Eleanor's travel blog: Jaipur

(3-part series airing 10 February - 24 February, 2013) In this special travel blog, Wachtel describes her journey to the Jaipur Literature Festival, held each year at the grand Diggi Palace, and explain why it's one of the most unique experiences anywhere.
The Dalai Lama, left, listens to one of his biographers, Pico Iyer at one of the sessions on the opening day of India's Jaipur Literature Festival in Jaipur, India, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013. This year's festival will also feature author Zoe Heller and Booker Prize winner Howard Jacobson. (AP Photo/Deepak Sharma) (AP)

In late January, Writers & Company host Eleanor Wachtel travelled to India to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival, one of the world's biggest and most prestigious literary events. In this special travel blog, Wachtel describes her journey to the festival, held each year at the grand Diggi Palace, and explain why it's one of the most unique experiences anywhere.

If you include stopovers, it takes about 26 hours to fly from Toronto to Jaipur, India, arriving two days later, once the time difference (+10.5 hours) is factored in. So I wasn't entirely sure that I would make it to the opening party at the lavish, romantic Hotel Rambagh Palace, former residence of the Maharaja of Jaipur. But I did. Call it the exhilaration of arrival or the beneficial effects of spending the afternoon with Nepalese Buddhist nun Ani Choying Drolma, a singer performing at the festival -- part of this year's Buddhist theme, which included a visit by the Dalai Lama. Her latest CD is titled Inner Peace. With Ani and her assistant, I tagged along in a tuk tuk (auto-rickshaw) on their search for a marble Ganesh, the Hindu elephant king. 

Later, back at the hotel, there was a shuttle bus to take us to Rambagh Palace where we were met at the gate and driven through the extensive grounds in a 1930s antique car. The gardens were lit with hundreds of candles and guests were already sampling hors d'oeuvres and drinks in the moonlight.

Jaipur is known as the "pink city." About 275 km southwest of Delhi, it's the capital and largest city in Rajasthan, founded in 1728, and unusually for a pre-modern Indian city, it's planned, laid out in wide, regular streets and neat rectangles. In 1876, during the reign of Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh, the whole city was painted pink to welcome Edward, Prince of Wales, and the central core -- of historic buildings, turrets and gates -- remains the Pink City. This is evident in the stunning landmark Palace of Winds, a five-storey façade with 953 honeycombed windows, built in 1799 to enable women from the royal household to look out over the main street of the old city.

Just a few years ago, a handful of writers met in Jaipur in late January to celebrate writing. As festival co-founder William Dalrymple, the travel writer and historian likes to say, "only 14 guests turned up, most of whom were tourists who took the wrong turn." A year or two later, there were 400 people. By 2012, the five-day Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) was the biggest in South Asia, with 120,000 visitors and some 275 writers -- from Oprah Winfrey to Tom Stoppard and Michael Ondaatje. Throw in a few cricket stars and Bollywood actors to spice things up, masses of groupies knotted together in high school uniforms, and you get the picture. As Time Out magazine put it: "It's settled. The Jaipur Literature  Festival is officially the Woodstock, Live 8, and Ibiza of world literature, with an ambience that can best be described as James Joyce meets Monsoon Wedding."

So when I was invited to attend as a guest delegate, how could I refuse? The scale and breadth and seriousness, not to mention the range of international and South Asian writers, was simply astounding. But what made it especially exciting for me was the opportunity to speak with three very diverse and intriguing authors, who are featured on Writers & Company in the coming weeks: Jeet Thayil, Fahmida Riaz and Tarun Tejpal. Yet in an environment of competitive fundamentalisms, two of the three almost didn't make it to the festival. Jeet Thayil came under threat from Muslim clerics for his support of Salman Rushdie at last year's festival. He did arrive but undercover and surrounded by bodyguards. Meanwhile, local leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party, promoters of Hindu nationalism, demanded that Pakistani writers be banned from this year's JLF, but organizers stood firm and Fahmida Riaz and several others made it.

The festival hub is Diggi Palace. When I checked my guidebook the hotel was described as "formerly the palace of the thakur (similar to lord or baron) of Diggi, it has a pleasant garden and tranquil ambience." Clearly, this is not during the Jaipur Festival when no fewer than six different venues are set up on the grounds.  And only in India would you find the Google Mughal Tent. Plus food stalls, bookstore, shops and huge crowds. Entrance is free to all events. Only in India, I think, though later someone told me the Bhutan festival also has no admission charge.

The problem was trying to be in five places at the same time and also do my own interviews.   So there was a certain amount of mad scramble plus onsite buffet lunches and evening parties. I was delighted to have the opportunity to meet people like Christopher Ricks, Ian BurumaYiyun Li, the artist William Kentridge, and even festival founder William Dalrymple himself, all of whom I had interviewed before but not face to face. And to catch up with many others, such as Pico Iyer, Gary ShteyngartAshok Ferrey, Howard Jacobson, Ahdaf Soueif, and Ariel Dorfman who told me he'd just finished a libretto and was now writing love poems. And of course to meet new people (a.k.a. not yet on W & C) like Elif Batuman, John Burnside, Chandrahas Choudhury and Timothy Garton Ash. It all sounds a bit like name-dropping, I know, but there were at least a dozen more I had hoped to encounter. An added treat was spending time with Sirish Rao, organizer of the Indian Summer Festival in Vancouver and its supporters, as well as writers such as Anosh Irani and Shauna Singh Baldwin.

It was exciting that the finalists for the £60,000 Man Booker International Prize were announced during the festival -- a list that includes Concordia University prof Josip Novakovich, as well as Marilynne Robinson, Lydia Davis, Peter Stamm, U.R. Ananthamurthy, and Aharon Appelfeld (all W & C alumni, so to speak). The Man Booker party that night was held in the City Palace, a blend of Rajasthani and Mughal architecture. This time we were greeted not by antique cars but by ceremonial horses, painted elephants and decorated camels.

The next day, I made a point of attending the award ceremony of the $50,000 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. The MC was a tall, baritone Bollywood actor who had clearly ripped out the page on writing from the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Quotations. "As Thackeray said," he intoned... "To quote Emerson..."  I was thrilled when Jeet Thayil was declared the winner, whooping with excitement, then I realized that audiences at the JLF are quite subdued. But he was a popular choice. The only nominee in attendance not to be seated onstage, because of security, he walked up to the platform and talked about how important it was to him to win -- the money too, that also matters for a writer, he said.

Earlier that afternoon, I ducked out to a fabric shop. Jaipur is famous for its block printing, silks and cashmere. A friend had hired a car and driver for the day, but almost as soon as we arrived at the store, we found ourselves literally on the wrong side of an endless demonstration of Muslim men waving green flags, on motorcycles, trucks, any kind of vehicle, protesting a major meeting of  Hindu fundamentalists. It was a Friday. After about an hour, we were told that traffic would remain blocked to cars for at least another two hours so the only way back to the festival was on foot and then tuk tuk. As we picked our way along the treacherous sidewalks beside the demo, I was suddenly pelted on the back of the head with an orange segment. Startled, I spun around to see a man laughing, on one of the trucks.  Rather than interpret this gesture as xenophobic, misogynist or worse, I decided that answers as well as questions were all to be found at one of the 175 sessions of the JLF and there were still at least a hundred awaiting me.