NEW YORK – The Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), which draws tens of thousands of people at its signature event at the Diggi Palace in Rajasthan every January, successfully conducted its North America tour in September, this year, touching down in four cities, including in New York. It next is headed to Adelaide, next month. The festival also did rounds this summer in Europe, in Belfast and London.
The festival, described as the ‘greatest literary show on Earth’, has over the years since its inception in 2006, hosted nearly 2000 speakers and welcomed over a million book lovers from across India and the globe, according to the organizers.
The sold out festival in New York, at the Asia Society on September 18, was preceded by a glittering reception at the art gallery DAG, the previous evening. The gallery, featuring at present some of the best works of Indian artist Madhvi Parekh, was an ideal setting to kick off proceedings for the festival.
JLF co-founder Sanjoy K. Roy announced at the reception that the festival would soon debut in California too. It would mark the fourth city in the US for the annual festival, after editions in Houston, Colorado and New York.
Speaking at the inaugural session of the meet at the Asia Society, Roy mentioned the reason why JLF is held around the same time as when world leaders congregate in the Big Apple for the annual United Nations General Assembly session.
“Our target is to bring multiple voices together and to bring diversity and to get different point of views across the world leaders who gather at the UN every year,” he said.
Toronto was also added to the JLF roster this year, with some top notch celebrity names at its three-day event last week, featuring among others in conversation, Shashi Tharoor, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, MG Vassanji, Amitava Kumar, Pico Iyer, Devyani Saltzman – the writer who is the daughter of film director Deepa Mehta, Anosh Irani, Suketu Mehta, Madhur Jaffrey and the irrepressible William Dalrymple, a co-founder too of the JLF, whose new book ‘The Anarchy’, on the rise and fall of the East India Company and financial looting of India by the British, is gaining traction internationally.
Divakaruni was a prominent speaker in Houston too, apart from Toronto, where she narrated her inspiration for her novel ‘The Forest of Enchantments’, a retelling of the Indian epic Ramayana from Sita’s point of view.
A photo of Pakistan PM Imran Khan reading Dalrymple’s new book on his flight back home after his address to the United Nations – that went viral on social media – has also got the book and the author much curiosity and publicity in the last few days.
Dalrymple, an excellent orator and narrator who impresses with his attention to detail every time he takes upon a historical Indian subject, delved into the shocking “corporate coup” that led the East India company to rule over India, and the basis of his new book.
“India was not conquered by the British per se – it was conquered by a single rogue multinational corporation founded in an office block, five windows wide. In its 100 years of history the company only employed 132 full time employees. Yet the skeleton staff undertook one of the most extraordinary corporate coups in history,” he pointed out.
At the reception in New York, actors Anupam Kher – author of an autobiography ‘Lessons Life Taught Me, Unknowingly’, and Manisha Koirala, author of a memoir ‘Healed: How Cancer Gave Me a New Life’, spoke about their life experiences and battling adversity to come out on top.
Kher, whose mother was also in the audience, spoke about growing up poor and choked of any amenities, while Koirala was all poise and grace when she spoke about her successful battle with cancer. She spoke again of her ordeal and how she staved off cancer at a panel the next day, at the Asia Society.
Kher, who is now as much of a resident of New York as Mumbai because of his commitment for the NBC TV drama series ‘New Amsterdam’, made it clear that he is beginning to set roots in the city, and beginning to understand the Indian American community.
“My next book is going to be about Indians in America, whether they are cab drivers, whether they are successful entrepreneurs, everybody has a story,” said Kher, adding: “…everybody has a story which can be made into a beautiful film, especially about the first generation. My only request to you all is tell your stories to your children.”
Namita Gokhale, another co-founder of the JLF, spoke about the growth of the festival which seems to have endless possibilities of connecting readers with authors, in Indian diasporas settled across the globe.
“The advantage is that you have writers speaking to each other from very different parts of the world, and from very different linguistic cultures and from different literary traditions. And every time we go to a new place, we remain rooted, and yet very cosmopolitan,” she said.
Although all the panels and talks on schedule evinced a great response, the JLF New York this year was lacking for top notch fiction writers. There was no panel on fiction, in fact.
It seemed popular US-based writers like Suketu Mehta and Amitava Kumar chose Toronto to increase their base of admirers, rather than New York. Also, the festival itself would have got a bigger fillip if they had been able to garner in locally-based biggies like Amitav Ghosh or Salman Rushdie, both of whom had books out this year. Not to speak of Jhumpa Lahiri, who teaches at Princeton. It’s one area where JLF New York has to work on.
There was compensation though, in the form of fascinating panels like the one featuring Priyamvada Natarajan, Professor of Astronomy and Physics at Yale University, who spoke to digital technology maestro and newly minted inaugural Marshall R. Loeb Visiting Professor of Digital Innovation at Stony Brook University School of Journalism, Sree Sreenivasan, about her book ‘Mapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas That Reveal the Cosmos’.
In a city that thrives on and has the pulse of multicultural cuisine, a food panel was inevitable, and one headlined, ‘Food, Memory and Culture’, was incisive and riveting, with its array of speakers adding depth to the conversation: food historian Krishnendu Ray, novelist Chandrahas Choudhary, and New York magazine’s food critic Adam Platt, in conversation with Ligaya Mishan of The New York Times.
In Adelaide, where JLF will be held from November 1-3, star speakers include Shashi Tharoor, Manisha Koirala, Taiwanese novelist Wu Ming-Yi, and Chinese novelist Sheng Keyi.
(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)