During avisit to the world renowned book event, Humphrey Hawksley finds a refreshing antidote to growing global concerns about threats to freedom of speech and thought

For five days every January, hundreds of thousands converge on the elegant old Diggi Palace in Jaipur for the world’s biggest literary festival.

A half-hour flight from Delhi, Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan and its draw comes not from any reputation as a modern, cosmopolitan crossroads but from its regal history and the stylishness of its architecture: Maharaja Ram Singh prettified it in 1876 for the visit of Queen Victoria’s eldest son Prince Albert, who promptly proclaimed it to be ‘the Pink City’. The nickname has endured.

Yet in little more than a decade, the Jaipur Literary Festival has grown from a few dozen people barely filling a graceful old hall to a magnet that pulls in the ‘A’ list from the worlds of culture, art and literature. Vikram Seth, Oprah Winfrey and the Dalai Lama have all attended, and this year the event hosted Helen Fielding of Bridget Jones’s Diary fame, legendary playwright Tom Stoppard, former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, and author Sujatha Gidla, now a New York subway conductor.

Gidla’s memoir Ants Among Elephants, about being an ‘untouchable’ in India, has taken America by storm.  Her story speaks for 300 million Indian Dalits and sheds a different and brutally real light on the #MeToo issues such as sexual assault, gender imbalance and modern politics. At Jaipur, she held her audience transfixed.

CROSSING CULTURES: Sujatha Gidla (l) and Odd Harald Hauge
CROSSING CULTURES: Sujatha Gidla (l) and Odd Harald Hauge

The festival’s atmosphere taps into a worldwide trend. Voices that only a few years ago would have been limited to their locale and language now have a global reach. Jaipur is a nucleus not just for India, but for the developing world.

The Diggi Palace grounds and terraces are so packed that people jostle back and forth as if on a city rush-hour sidewalk. A key element of the festival is that it is free, meaning that anyone can register and enter this non-judgmental world of creativity and opinions, brushing shoulders with authors, film stars and politicians.

The concept both complements and contradicts the more negative cyber culture image we have conjured up – particularly among the young – of communicating only through phones and social media, with talk kept to a minimum.  Yes, there were plenty of smart phones and selfies at the Diggi Palace. But conversation also ran non-stop. The Full Circle Book Store, which stocked work by every speaker there, heaved with so many book-buyers that it had to set up a separate entrance and exit within its massive tent in order to avoid collisions.

Jaipur is a nucleus not just for India, but for the developing world

The popularity of Jaipur highlights another important truth: the craving for ideas and stories is universal.  From tribespeople in northern Uganda to Tango dancers in Argentina, story-telling and discussion are common to us all, and completely human. And now, technology and the ripping down of cultural borders are making accessible even books in local languages from far-off places. At festivals such as Jaipur, all these interacting themes come together in one place.

‘People are hungry,’ says JLF organiser Sanjoy Roy. ‘We make the festival accessible and we see lives opening up.’

Just as Sujatha Gidla’s searing story of Dalit life travelled east to west from India to America, so another star Jaipur author crossed the other way, from Europe into India.  Everest The Death Zone is a drama by Norwegian explorer Odd Harald Hauge, about climbing the world’s tallest mountain. Hauge wrote it in Norwegian and it was translated into English for a small Indian publisher, Yatra Books, thus bypassing the main companies in New York and London and showing that interest in the challenges of Everest is not confined to the elite world of Western explorers.

‘India is now the second largest English language publishing market in the world,’ explains Jaipur Festival director Namita Gokhale.  ‘Several books which are unable to reach the US or UK publishing world debut here through established and independent publishers. Everest The Death Zone is an example of an international book which can also find a strong local market in the Himalayan belt and across South Asia.’

Anthony Joseph, a former executive with India Book Distributors, was involved in shaping online book-selling in India and is confident the trend will go from strength to strength.  ‘An Indian writing in English and translations into English will give any reader proficient in English anywhere in the world a rich source of ideas and entertainment that does not originate in the UK or the USA,’ he says.

A key element is pricing, whereby the Amazon system allows booksellers to adjust their price to match the spending ability within different countries. The controversial Madhurobhagan (or One Part Woman) by the Tamil author Perumal Murugan is sold on the American Amazon Kindle for $14.34 and on the Amazon Indian equivalent for 99 rupees – one tenth of the price, reflecting the income levels of the two societies.

The significance of this flexibility cannot be overestimated. One Part Woman’s boundary-breaking story about childlessness and marital and sexual taboos has pitted the author against India’s religious and caste-based organisations, prompting arguments about freedom, culture and conservatism that have been run through the courts – finally exonerating the author.

The craving for ideas and stories is universal

But Murugan’s situation and his story are not confined to India or even South Asia.  Communities in Africa and Latin America are going through similar friction. Now, with the distributor able to adjust prices to match spending power, an author from western Tamil Nadu can be read by people elsewhere with comparable experiences.

In a similar way, Indian distributors can export their less expensive editions of best-selling books to other Asian and developing countries.One Part Woman or Everest The Death Zone can be sold in Kampala, for instance, at close to the Indian retail price, which is much lower than imports from the West.

As living standards rise and with English as the linking language, it has always been a given that the Indian publishing industry would grow.  Less certain has been how much India would take a lead, particularly in dealing with subjects to which the European and American industries usually only ever pay lip service. But many, as highlighted in One Part Woman, aresensitive and need airing through story-telling in poorer developing countries.

This January, the grounds of the Diggi Palace buzzed with the likes of posh anti-colonialist politician and author Shashi Tharoor mixing with avowed Marxist Sujadha Gidla. Panels and presentations fizzed with debate and boundary-breaking thoughts. In the massive tented book store, widely divergent ideas were displayed side by side in a way that, in many other places, could see guns drawn and people arrested.

This in itself is an indication of how India is taking the lead in the struggle to keep exchanging new ideas. The sea of visitors stretching along the entrance and filling the lawns and walkways of Jaipur’s famed festival have come with one purpose:to hear stories and debate challenging ideas – and, yes, at the same time, they might just get a selfie with a famous author.

Humphrey Hawksley is an Asia specialist. His next book,Asian Waters: The Struggle Over the South China Sea and the Strategy of Chinese Expansion, is published in June

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