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India these days is filled with literature festivals, a wonderfully joy-inducing thing for book addicts like me. But what gives me immense pleasure is my annual journey to what’s now known as the Kumbh Mela of lit fests, the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival, held in the third week of January every year. I’m pretty much a Lit Fest veteran by now, having been present though much of its growth and dramatic moments – including the 1Salman Rushdie year where, despite his absence, he dominated the entire five-day event which saw everything from tears to threats of violence.
What makes this lit fest stand out to my mind, is the enormity of scale and the professionalism with which the organisers William Dalrymple, Sanjoy Roy and Namita Gokhale handle it all. 170 sessions over five days definitely isn’t a little thing to string together.
This year, like the years before, there were mega celebrities – from a frail, wheelchair-bound Vidia Naipaul, to the rockstar of the youth APJ Abdul Kalam, Black Swan academic Nassim Taleb, the controversy-wracked Shashi Tharoor, Javier Moro, the Sonia Gandhi/The Red Sari author, travel writing veteran Paul Theroux, Girish Karnad, Javed Akhtar, Chetan Bhagat, Amish ‘Shiva Trilogy’ Tripathi who announced his new series, Man Booker winner Eleanor Catton, Hanif Kureishi, Charles Glass and more. We rushed from session to session, some brilliant and thought-provoking, others low-key and informative. Each session was packed —people bursting out of the six venues, and bunches of
school kids frantically taking notes. In between, we drank steaming masala chai in kullads, ate spicy kachoris and makki ki roti with
sarson ka saag, and returned
to our hotels sated mentally and physically after long days, only to perk up and head out to the
energising music events every evening.
These were memorable too: Sufi Gospel singer Sonam Kalra giving the audience goosebumps with her rendition of Hallelujah, Naseeruddin Shah reading Manto in that famous baritone on the steps of Amer Fort, Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar regaling their audience with exquisite shairis in the courtyard of the historic Hawa Mahal, where Spanish flamenco dancers later brought the crowd to its feet. On the final evening, the musical collaboration between Midival Punditz and Pakistan’s Rizwan Muazzam Qawals showed that borders between countries and music genres can be traversed. The vast roaring, bopping crowd would have made Beyoncé envious.
There’s no space here to go in depth into five days. But suffice
to say I came back with a long list of ‘to-read’ books after interacting with their authors. My group, now veterans of Jaipur, compares
festivals years, recalling our favourite authors (David Remnick, Katherine Boo, Tom Stoppard
and Ben Okrie remain favourites). This year, I learnt about such diverse topics – from the doomed
Buddhas of Bamiyan to Anarkali, from the Mahabharata to troubles in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, the Middle
East. I heard about China first-hand, got insights into the CIA’s shenanigans, got insider details on
politicians from Modi to Rahul Gandhi, listened to the theory of anti-fragility.
How can one not come away at least a little enlightened? Like Israeli journalist Gideon Levy said, “A festival like this can only be held in India.”
I can’t wait for the next one.

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