Philip Hensher: fault lines at the Jaipur literature festival

India's foremost literary event is going from strength to strength, with thousands on hand to take in Xiaolu Guo's remarks about the regrettable dominance of English

When January begins to chuck it down, and agents start to ask awkward questions about delivering the next novel, literary people long to go on pilgrimage. Or the modern equivalent of the pilgrimage, where the object of devotion uproots itself and sends itself to the far corners of the world to bask in the adoration of an unfamiliar and often bewildered audience: in short, January is when lucky literary folk take off for an international festival.

Whenever novelists gather, they start to exchange tales of woe at the hands of provincial English festivals ("And I had to sleep on the sofa of the chairman's mistress, and she asked if I would mind if the dog stayed at his usual end …"). Or they begin, greedily, to talk about the joys of an obscenely overfunded jolly at the expense of some foreign government ("I had my own driver and limo, and only two sessions, five days apart, and a suite at the Oberoi …").

Since the founding of the Jaipur literature festival in 2006, opportunities for both disaster and excess have greatly expanded. The first outing attracted a mere 100 passing customers, according to the festival's ebullient guiding spirit, William Dalrymple. Since then, it has grown exponentially, and has featured an immense row over the invitation to Salman Rushdie in 2012. It remains, astonishingly, free, and the number of attendees is now in the hundreds of thousands, surging in and out, listening intently, furiously arguing, gazing at the faces of novelists of whom they might never have heard. Of course, there is also a certain enchanting meat-market aspect to it. I dare say that if you are a Jaipur teenager, your parents may bluntly refuse you permission to go and hang out down the mall. "I'm just popping to the Jaipur literature festival," on the other hand, may well elicit not just permission but 500 rupees to spend on a book.

Anyway, the success of the enterprise has encouraged all sorts of other literary festivals across the region. "Seriously," an Indian star novelist friend of mine told me, "I could spend six months of every year going from Asian festival to Asian festival." There are said to be 60 in India alone. Jaipur, by popular consent, remains the best and most enjoyable, largely thanks to efficient organisation and the constant presence of Dalrymple, by now apparently regarded by the Indian reading public as an honorary Indian, occupying the place formerly taken by Mark Tully.

There are always fault lines in subcontinental engagements with literature, and they often come to the forefront at festivals. When I went to the Hay Dhaka festival in 2012, there was a marvellous tension between writers in English and writers in Bengali, sparked off by their holding a predominantly English-language festival in the hallowed ground of the Bangla Academy. I felt rather divided, having listened to my Bengali poet brother-in-law, Jahir Hasan, going on about Bengali writers who "departed from the mainstream" by writing in English. There was less of that in the air at Jaipur, which after all is overwhelmingly a festival for writing in English, but there clearly was a division working its way to the surface between Anglo-American writers and those from other backgrounds. This year, the Anglo-American stars included Jonathan Franzen, Jhumpa Lahiri, Jim Crace, Justin Cartwright, AN Wilson, Mary Beard, Nicholas Shakespeare and dozens of other curious and busy folk, hoping to flog a few books in the freezing Rajasthani January air.

The division was quite apparent in some of the press coverage – the Times of India barely mentioned any writers other than those ethnically or nationally Indian. Franzen needn't have bothered coming, for all the attention the paper paid him. Lahiri, born in London and a US citizen, happily counts as Indian for the Jaipur audience on the basis of her ethnicity. Indian public discourse is capable of more jingoistic sentiment than western media would find comfortable, but papers still didn't bite on the Chinese English-language novelist Xiaolu Guo's contention that American writing was "massively overrated" and that Franzen's work was "smeared" by it, and that what was needed was for reading habits to become much less English. It is true that by the conventional standards of the English-language novel, Xiaolu Guo's work in English is poor. It would take some nerve, however, if she were implying that what is needed is an entire change of critical standards in order to recognise her own work as a masterpiece.

I saw Guo in the green room, looking jolly pleased with herself, but was promptly whisked away to a fierce interview with a gentleman from Kolkata. "You moderated the session with Antony Beevor on history. May I ask, following on from that –" "No, I didn't. That was someone else." "Excuse me?" "I wasn't there. You've mistaken me for someone else." "Ah. Well, may I ask the question anyway?" Many writers spend the days at the festival, and the evenings with the entertainment. There was, too, the knowledge that Dame Judi and Bill Nighy and Celia Imrie were in town, shooting the sequel to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – the Second-Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, I fervently hope. Surely they would turn up at some point, dimming the star power on the podium?

Perhaps they did. But I was there with my husband and there were a lot of Bangladeshi friends to catch up with. One day we simply bunked off and went to see the Monkey temple – I can't tell you what magnetic pull is exerted on me by those two words. I can report, however, that Jaipur possesses probably one of the half dozen most perfectly beautiful cinemas in the entire world, the Raj Mandir, where we wasted an evening watching the divine Aamir Khan rob banks and perform circus tricks in an irresistibly rubbish movie, in preference to talking about "Whither travel writing?" – I hope forgivably. How did we get there? Oh, we had our own driver and limo, of course. Didn't I mention?


Philip Hensher

The GuardianTramp

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