The Dalai Lama waves his arms in happy disregard of the microphone clipped to his scarlet robes. Amplified crunches and thuds boom out over the thousand-strong crowd gathered under the pink awning on the front lawn of the Diggi Palace Hotel.
It is the first day of the Jaipur Literature Festival. I have arrived that morning and seem to have lost a night’s sleep somewhere; possibly during the four hour layover in Delhi airport. Jet-lag adds to the air of surreality as more crunches and booms preface one of His Holiness’s artfully deployed chuckles. One should question all authorities, he tells the audience. “Including me. And Buddha.” If Buddha’s advice doesn’t work then reject it. He sounds genial and self-effacing but it is not hard to draw the political implications of wholesale authority-rejection from a man who embodies resistance to Chinese rule in Tibet. Much of his talk is concerned – surprisingly – not with spiritual or political matters but scientific ones.”I don’t discuss nirvana with scientists,” he confides. “That’s Buddhist business.” He touches on quantum physics, psychology and cosmology and is particularly taken with neurobiology. Neurons link the mind to the body, he says, thus manifesting mental processes in concrete form. How you think matters. “People who tell lies often. Much more stress!” He unleashes the chuckle again. The same applies to people concerned only with themselves. “You want to die of a heart attack? Just think about yourself!” He waves his arms happily, peppering the audience with sonic bombs. They return the compliment, applauding this indomitable and cheerful figure.
The Dalai Lama is one of over two hundred and fifty speakers who will take to the festival’s six stages and talk to an estimated quarter of a million people over the next five days. Audiences for most events are in the hundreds. When Howard Jacobson, Nadeem Aslam, Zoe Heller, Linda Grant and myself address the question of the novel’s future in the digital age, spectators fill every seat and stand five deep at the back. Everyone has to register but the festival is free and audiences are young. Indian teenagers jostle to ask questions, undaunted under the gaze of several hundred of their peers. The sessions range from poetry readings (my old pal Simon Armitage gives a hilarious dead-pan performance) to heavyweight political discussions like “Colliding Worlds: The Quest for Justice”. After that event I find myself in a taxi with one of the debaters, Binayak Sen, who practised as a pediatrician before moving into health activism, which brought him into collision with the government. “I was in prison for over two years,” he tells me mildly as the taxi noses and honks its way through the Jaipur traffic. “I wasn’t tortured myself although I saw people tortured and very badly beaten. Many of the other inmates were very sympathetic….” A concocted charge of sedition hangs over him, as it does over several thousand other dissenting voices: a means to intimidate them into silence. Sen, however, refuses to be silent. He is out on bail but he could be re-arrested at any time. Wasn’t he tempted to leave India? He shakes his head. “They have my passport.”
The Jaipur Literary Festival is part-circus, part-postgraduate seminar and part-revolutionary assembly. It was started in 2003 by William Dalrymple aided and abetted by (among a few others) my cousin Poonam Verma. The first reading (star performer: Willie) was in the smallest of the current venues and drew fourteeen people. Now the major publishers come and the sponsors include Tata Steel. The latter is denounced from the (Tata-funded) stage by Sudeep Chakravarti in a discussion of the writer’s relationship with the State. Alongside him Selma Dabbagh makes the point that writers are often expected to take public positions on matters of which they have little knowledge and less competence. Aren’t they (or we) setting themselves up for a fall? A genial Arial Dorfman agrees that a selective yet conscientious shutting-of-the-mouth is no bad thing. He tells how he took sanctuary in the Argentinian Embassy after the military coup in Chile. Later, penniless, he was offered a prodigious fee to write the story of the infighting among the various groups of dissidents cooped up together in the cramped building. He refused. “The story was true. But telling it would have given the enemy too much of an advantage.”
I listen in on elderly Indian poets struggling with a single microphone, discuss literary catastrophes with Linda Grant, tour the twenty metre-high instruments Jaipur’s nineteenth century outdoor astronomy centre with Poonam, listen to the Maharajah of Jodhpur introduce a book of Maharajah-inspired recipes, hear sarode music for the first time, have dinner with Rama Pandey (author, film-maker and old family friend) in the Samode Haveli and generally soak up the atmosphere of intellectual and literary ferment. An army of volunteers shepherds people about, organises flights and cars, sets up microphones and hands out (weighty) programmes. All the equipment works. Everything runs to time. The writers rise to the occasion. Highlights for me are are Gayatri Spivak (whom, as a student, I knew as Derrida’s translator) on the role of the critic, Faramerz Dabhoiwala on sexual revolution and William Dalrymple’s presentation of his new book “Return of a King” (about the first Anglo-Afghan war) which turns into a masterclass on how to hold a stage and the attentions of the several hundred people before it. “The donkey of desire will lead them into the field of stupidity,” he quotes one Afghan warlord remarking of the British. That donkey seems to get loose later when the normally-erudite Ashish Nandy suggests that most corruption in India is confined to the lower classes. Even from the audience, it is not hard to sense the advent of trouble. The Festival is very successful and some of the local politicians see it as a vehicle for their own agendas. Sure enough by the time of the closing party, among gurgling fountains and a limitless bar, Nandy has fled the state, the festival’s producer, the ever-cheerful Sanjoy Roy, has a legal complaint hanging over his head and is only one magistrate away from arrest while Willie is not far behind. “I could go to jail,” Willie tells me, although I can’t tell if he is delighted at the idea or apprehensive. “I’m not worried at all,” Sanjoy professes calmly. So will he be producing the festival next year, I ask? “Of course.”