It’s one thing to believe that we know writers through their work, it’s quite another to see them in their natural habitat: the literature festival. Yes, there may be a certain artifice at work as they talk about their books, grapple with audience questions, and doodle in your freshly purchased copies. But as they slope off towards the authors’ lounge, there are plenty of unguarded moments too. They squawk in rage when they discover a fellow writer (whose work they consider jejune and derivative) has been put up in a better class of hotel than their own. They become meek and pliant, practically mewling, when they meet an influential author or literary editor. They purr when you tell them you love their prose, they snarl when you lavish praise on their sworn enemy. They flounce and preen in front of their peers. In their rooms, they howl in despair.
You can see much of this at close quarters at the hugely vibrant Jaipur Literature Festival every January. The event unfolds over five days in the grounds of a Rajasthani palace and is an extraordinary opportunity to hear a great range of authors from all over the world talk about their work and display some of these less visible characteristics. I’ve been several times and have discovered an interest in subjects that previously I felt sure I would avoid. I’ve been introduced to new authors: the people themselves as well as their work. I’ve even sat on the grass and made a few notes.
The festival combines elements of a shambolic wedding, a media networking jamboree, a weekend bazaar, and an impromptu street party — and somehow at the centre of all of this, its light dipping and flaring, is the world of literature. Interviews are filmed in the winter sunshine. Selfies are taken with books. Society ladies look aghast that they can’t have a seat for their handbags. Conversations are struck up in the chai queues. A woman once told me that she hated every book that her twin loved, her eyes glazing over in a way that made it clear that we were no longer talking about books.
One year I met a dozen members of a book club from Kerala, women who generally had very little free time, caught up with the demands of their jobs and families. They told me that once a year, however, they left their husbands to cope, ineptly of course, and made the journey to Jaipur.
‘We start planning for the next festival as soon as we get home,’ one lady said to me, ‘other hotels we might stay in next year, different sights to see in Rajasthan.’
‘It’s just different when you don’t travel with your husband. You know?’ another said to me.
Another year I was almost knocked down by a couple of schoolboys racing towards one of the smaller stages. They were most apologetic, each blaming the other. When I asked them where they were headed, they looked a little sheepish. Then one of them came clean.
‘We have heard there are some ladies using very bad words on that stage,’ he said.
Naturally, I could appreciate the urgency and waved them on their way. The next day I bumped into them again and one of them reached into his school blazer and asked me to sign his autograph book.
‘But why?’ I asked. I hadn’t found a publisher for my first book yet and there seemed little prospect at the time.
The boy leaned forward and said with a low voice: ‘You never know, sir. Just in case.’
It was about as much confidence as anyone had shown at that point. So I signed his book with a shamefully eager flourish.
I’ve been back several times since and there have always been thrills and surprises. I’m going again in January 2017, this time taking a few people along with me. And I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll see the two boys again, now probably teenagers. It would be great to bump into them and be able to shake their hands, if only to discover any new bad words they have learned since we last met. I’ve had two books published since then and I’ve certainly learned a few.
If you would like to join me on my small group journey back to the festival in January please drop me a line or email Groups Specialist: email@example.com
Limited spaces are left.
A link for further information is as follows:
by Mahesh Rao