why it's so successful. Yes, many very glamorous people around. As a foreign traveller on the road for a one month trip that included JLF, I felt distinctly un-beautiful in comparison.

2012 was the year Salman Rushie would/wouldn't/would and finally didn't turn up, but Oprah Winfrey did - she was the "marquee" speaker that year. Having had years of her on TV here in Australia - what was she doing at a literature festival, anyway - we opted instead for a session "On Pakistan" with Fatima Bhutto & Ayesha Jalal and "Superpowers of the 21st Century" - among my favourites with a group of Kashmiri authors discussing their experiences in detainment. They were FANTASTIC sessions.

So I'm returning for 2014 and looking forward to it.

We paid to be delegates in 2012, which was a way to escape from the weekend crowds. But it's expensive.
#14 Feb 20th, 2014, 14:03
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Hey Vaibhav returned to indiamike after over a year and saw your very informative post, thanks..another place I'd avoided for so long, though I'm a huge dalrymple fan..next year, definitely!
#15 Jan 26th, 2016, 13:54
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As more than one of you, and quite a few of my friends who are not on this forum have asked me whether i visited the festival this year, I thought I should report back.

An approximate 2,50,000 visitors attended the festival last year over five days. This years figures should be comparable. On some days, front lawns, that has a stated capacity of 600 (standing), was forced to accommodate 5000 people. Some found a seat on the champa tree (photo below from yesterday's dainink bhaskar).
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Apart from the crowds, there's a deeper reason that i should elaborate as it wont find a ''voice'' otherwise. This year there was a public interest litigation that the venue of the festival be changed. It was quashed at the last minute by the Rajasthan high court and the venue remained unchanged. A part of the wall of the nearby maharani college was demolished to allow vehicles to be parked as the venue doesn't have adequate numbers. Apparently that proved inadequate and another one of a compound opposite the venue was demolished as well. The emergency ward of the SMS hospital (Rajasthan's largest? certainly Jaipur's largest and best known) is a stone's throw away from the venue. On one of the festival days, an ambulance was delayed by several hours due to the jam caused by the festival. The PIL was filed by a doctor who works in the emergency department. The festival organizers termed him a 'publicity seeker'.

I feel that the festival has changed in character compared to what it was when I started visiting (2009) and then again that wasn't the year the festival was started. It used to be a relatively low key affair back then. You could actually talk to an author when he was doing nothing at all, standing under one of the many trees that dot the palace grounds - and a prerequisite for an engaging conversation with any author is for you to have read what s/he wrote. The focus was not on selling books , seeking autographs, getting selfies and letting the world know that you, the visitor, went to ''The Lit Fest".

This time, I'd be lost in a crowd like this (each day in the paper a half page worth of photos along with two full pages of coverage appear - I've taken a few from there). It is certainly a very successful festival now. It is also one that has put ''festival'' ahead of the city of "Jaipur" . It's no longer one that I can relate to.
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