Authors and Readers Descend on India's Pink City Jaipur

jaipur
U.S. journalist and writer David Remnick (2nd L) speaks as Irish author Peter Popham (L), Indian columnist Sugata Bose (C), British author Simon Sebag Montefiore (2nd R) and former correspondent and editor of The New York Times Joseph Lelyveld watch during the annual Literature Festival in Jaipur, capital of India's desert state of Rajasthan, January 22, 2012. The five-day-long festival aims to showcase the best of Indian, South Asian and international writing in one of the world's fastest-growing publishing markets. Altaf Hussain/Reuters

Arvind Panagariya, one of India's top economic advisers, has a short fuse and shouts. Eighty-two-year-old V.S.Naipaul, the Nobel Prize-winning author, has given what might turn out to be his last long interview. And Abdul Kalam, the 83-year-old space and missile scientist who became India's president, is greeted by young Indians like a rock star.

These are a few of the big-name impressions from the 10th annual Jaipur Literature Festival that ended at the weekend after a magnificent five days in Rajasthan's historical pink city. The total number of footfalls (including repeat visitors) reached 255,000, up from about 220,000 last year, and as usual included masses of schoolchildren.

Naipaul is a Trinidad-born British citizen of Indian origin who wrote two scathing books on his early visits to India – An Area of Darkness and A Wounded Civilisation in the 1960s and 1970s.

Clearly frail and sitting in a wheelchair for a slow but revealing interview with the U.K.-based writer Farrukh Dondy, he told a crowd of some several thousand people that he "came to India out of curiosity about my ancestral land." When his India books caused controversy, his mother told him, "Please leave India to the Indians." He didn't take her advice and years later gave the country a more positive verdict.

The most remarkable of the three impressions was the rock star (there is no other adequate description) welcome given to Kalam, who was mobbed by screaming youngsters, blocking the festival throughways.

I found it difficult to get anyone to tell me why the diminutive rather quaint Kalam, with his carefully manicured floppy white hair, should beat even a top film star in iconic status. Eventually, one of the festival's dozens of young volunteers who keep the world's largest free lit fest running smoothly told me, "He has achieved something technical."

This was a reference to important work on ballistic missiles and launch vehicle technology done by Kalam who became known as India's "missile man" and became the country's 11th highly respected president in 2002. Some critics say that Kalam's actual scientific achievements are overstated, but whether that is true or not, he has become a legend and an inspiration to the young.

Chatting with the volunteer, it became clear he felt that, unlike most self-serving politicians and many public figures, Kalam has done tangible work as a scientist and an engineer. Kalam also appears as a modest man who wants to inspire the youth – he launched a What Can I Give movement in 2011 and frequently addresses young audiences.

"If four things are followed -- having a great aim, acquiring knowledge, hard work and perseverance -- then anything can be achieved," he said at the festival, adding that he had addressed 19.5 million youth in the past 20 years and urged them to become "unique."

Panagariya's demonstration of his apparent short fuse is significant because he has just returned from an academic life in the U.S. to run Indian prime minister Narendra Modi's revamped Planning Commission, which is called the NITI Aayog or National Institution for Transforming India. Maybe he found being contradicted by a leading Indian journalist rather harder to accept than being challenged by American students!

For several minutes he had a shouting argument in Hindi with Om Thanvi, editor of the Jansatta newspaper, who disagreed with his claims about how much Rajasthan's economic development and social indicators compared with other states, and whether it no longer qualified to be called a BIMARU state (an acronym coined some years ago to bracket the backward states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh).

Panagariya has been an economic adviser to the Rajasthan government and was frustrated by Thanvi's arguments that were based on an article in India's highly respected Economic and Political Weekly.

Thanvi also criticized the Rajasthan government's recent controversial decision to ban candidates who do not have specified educational qualifications from standing as candidates in panchayat (village) elections. Panagariya backed the decision and became so agitated that he stood up and demanded solutions from Thanvi, shouting, "If Mr. Editor has any better formula, we are ready to implement it. I am even ready to bow and touch his feet if he has any better suggestion."

Amazon ousts local bookshop

With over 300 speakers at six concurrent sessions during the day and over 150 musicians for evening entertainment, the festival has become a major international fixture on the literary scene. Every year, the distinguished old Diggi Palace venue is adjusted and enlarged to accommodate the growing crowds.

This year, the only negative development was that Delhi's Full Circle bookshop was ousted from running the festival's shop by Amazon.in, which outbid its financial down payment. This is a sad example of foreign financial muscle defeating local enterprise, and it turned out badly because the Amazon shop was drab and badly stocked. Wal-Mart or Tesco (who, like Amazon, also sell books) could not have done a worse job. A real bookseller, not a general online store with little real books expertise, ought to re-appear next year.

John Elliott's new book is Implosion: India's Tryst with Reality (HarperCollins, India). He can be read at ridingtheelephant.wordpress.com.

Authors and Readers Descend on India's Pink City Jaipur | Opinion