I’m late for the start of the Jaipur Literature Festival. I’m trying to decide between jeans and a light summer dress for the Indian winter sun when I get a call on my hotel room phone.
“Are you still coming?” asks a member of my book club, “we were supposed to leave at 9.30am.” It’s 9.50am and the other 11 members of the Asian Authors Book Club have been waiting on the mini bus for 20 minutes. I throw on the summer dress.
Luckily traffic moves quickly through Jaipur’s roads and the Diggi Palace venue turns out to be a short 15 minute ride away. We hustle through the huddles of khaki-dressed police – loaned to the festival after the latest round of Salman Rushdie-related death threats – through the metal barriers that seem to assessorize every Indian tourist venue and are finally tumbled into the heart of the festival.
There is colour everywhere. This is India so that goes without saying, but the festival organisers have branded Jaipur 2013 in a hot pink and it adorns boards, literature and staff uniforms. The pink is accentuated by blue and yellow balloons, bunting, natural foliage, an intensely blue outdoor pool and the various colours of sponsor names.
The grounds of the palace have been sectioned off into three seated, open-air areas of differing sizes, a large tent and an indoor hall.
Because this is India things don’t start quite on time. In fact we have enough time to get itineraries, pay 100 rupees for the festival booklet and use the toilets before the keynote speech begins. It’s delivered in strong tones by writer and social activist Mahasweta Devi and centres on freedom and gender equality.
I have Zoe Heller’s talk circled next on my timetable. It’s a prickly discussion. Journalist Monisha Rajesh opens by describing Heller’s characters as universally unpleasant, which Heller takes exception to. The conversation never quite warms up after this.
During the transition from one talk to the next I catch a glimpse of the Dalai Lama and make friends with a Jaipur local called Anna. Anna is 24, newly married – a love match, she hastens to tell me – and has taken a year long sabbatical from her job to acclimatise to her new matrimonial status. Together we sit in on ‘Down the Line’, a lively chat about India, Italy and train travel with Monisha Rajesh and Tim Parks. Both read excerpts from their new books on the topic, Rajesh’s ‘Around India in 80 Trains’ and Parks’ ‘Teach Us To Sit Still’.
Anna insists I learn a little about Indian politics by attending the Shashi Tharoor talk next. It’s held in the largest outdoor area and it’s standing room only. Tharoor is a film-star-handsome politician who (it turns out) was fired from a lofty cabinet position after awarding a public contract to his girlfriend. When confronted about it he denied knowing her, then walked her down the aisle. Apparently that’s all scandal under the bridge now and he’s back in the bosom of the establishment. Tharoor is brilliantly witty, fantastically intelligent and can talk comfortably about anything. The 90 minutes fly and I feel like I’ve had a solid grounding in Indian/Pakistani relations by the end of it.
There are so many exciting talks, and so much to see. The whole thing is so wonderfully exhausting I don’t make it to the Man Booker International Prize event at 6pm where I know the 2013 finalists will be announced. But you can find the contenders here.