Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Raj to Riches

A literary festival sparks a fierce debate about Britain's colonial legacy -- and shows that Indian authors have much to offer the world.

SAM PANTHAKY/AFP/Getty Images
SAM PANTHAKY/AFP/Getty Images
SAM PANTHAKY/AFP/Getty Images

JAIPUR, India — As J.M. Coetzee, the notoriously reticent South African Nobel laureate, began to read to more than a thousand people who had packed every space under the main tent at the Jaipur Literature Festival this past weekend, William Dalrymple, the man who had worked tirelessly for this moment, sat slumped on the stage steps. His expression mingled fatigue, relief, and triumph.

For Dalrymple, a well-known British author and the organizer of this five-day festival in India's western state of Rajasthan, the sea of transfixed faces from across the country and the world was the perfect tonic to a bad month. Only a couple of weeks ago, fierce criticism of the six-year-old festival and its founder threatened to overshadow the spectacle.

Attacked in a leading Indian news magazine as the self-declared "pompous arbiter of literary merit in India" and the architect of "a Raj that still lingers," Dalrymple -- who has lived in New Delhi for almost three decades and produced a series of highly respected historical novels and histories of his adopted city and country -- had been cast as the villain in a long-standing but nonetheless bitter debate among the intellectual elite of the formerly colonized subcontinent.

JAIPUR, India — As J.M. Coetzee, the notoriously reticent South African Nobel laureate, began to read to more than a thousand people who had packed every space under the main tent at the Jaipur Literature Festival this past weekend, William Dalrymple, the man who had worked tirelessly for this moment, sat slumped on the stage steps. His expression mingled fatigue, relief, and triumph.

For Dalrymple, a well-known British author and the organizer of this five-day festival in India’s western state of Rajasthan, the sea of transfixed faces from across the country and the world was the perfect tonic to a bad month. Only a couple of weeks ago, fierce criticism of the six-year-old festival and its founder threatened to overshadow the spectacle.

Attacked in a leading Indian news magazine as the self-declared "pompous arbiter of literary merit in India" and the architect of "a Raj that still lingers," Dalrymple — who has lived in New Delhi for almost three decades and produced a series of highly respected historical novels and histories of his adopted city and country — had been cast as the villain in a long-standing but nonetheless bitter debate among the intellectual elite of the formerly colonized subcontinent.

India’s literati have long wrestled with the complex post-colonial legacy embodied in the English language. British and American readers recognize the Asian giant as a literary powerhouse, the producer of household names such as Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai, and Vikram Seth. But, with the exception of Roy, this homegrown talent is an export — all the others live in the West. And all of them are most famous for work published in English.

Whether at home or abroad, Indian authors who write in English are perceived as having a huge financial and critical advantage over their peers who choose local languages. In the past five years, two Indians writing in English — Desai and Chennai-born Aravind Adiga — have won the prestigious Man Booker Prize, following past winners Roy and Rushdie up the bestseller charts in London and New York. English-language authors can also cash in on the Indian middle-class’s book-buying boom, with industry analysts estimating a 15 to 18 percent growth in English-language book sales every year.

But part of India’s economic expansion and its newfound confidence on the global stage is a growing impatience with what’s seen as an outward-focused literary market. It’s a market that is growing along with the country’s more than 50 million-strong middle class, which is increasingly literate and increasingly hungry for books that reflect its own multifaceted, multilingual experience.

In January, Hartosh Singh Bal, a novelist himself, sallied into the fray with a column in Open magazine describing Indian literary culture as fawningly dependent on condescending British approval and accusing Dalrymple of creating an event that "works not because it is a literary enterprise, but because it ties us to the British literary establishment." The article ran next to a cartoon of Dalrymple dressed as a bejeweled Indian prince, clutching an official-looking quill.

Dalrymple was incensed. He immediately wrote to Bal in furious terms: "The piece you ran this week, and the whole-page cartoon you ran with it, felt to me blatantly racist.… The idea that this joyously multi-vocal festival, which has fought hard to promote Dalit, bhasha and minority literature, represents some sort of colonial hangover is both ignorant and extremely offensive, not just to me but to the whole team who labour to make it happen."

"[T]here is an important principle at stake here," he signed off with a flourish, "and to me at least, that piece felt little more than the literary equivalent of pouring shit through an immigrant’s letterbox."

"That was probably the stupidest thing I have ever said," Dalrymple admitted 10 days later of the charge of racism, as he sat in a traditional Indian shirt on the opening day of what is now Asia’s largest and the world’s biggest free literature event.

Open published the letter on its website, and later that afternoon, Bal replied. His riposte, without the vitriol that dripped from the original charge, reaffirmed his opinion that "The Indian literary scene is marked by a clear sense of inferiority to the British scene, and continues to be beholden to it. For this very reason William becomes a symbol of what is wrong with our literary life."

"I think that we’re pretty much on the same page; we both want an Indian literary festival," Dalrymple said, as chattering guests filled up the seats around him.

"Here the best writers from across the world listen, hear, and interact with the best writers from India," he said, contesting the charge that the festival, which takes six months to organize and provides him no financial renumeration, was organized simply to promote Western authors. Although English is the official language of the festival, events featured writers from many of India’s regional languages, including Hindu, Marathi, Urdu, Oriya, and Malayalam. "Where else can a Kashmiri hear a Tamil poet, or a Tamil listen to a Kashmiri singer?"

Wandering the festival, one would find it difficult to argue with him. Events dedicated to local lyricists, poets, and authors, including a discussion with Chandra Bhan Prasad, a writer from India’s Dalit — "untouchable" — caste, attracted more guests than the venues could physically hold. When local authors spoke on the main lawn stage, there was not a spare square inch of grass left unused.

Of course, the traditional Western literary powers were an obvious presence. American Center and British Council marquees book-ended the main lawn (the two cultural centers were among about 40 sponsors of the event). Photographs of Dalrymple and fellow British writers in attendance Patrick French and Martin Amis adorned the back wall of the British Council tent, where readers could sit on British-taxpayer sponsored bean-bags and sip cups of tea as they flicked through Dalrymple’s Nine Lives or French’s India: A Portrait — both biographies of India by firangis, or Britishers, as the former colonial rulers are often called.

But the festival was undoubtedly Indian. The former royal palace in the heart of the historic Rajasthani capital provided undeniably subcontinental surroundings. Brightly colored cotton drapes hung over traditional furniture in all the four venues, as men in local Rajasthani dress served piping hot chai in traditional clay pots and performers and musical groups from around the state entertained guests during dinner.

Speakers at Jaipur frequently raised the issues of Indian-ness and Englishness. In various stage appearances, Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk said he was speaking to the writers who "wanted to work outside of the Western tradition."

"So much of human experience is marginalized because these writers don’t write in English," Pamuk stressed in a debate that he had proposed himself on the issue of writers working "Out of West."

Desai, who shot to international acclaim after winning the Booker Prize, which is restricted to English-language writers from the British Commonwealth, spoke in the same panel, summing up the predicament for Indian novelists who, seeking global success, risk falling into the trap of clichéd exotica.

"It’s like Indian writers can always export the pashmina shawl story; we can always export the arranged marriage story. It’s always in fashion. But certain bestselling American authors are never accused of continuing to produce the American exotic novel," she said.

"There is sadness in India that literature has to be commended by New York or London," added British-Indian novelist Rana Dasgupta in response. "Many writers feel insignificant, and we can blame the West, but this dispossession is not post-colonial anymore, but a product of globalization."

He was not alone in feeling that the post-colonial hand-wringing had gone on long enough. "We’ve been having this argument forever, and that’s hilarious," said Junot Díaz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author from the Dominican Republic, who urged his audience to reject the "grafting of writers to a language," as he argued for a literary world without national or linguistic labels.

Certainly, international prizewinners topped the bill and drew the largest crowds, and the bulk of the 40,000 or so attendees were surely middle-class professionals who had traveled from New Delhi or Mumbai.

But the sight of fans squeezed behind a cameraman, crouched on the cold floor, or peering on tiptoe from the back of the massed hundreds to hear a Dalit author talk of his experience of writing from one of the world’s most marginalized communities made one thing clear: Local interest in local literature is strong and growing, and Jaipur’s hugely successful festival plays an important role in showcasing the country’s bulging roster of talent to the millions of Indians whose shelf of regional literature might otherwise include only Rushdie, Seth, and other emigrants.

Five years after the Jaipur Literature Festival’s founding in 2006 as a single debate that drew barely a dozen guests, the Dalrymple-Bal flap may indicate, more than anything, the event’s increasing ability to shake up the Indian literary establishment. And if this year’s festival is any sign, Indian readers are the ones most likely to benefit.

Henry Foy is a journalist based in India.

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